Texas Regulators Learned Nothing From February's Carnage, Prepare To Repeat The Cycle

from the whoops-you-froze-to-death-surcharge dept

Texas consumers recently learned the hard way that regulatory capture can prove to be fatal. Texas energy companies (and the regulators and lawmakers who love them) ignored a decade-plus of warnings that they needed to harden their utility infrastructure in the face of climate change. As a result, we’re still measuring the casualties. Not only did 700 Texans die after they lost power during a brutal cold snap last February, but a new report by ProPublica found that an additional 1,400 Texans were hospitalized, and at least 7 died.

A joint investigation by ProPublica, NBC, and The Texas Tribune found that lax regulatory oversight (aside from, yes, poor human decision making) was a primary reason people keep dying from something so avoidable as carbon monoxide poisoning:

“regulations that would force companies to reduce generators? carbon monoxide emissions and make the machines safer have been stymied under a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves.”

If you squint and tilt your head just right, you may be able to detect a common theme across countless U.S. business sectors (also see: telecom, banking, insurance, energy), where letting giant companies monitor themselves doesn’t always work out so great.

You would have thought Texas regulators and energy companies learned something from the experience of February, but you’d be wrong. Texas state lawmakers did pass a law urging Texas utilities to maybe someday think about hardening their infrastructure for increasing colder weather, but they included loopholes that excluded a systemic cornerstone: natural gas companies. Then mysteriously forgot they included those loopholes (which likely means gas industry lawyers wrote the law and the lawmakers they throw campaign contributions at failed to read it, which happens much more than you’d think).

Some companies have wisely updated their infrastructure and symptoms, but they have been warning local reporters they’re in the minority, and Texas regulators and lawmakers still aren’t taking the problem seriously. Especially when it comes to protecting the reliable flow of natural gas across the state, and tracking upgrades with any consistency:

“energy experts say Texas? grid remains vulnerable, largely because newly written regulations allowed too much wiggle room for companies to avoid weatherization improvements that can take months or years. More than nine months after February?s storm ? which could exceed Hurricane Harvey as the costliest natural disaster in state history ? a lack of data from regulators and industry groups makes it impossible to know how many power and gas facilities are properly weatherized.”

The Texas natural gas industry did find the time to implement a new $3.4 billion surcharge (with the blessing of state regulators) on Texas consumers’ energy bills. So instead of forcing the Texas gas industry to update it’s systems to avoid more fatalities, they passed bills that intentionally exempted them from such requirements. Then greenlit steep new surcharges that made consumers pay for the sector’s incompetence. All while denying that the underlying reason (climate change caused by pollution) this is even happening in the first place. Great.

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Comments on “Texas Regulators Learned Nothing From February's Carnage, Prepare To Repeat The Cycle”

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Haywood (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well, I don’t know what to tell you, except that it used to work before they screwed with it. I remember getting a foot of ice not that long ago, people were ice skating across neighborhoods it was cold, damn cold, my well froze up for 3 days, never lost power for a second, in fact we used the electric to finally get the well back.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"…except that it used to work before they screwed with it."

As in "started letting the power company default on their obligations because regulations bad" you mean? Because that is far more likely to cause your power grid to fail than it "going green".

Here’s the problem in a nutshell; Your local power supplier tries to get away with the lowest bidder, buys utter shit for gear, because the requirements they have to fulfill in order to be allowed to operate under state laws are ridiculous low. Then doesn’t maintain it for about twenty years. First time it has to push the performance envelope, it breaks.

In good old socialist europe that company would likely lose its license to operate. In the US, Texas, they were instead given a pat on the back by the body politic so they could pull a repeat performance next time it got cold.

I don’t know what to tell you other than it be high time to break out another old Texan tradition involving tar, feathers and a rail, then go pay your governor and former three governors a visit.

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Rocky says:

Re:

The pipelines and the wellheads froze due to the cold which meant that gas powered generation failed. The weaknesses have been known for 10 fucking years. It seems your memory is failing since have entirely forgotten the Groundhog Day blizzard of 2011 and the rolling blackouts that where due to the exact same reasons. ERCOT and the electrical companies have done nothing since then even though it has been pointed out again and again that what happened in 2011 will happen again.

So no, the blackout had nothing to do at all with green energy and everything to do with greed and stupidity.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Worked in Texas before it was deregulated and allowed to decline into a poorly maintained mess. I recall the electrical system stability of the 1970’s too. And I remember watching the infrastructure degrade through the lack of maintenance and missed replacement schedules. Ask some old timer line men what it was like when they had a decent staffing level of techs…if they are old enough to even remember.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"America wasn’t always bad at infrastructure."

FDR put the US in the forefront of the world with his New Deal, not just building much of the US infrastructure still existing today but setting the standard enjoyed by both the US and the rest of the world for decades hence. Every american pining for the "good old days" when "america was great" is looking at a US relying on FDR’s thoroughly socialist grand scheme.

