Analysis: Winter storm response should focus on public safety, not dollars
For lack of heat and water, people died last week — in the great state of Texas and in their own homes — who would be alive right now, had the state taken heed of recommendations made after past winter storms and blackouts.
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While you’re watching the taxpayer-funded spanking line on last week’s freeze and blackouts, don’t lose sight of the real losses behind the outrage.
Prices of electricity and natural gas are getting a lot of attention. So are the operational and design mistakes that left so many Texans without power and water during an unusually strong, lengthy and widespread winter storm.
But the storm and the failures of the state’s infrastructure killed people who would not otherwise have died.
This isn’t solely, or mainly, about economics or energy. We’re having a conversation about life and death, and about what we’re willing to do to protect people in Texas from the elements — not about a mere interruption in our daily lives.
When utilities and energy are under consideration, Texas government focuses on economics, moving the pieces on the board with incentives and fines, rewarding one thing and resisting another. The arguments come with price tags — like they did when the Legislature was responding to a February 2011 freeze with rolling blackouts.
Protecting the pieces of the state’s electrical grid from winter weather — winterization, in industry parlance — was the recommendation at the time, as it is now. But the industries lined up against requiring winter-proofing are strong, from natural gas producers, to electric generators, transmitters and distributors, to some of the biggest commercial and industrial electric users.
Some wanted low electric rates. Some wanted higher profits. And the state’s writers of policy and law decided to err on the side of low prices instead of on the side of reliability.
But after last week, you know that.
The political repercussions are just beginning.
Five members of the board of the state’s grid operator, ERCOT, are resigning, and another, who was supposed to join the board, withdrew. The governor has made the CEO of that organization, Bill Magness, the central scapegoat after blackouts last week left more than 4.5 million Texas households without power and up to 14 million households having to boil the water from their taps to make it safe enough to drink.
The state House and the Senate will hold hearings tomorrow, beginning the post-mortem that might result in some changes to keep last week from happening again.
The governor has this on his list of “emergency” legislation. The lieutenant governor has this on his list of “priority” legislation, twice.
A lot of the attention and talk has been about spikes in natural gas and electric prices, which under current state law can legally reach exorbitant levels. And last week, they did.
Estimates of the cumulative damage are in the same ballpark as the costs after major storms, like Hurricane Harvey.
The attorney general cautioned some businesses against price-gouging during the blackouts — an admonition that doesn’t include exorbitant jumps in spot prices for wholesale natural gas.
It’s possible lawmakers will put some precautions in place that were considered and discarded a decade ago.
The debate that started with a polar vortex, blackouts, water cutoffs and isolation imposed by dangerous, icy roads has turned to matters of law and finance, to the language of cost-benefit analysis and political calculation. That’s what happened last time, too.
The real toll skips all of that, all of the busy plumbers and contractors fixing pipes and buildings, repairing damage done by the storm.
For lack of heat and water, people died last week — in the great state of Texas and in their own homes — who would be alive right now, had the state taken heed of recommendations made after past storms and electrical blackouts. The counting is still underway, but the dead include an 11-year-old boy in Conroe, a San Antonio dialysis patient who left for his appointment but apparently died from exposure to the cold, a 60-year-old found in his house in Abilene and two members of a Houston family asphyxiated in the idling car where they’d gone to get warm.
Those are the real losses — the human victims of a compound array of avoidable decisions and mistakes that left the state helpless in the face of a winter storm. It was a tragedy, and not because of the property and commercial damage.
Dollars and personalities, business and regulatory priorities are important parts of the conversation, and are often the preoccupation of Texas lawmakers at moments like this one. But it’s possible to solve all of those problems without protecting Texans’ lives, and that would be another tragedy.
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