Comment: The small-government paradise of a cold, dark Texas

Ten years ago, Texas was warned it must winterize its grid; we got lower and lower taxes instead.

By Conor Kenny / Special to The Washington Post

It’s hard to convey how hard this storm and these blackouts have hit Texas.

Regarding temperatures, half the state has been in single digits, and all of the state has been below freezing, most nights since Sunday. In Austin, it has been below freezing almost entirely since last Thursday. It’s almost never this cold, and it’s never this cold for this long. It’s getting bad, and people are dying.

I know these may not sound like extreme temperatures to many, but most of Texas is not built for sustained weather of this kind. We can handle 100 degrees for weeks in August, but our pipes will burst with just a single night of a hard freeze. Cities don’t have much in the way of road salt and maybe not a single snowplow.

In our energy-inefficient single-family homes, we mostly use natural gas furnaces, a legacy of our oil-and-gas history, but those furnaces require electricity for blowers, ignition and thermostats, and millions of Texans went into blackout Sunday night. By Monday, 40 percent of Austin was without power.

Texas is mostly an urban state, and most of us don’t have fireplaces or generators. For those without power, interior home temperatures were down in the 40s when pipes in attics and walls started bursting. And then all the faucets that people had left to drip to prevent broken pipes —combined with the burst pipes that the drips didn’t prevent — started dropping water pressure, to the point where the water utility issued a boil notice Wednesday. But I’ve heard from neighbors in apartment buildings who don’t even have water to boil, and those that do often couldn’t boil it anyway if they have electric ranges.

As we scrambled Tuesday and Wednesday to navigate this mess, the situation became more clear: Several major power plants had frozen over, crashing the state grid’s generating capacity on Sunday night, so the state grid operator ordered local utilities to cut power immediately. In Austin and apparently in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, the cuts required were so severe that the utilities couldn’t roll blackouts; they had to turn off every circuit that didn’t have a hospital or nursing home on it, and they couldn’t turn any back on, even for a bit.

The roads were a mess, but those with friends or family in neighborhoods that still had electricity (mine included) drained their plumbing and abandoned their homes to crash elsewhere. Those without are running out of food, water pressure is dropping, and people are getting panicked and angry.

And that’s when the stupidity started.

As we used precious battery life on our cellphones to check Twitter for updates, we started seeing Republican Gov. Greg Abboton Fox News blaming frozen wind turbines despite the fact that it was frozen nuclear and fossil fuel plants that account for most of our electricity generation and caused most of the problem. Remember how we have our own state power grid, unlike anyone else?

Our former governor Rick Perry (also the former U.S. secretary of energy) was proclaiming — while people are freezing to death — that having a special Texas electrical system was worth any problems because we didn’t want federal safety regulations imposed on us. It turned out that we were warned 10 years ago that this would happen, after the last winter storm: Experts and federal authorities said that if we didn’t force our recently deregulated power industry to winterize its plants, generation would crash in a big storm and leave the state blacked out. But this is Texas, and we won’t force any costs on business that the legislature can’t find a way to help them profit from.

I know I’m tired and frustrated after a week of this storm, but I am so fed up with this endless cycle of stupid Texas politics. The specific situation here may be unique to 2021, but the underlying causes are all too familiar. The “Texas model” for a generation now is that every incoming governor passes a tax cut — no matter how low taxes are when they take office — and when they can’t cut state taxes anymore, they limit what the local governments they have pushed costs onto can tax, too.

So we underinvest in public education and health care and nursing homes and even our foster-care system so our politicians can cut taxes, start a minor culture war and try to ride the momentum to the presidency. And business regulations (like the ones that might have required power-plant winterization) that raise costs are cut or rejected, so the Austin lobbyists that fund the state-level campaigns can tell the D.C. lobbyists to fund the presidential campaigns. And usually it works, because the harshest impacts don’t often apply to GOP primary voters, the only power center our state leaders care about.

Until it doesn’t. Like when a huge winter storm hits, and then they point the finger at windmills and a few helpless regulatory bureaucrats they themselves appointed and hamstrung, hoping that no one will remember that they have been running the state for 25 years and maybe the buck should stop somewhere close to themselves. (Or maybe they are so confident that their job description doesn’t include helping their constituents through a crisis that they take a flight to Cancun, Mexico.) I’m just so tired of it all, and people are starving and freezing in their own homes in the “Texas miracle” economy.

Maybe things will change. Maybe our governor will start to have as much of an interest in governing as he does in his 2024 presidential run and defending himself from a primary challenge by our huckster buffoon of a lieutenant governor through coddling right-wing conspiracy theories he’s far too smart to believe. Maybe we’ll start to recognize that sustainable, long-term prosperity actually requires investing in fundamentals instead of depending on people moving from other states, a fracking boom that is now basically over, and cheap wages for a sugar-high of fast growth.

Regardless, we’ve got a few more bad days ahead of us. Power is coming back on, but water pressure is dropping, the roads are getting worse, hospitals are evacuating, grocery stores are empty, and more storms are going to hit us in the coming days. So if you do pray, please remember us in your prayers. And remember that nearly half of us didn’t ask for this future.

Conor Kenny is an Austin planner and affordable housing builder with Civilitude Group/Capital A Housing and is the former chair of the city’s Planning Commission.

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