Then came the 80’s and Reagan, and every infrastructure platform american prosperity was resting on was taken off maintenance, every regulation gradually loosened, and the prosperity of the working class rapidly eroded.

No, the US wasn’t always bad at infrastructure. There was a time when both parties were sane and a bill to perform emergency repairs on the nation would usually have bipartisan support.

These days I’m halfway convinced the GOP is deadlocking any attempt to fix the texas power grid just because even if they and their own children get frostbite it’s all worth it as long as there’s some Austin liberal freezing somewhere as well.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As a long term Texan, I can tell you, we had that cold and worse in the past, and never even had a brownout.

This says otherwise. There were major blackouts in Texas in 2011 for much the same reasons.

Additionally, northern Texas hit record low temperatures last winter. As in colder than it had been in 72 years. So no, Texas had not “had that cold and worse in the past”.

This is a direct result of trying to ‘green up’ the grid.

This claim has been refuted multiple times by multiple fact-checkers. “Green energy” was not, in fact, the most significant reason for the blackouts in 2020.

The actual cause was that natural gas power plants (and the pipes supplying natural gas) were never winterized (thanks in part to a complete lack of regulation that would require them to do so and the [completely wrong and unjustifiable] expectation by power companies that winterization would be unnecessary), so key parts of the infrastructure froze, causing major power shortages in much of Texas.

When we were on coal, and natural gas, our grid would take whatever mother nature threw at it. Now not so much.

As mentioned before, the grid did not, in fact, “take whatever Mother Nature threw at it”, and Mother Nature threw more at it last winter than it had in many decades.

More importantly, less than 20% of all the electrical power for the winter in Texas was ever expected to come from renewable sources, such as wind. Texas still gets most of its power from natural gas (and, to a lesser extent, other nonrenewable sources like coal or nuclear power). The way you worded your statement suggests that Texas is no longer on coal and natural gas, but that is not true. And, in fact, most of the losses came from natural gas, not from renewable sources.

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"They’re pumping up gas in Siberia FFS that storm in Texas was like a summer breeze."

Fun fact about that – the gear they use in Siberia is rated for low temperatures. The power company in Texas, otoh, used the cheapest crap they could find for gear and didn’t maintain it.

Cheap shit not rated for the environment and which hasn’t been maintained will break. That’s on no one but the purveyor of said gear and the body politic still willing to extend to that grifter a license to operate.

Another fun fact about the siberian temperatures today though – the permafrost is melting, meaning that a number of Gazprom’s plants are wasting a third of their extracted power to artificially refrigerate the foundations of those plants, because the eternally frozen tundra is rapidly thawing into a muddy slurry.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

They’re pumping up gas in Siberia FFS

Um, yeah… Because that equipment was specifically designed to withstand such conditions.

Do you know where gas companies did not design their infrastructure to withstand such cold conditions? Texas.

Yes, you can absolutely make it so that natural gas wells, pumps, and pipes can still work in extreme cold and snowy conditions. The problem is that the companies running the gas-powered plants and such in Texas refused to do so and still have not done so. They’re using (poorly maintained) equipment not designed to work in such extreme conditions, and that’s the whole problem.

(You can also take measures to protect wind turbines and solar panels from extreme cold or snowy conditions, but they’re not perfect or quite as effective as winterized natural gas plants or, better yet, winterized nuclear plants. Regardless, the issue is that the reason for the blackouts last winter has to do with the natural gas plants.)

that storm in Texas was like a summer breeze.

Compared to Siberia? Absolutely. And yet, gas power plants failed to operate as they should have during that storm in Texas.

Do you know why? It’s because the utilities failed to take the same sorts of measures that were taken in Siberia to protect against such cold conditions.

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ThatDevilTech says:

Re: Re:

I was one of the lucky Texans that didn’t lose power at all while the majority of the state was suffering. What saved my area was the fact I’m not on the ERCOT grid. Thankfully, parts of Texas are still connected to the national grid. Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones, but so many were not so lucky. That or you live in a decent neighborhood, i.e. "rich", that they keep the power on no matter what, for fear of pissing off the wrong person.

And the majority of the grid is still on coal/natural gas, yet it still failed. You’ve bought in to the BS that "wind bad".

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Cynebald says:

Blaming carbon monoxide deaths on regulators for generators and barbecues when these people were using gens and charcoal grills as heaters inside their closed spaces is ridiculous. These people are so stupid that the self-culling is not preventable. Everyone needs to have 3 days worth supplies for events like these and know how to safely use them..

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Everyone needs to have 3 days worth supplies for events like these and know how to safely use them."

If they were living in the middle of the wilds around the early 19th century, sure. Within the first world, in 2021? Not so much.

