Things are surreal here in Texas right now. From Dallas to San Antonio, century-old low temperature records were shattered almost every day this week. The state is blanketed in snow and ice, and the power grid has failed.
What began Sunday morning as an exciting novelty — six inches of snow in Central Texas — has devolved over the week into something more sinister. Four million Texans are now without power, many of them unable to drive on roads covered in ice and made impassable by snowfall.
There have been massive pile-ups on the interstates and highways, many of them fatal. Food is running low for some people, and lines outside grocery stores stretch into the hundreds. One friend told me more than 1,000 people were lined up outside a grocery store here in Austin.
Cities and towns across the state have issued notices to boil water, citing decreased pressure in their water systems mostly due to pipes freezing and bursting. On Wednesday night, all of Austin went under a boil water notice after the city’s main water treatment plant lost power. Some people I know have lost water entirely and, not knowing when they might get it back, have begun melting snow in their bathtubs.
Families with newborns have gone days without power. Pipes have burst in nursing homes, flooding them in the middle of the night in near-zero temperatures. Hotels that still have power are booking up as people abandon darkened neighborhoods. Those of us trapped in our homes are texting and calling friends, families, and neighbors: Do you have power? Water? Food?
Hovering over these immediate insecurities is a larger question: how could this happen in Texas, the country’s largest energy-producing state? How could the power grid of the Lone Star State simply fail? Who or what is responsible?
Some Democrats, seeing a political opportunity in Texas’ misfortune, have been quick to answer, and assign blame. Beto O’Rourke went on MSNBC to bash Gov. Greg Abbott and state GOP leaders for not investing in the weatherization of pipelines and wind turbines — as if that’s something Texans would have agreed to pay for in a state that rarely has freezing temperatures (although maybe they will now). O’Rourke, undeterred by the complexity of the crisis, simply declared, “we are nearing a failed state in Texas” because “those in positions of public trust who have failed us.”
Not wanting a catastrophe to go to waste, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weighed in on Twitter with this helpful insight on Wednesday: “The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you *don’t* pursue a Green New Deal.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also jumped in, reacting to claims from some Republicans that an over-reliance on renewables like wind and solar made Texas’ power grid less reliable (which it did). Psaki claimed that no, it was failures in coal plants and natural gas pipelines that caused grid failure in Texas, a line that’s been repeated far and wide in the corporate press.
White House Press Sec. Jen Psaki says coal & natural gas caused power grid failure in Texas pic.twitter.com/cvBXv5mjlB
— Breaking911 (@Breaking911) February 17, 2021
Besides the fact that none of this really matters until the crisis is past and Texans once again have heat and water in their homes, it is also not quite right. Yes, some coal plants closed because of freezing temperatures and some natural gas pipelines froze. But as Jason Isaac of the Texas Public Policy Foundation explains in our pages today, the main problem with the Texas power grid isn’t that renewables failed or that fossil fuels failed. It’s that the grid itself has been made unstable by state and federal subsidies that distort the energy market and prevent the buildup of reliable power generation.
Subsidies for renewables and fossil fuels have been around for a long time in Texas, supported by both Democrats and Republicans. For as much as Texas has a reputation as a deep-red oil and gas state, it was under Republican Gov. Rick Perry that billions were spent on wind turbines and transmission lines in West Texas, spurred on by massive tax credits for wind producers. The same thing happened at the federal level when George W. Bush was governor of the state.
In the months to come, there will be lengthy and bitter debates about who was responsible for this fiasco. The obvious partisan arguments are already out in the open. If any actual reforms come out of these debates, they will have to begin with an acknowledgment that the way things have been done for decades in Texas has not worked. That much, at least, is now painfully undeniable.
For example, goosing the wind and solar industries with billions in tax credits in a state that produces almost a third of America’s fossil fuel energy was perhaps unwise and imprudent. In hindsight, it looks like cronyism. So do the subsidies for fossil fuels, even if they are not as extravagant as subsidies for renewables. Maybe all of that was a bad idea from the beginning, and maybe it’s time to cut it out.
Hardship like what Texas is going through right now can bring clarity. And in the teeth of this winter storm, the entire energy industry, with its high-powered lobbyists and its billions in taxpayer subsidies, is beginning to look like every other elite institution in America: a corrupt and parasitic enterprise whose failures come at the expense of ordinary Americans—in this case, people who are now trying to stay alive in their own homes.