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The Brief: Top Texas News for Feb. 16, 2011

One theme dominated Tuesday's Senate hearings on the state's recent rolling blackouts: "We'll learn from this."

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THE BIG CONVERSATION:

One theme dominated Tuesday's Senate hearings on the state's recent rolling blackouts: "We'll learn from this."

So said one industry official, David Campbell of Luminant, the electric utility that saw 11 of its coal plants fail during the cold weather, which forced the blackouts on Feb. 2, leaving hundreds of thousands of Texans intermittently without power.

In the first legislative probe of the blackouts, a joint Senate committee heard testimony from a number of industry operatives and state agencies on their roles in the outages. At the hearing, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas released a partial list of plants knocked out by the winter weather (previously kept confidential to protect failed plants from competition) and attributed much of the crisis to poor communication between agencies and the public. Officials also said in testimony that they've seen no signs yet of market manipulation (which some alleged as wholesale electric prices spiked).

But senators' surprise at the system's failure — and, later, their warnings to power companies and agencies — ruled the day. "We had failures that in some instances were avoidable," said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. "It is unacceptable to have a system that is unprepared."

As the Tribune's Kate Galbraith reported, a number of senators wondered why Texas plants failed so easily in cold weather when plants elsewhere in the U.S. routinely manage such temperatures. "If a pipe busts in my house, I know whose fault it is: It's mine," said Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy.

Sen. Troy Fraser, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, issued a plea to power companies. "I would prefer a free-market solution if we can do it," Fraser said, "but, guys, we're here — we're governing."

CULLED:

  • Suspected drug cartel gunmen shot two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, killing one, on Tuesday in Mexico. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called out the suspected drug cartels in a statement after the incident, saying, "Any act of violence against our ICE personnel … is an attack against all those who serve our nation and put their lives at risk for our safety." Just two weeks ago, Napolitano issued a similar warning while speaking at the University of Texas at El Paso: "I say to the cartels," she said. "Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."
  • The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a leading conservative education think tank, has issued a sharp critique of Texas' new social studies curriculum, adopted last year by the conservative-dominated State Board of Education. Awarding the state a "D" for its standards, Fordham says of the curriculum: "Biblical influences on America's founding are exaggerated, if not invented. The complicated but undeniable history of separation between church and state is flatly dismissed."

"I would be ready to file a lawsuit against whoever engineered a plant that goes down the first time it's 20 degrees." — State Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, one of several lawmakers who in hearings Tuesday wondered why cold weather could so easily knock so many of the state's power plants offline

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