The only thing you imply here is that Texas, USA, is at such a deplorable state of infrastructure that the citizenry should expect and plan for it to catastrophically fail.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

If they were living in the middle of the wilds around the early 19th century, sure.

I live in a villages with no shops, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which while rural is hardly out in the wilds. Having enough on hand to survive for a few days is sensible, as every few decades we get showed in for a couple of days. Powder snow and wind beats the snow ploughs every time. I keep a reserve of tinned foods on hand just in case.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"I live in a villages with no shops, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which while rural is hardly out in the wilds."

I live in Sweden which consists of, mainly, a whole lot of forest with small communities dotted around the communications lines between the cities. And the northern part skirting the polar circle.

And sure, people do stock supplies just in case – but the idea to plan for an extended power failure just indicates that what is failing isn’t the power. But the governance of the nation.

"Cynebald"’s assertion of the one failing to plan for extended blackouts being a moron is just victim blaming. If your power is out due to weather then there is a guilty party to blame over it – and it sure isn’t the victim of that power failure.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

If your power is out due to weather then there is a guilty party to blame over it

Just being snowed in means that having a food stock on hand is a good idea. Also power lines can be brought down due to snow and ice loading, or a vehicle sliding off the road and into a pole. Repairs may have to wait until the roads open, or conditions are clear enough for the helicopters to fly. And, yes I have watched the linesmen be flown in to carry out repairs.

Localised failures are not the same as the Major system failures that Texas suffered, but having a food stock, and at least a camping stove to cook with is a good idea. Also, when snowed in with power, having something to cook is useful.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

"Just being snowed in means that having a food stock on hand is a good idea."

Not arguing that. Just pointing out that Cynebald thinking that Texans not planning for extended blackouts are fools is sheer victim blaming.

Because in a sensible and sane jurisdiction there will be legal consequences for the power company which leaves proper maintenance by the roadside.

TKnarr (profile) says:

At this point I think the only feasible response is "Then let them freeze.". It’s become abundantly clear that the power companies in Texas won’t do anything to prevent the problem, the politicians won’t do anything to force actions to prevent the problem, and the voters won’t replace the politicians who fail to act. All anyone with sense can do in that situation is not move to Texas, or get out of Texas if you’re already there.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Georgia is in the middle of sabotaging its election process so that Democrats can never win again. Texas has nonstop sabotaged and gerrymandered in the same way. If there’s an infrastructure disaster in Georgia that has a chance of repeating again, are you gonna tell the large number of voters (including the black activists that worked their asses off to get people out to vote in ways that help tilt Georgia in favor of Biden) that they can either leave or deserve to suffer? Suffer like the black and latino and LGBTQ+ voters in Democratic strongholds in Texas?

TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If the GOP succeeds in its quest to make Georgia a GOP-only state? Then yes, that would be my advice to them and to any residents with any sense. If your enemy has won, if he’s left you no chance of success, then hand him a Pyrrhic victory. The consequences of a mass exodus of minority and progressive residents from Georgia would be absolutely devastating.

Fortunately the GOP hasn’t won in Georgia yet. This last election proved it, and while the GOP’s making a good play for it it’s still possible for the progressive activists to get enough turnout to make the GOP’s efforts moot. It’ll require a focus on state and local offices, though, not just federal.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"If there’s an infrastructure disaster in Georgia that has a chance of repeating again, are you gonna tell the large number of voters (including the black activists that worked their asses off to get people out to vote in ways that help tilt Georgia in favor of Biden) that they can either leave or deserve to suffer?"

Deserve? No.

But at some point a battle will be considered lost and the time comes to redraw the battle lines to a field where you can win.

Because this much is fact; If the current GOP takes over Georgia anyone a liberal will indeed suffer. If not by the weather then by the hands of some crowd drunk on success and the idea of spilling some "libtard" blood.

The idea that "it can’t happen here" is long dead. It is happening there.

"Suffer like the black and latino and LGBTQ+ voters in Democratic strongholds in Texas?"

Being a stronghold in the middle of enemy territory will mean hardships. If the only two reasonable options you can provide are "Fight a losing battle" or "Get the hell out, while you still can!"…well, one of those suggestions is well-intentioned.

Being a liberal in the Deep South has always meant hardships, as I understand. But these days…I’m thinking being a liberal in the deep south is increasingly becoming like being a little too jewish in the Germany of 1930. Or like being a bosnian in serb territory in 1992.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"…and the voters won’t replace the politicians who fail to act."

Or worse, are cheering them on.

Muffled female voice from large pile of blankets; "Cleetus, Ah’m freezin mah knockers off! An liddle Clessie’s baby formula is frozen solid!"

Muffled male voice from other big pile of blankets with a MAGA hat perched on top; "It’s cold aw’right, but lookit the bright side – dem liberals are gonna be just as cold. So Worth It!"

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restless94110 (profile) says:

Green

"Texas consumers recently learned the hard way that regulatory capture can prove to be fatal."

Yes, the capture by the green and climate warming hoax groups certainly did prove fatal. Convincing a state that it will never be cold again so shut down your fossil fuel plants? Fatal. Wind turbines don’t turn in the snowy winter with low breezes. Solar cells don’t function when covered with snow.

Texas got captured buy this dangerous evangelists and people died. Has Texas learned anything from that? This article would imply that they have not.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Green

You have fallen for the lies of the supporters of the fossil fuel industry, who were trying to deflect the blame for the failure of the gas delivery systems. A gas powered generator is useless when there is no gas flowing in the pipes.

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bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: Green

Yes, the capture by the green and climate warming hoax groups certainly did prove fatal.

What “capture by the green and climate warming hoax groups”?

Convincing a state that it will never be cold again so shut down your fossil fuel plants? Fatal.

  1. The state wasn’t convinced to shut down any plants at all by anyone. That never happened. Indeed, roughly 80% of the energy needs in Texas for that winter was expected to come from fossil fuel plants and a few nuclear plants.
  2. No one has ever claimed “that it will never be cold again”. That is not something climate change experts or green energy proponents have ever claimed or tried to convince people of, not even the more radical elements. Climate change is about the rapid increase in yearly averages of average global temperatures. Many local areas (and yes, on a global scale, “all of Texas” is considered a local area) will still experience times of extreme cold. Indeed, some may even reach record low temperatures. This is expected to occur under climate change. You’re confusing local weather with global climate.

Wind turbines don’t turn in the snowy winter with low breezes. Solar cells don’t function when covered with snow.

  1. In my experience, snowy winters can be just as windy as any other weather or season. We even have these things called “blizzards” which are defined to be times of high snow and high winds together. While I agree that low breezes will not produce much energy from wind turbines, and snow can and has certainly caused problems with turbines, snowy winters doesn’t necessarily correlate strongly with low breezes.
  2. Only around 20% of the energy needs for Texas that winter had been projected to come from renewable sources like wind or solar. Additionally, the losses in power from renewable sources were less than half of those from fossil fuels or nuclear power plants.
  3. Natural gas pipes and wells don’t work when frozen, either. Absent winterization measures being taken on either, natural gas plants are just as vulnerable to failure in extreme cold and snow as wind turbines, as was actually seen last year.

Texas got captured buy this dangerous evangelists and people died.

Again, what “dangerous evangelists”? If you mean climate change experts and/or green energy proponents, it is objectively false that Texas got captured by them. If you mean proponents of deregulation of energy utilities, then yes, Texas was absolutely captured by them, and people did die as a result.

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'We did nothing and we're all out of ideas.'

So long as it’s just the peons freezing to death and not anyone ‘important’ I don’t see anything changing sadly, why bother risking political ‘donations’ on a maybe/probably a freeze will hit if it will almost certainly cost you those ‘donations’?

Discuss It (profile) says:

Point of order!

If you squint and tilt your head just right, you may be able to detect a common theme across countless U.S. business sectors (also see: telecom, banking, insurance, energy), where letting giant companies monitor themselves doesn’t always work out so great.

I’m trying to think of a single instance where’s it’s worked.
I’ve got bupkiss.

Discuss It (profile) says:

Re: Re: Point of order!

Well I spotted him the West Wing reference, and a pass that not all power companies in Texas are for profit corporations, but "doesn’t always work out" was just a bridge too far.

The power company in San Antonio is owned by the city. Makes a nice profit (goes to pay for other things) and is still the 11th lowest cost in the nation.

On the flip side, ERCOT required CPS (the power company) to divert to the internal Texas grid
(Texas can ship power out, but cannot import it – sorta – mostly – well, if you have a politician on payroll you can – maybe).

A lot of folks lost power for 17 days.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Guess What?

Karle Bode, isn’t a Texan. Funny how Techdirt lets non natives to any particular part of the world, with no knowledge of actually what life is like in those territories write articles. Because in reality, Techdirt just writes BS articles with no effort to actually have gone anywhere to investigate any subject matter.

Therefore, this is just another BS article from Techdirt.

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Rocky says:

Re: Guess What?

You are free to point out what he got wrong, but regardless, when a passerby tells you that your house is on fire, do you also complain that he doesn’t know what he is talking about because he doesn’t live there?

I guess the saying is true, everything is bigger in Texas, including stupidity.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Guess What?

Funny how Techdirt lets non natives to any particular part of the world, with no knowledge of actually what life is like in those territories write articles

Meanwhile, you don’t actually have to live in a country or state to comment on their politics or economy. Unless you’re telling me that local Texan news outlets only ever talk about the US and don’t comment on, say, the UK or China?

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