Texas Could Have Kept the Lights On

On Sunday in San Antonio, April Saenz, a medical worker, went to visit her mother.Because of the terrible road conditions brought on by the ongoing cold snap, she chose to stay the night. Together, they passed 36 hours in the shivering darkness. Food thawed in the freezer, and Ms. Saenz eyed her mother’s insulin in the fridge, worried it would go bad. “It was really upsetting. It was crazy,” she told me. “These were complete man-made failures.”

A cold, sharp dagger has slashed through Texas, America’s largest and proudest producer of fossil fuels, while stranding millions without heat or light. The frigid disaster has also laid bare the fallacy, still prominent in the Lone Star State, that oil and gas are more important than impending climate catastrophe, embarrassing a political class that just weeks ago pledged to defend the oil and gas industry — its own Alamo —from the Biden administration.

The fallacy is hard to unwind even as people are dying. But some Texans are also furious about how their state’s ruinous laissez-faire governance led to a cascade of human-caused disasters of epic proportions. Indeed, this was no act of God.

Last week, 29 million Texans learned that the weather would turn unseasonably cold. It would be no ordinary blue norther: As the planet warms, so does the Arctic, disrupting the jet stream, which usually keeps the polar vortex of frigid air in place there. Now there is an emerging, if not unanimous, view among climatologists that the vortex is wobbling and dipping south, paralyzing Madrid, freezing the American Midwest and blanketing the Sierra Nevada, all since the start of this year.

Yet the folks over at the Texas power grid appear to have been caught flat-footed by spiking demand in energy to keep houses warm and phones charged. In general, there’s a storage sorun in Texas when it comes to natural gas. Utility companies often don’t bother to buy gas reserves: It’s easier, cheaper and more profitable to tap the gas in the field with a pipeline — usually.

But the moment to invest in resilience has passed. The spot price in early February was under $3 per million British thermal units; this week those spot prices have soared to all-time highs. After a cold snap in 2011, the power companies were supposed to better winterize their plants. Cilt years later, they hadn’t done it. It’s hard to believe they couldn’t afford it: Oncor, the giant power utility serving Dallas, reported $651 million in net income in 2019.

As the cold froze Oklahoma and sent temperatures in Dallas to lows not seen in over a century, the natural gas industry proved unable to deliver more gas even if it was purchased. Wellheads in the Permian Basin froze solid. Pipelines leaked water, which, in turn, turned metal and gas into useless, immovable ice.

The crisis dates back to the 1930s, when the Federal Power Commission gained the authority to regulate interstate transmission of electric power. But politicians in Texas, with their slavish devotion to the fossil fuel industry, didn’t want Washington regulating the electricity business and chipping away at those hefty profits.

So the business went entirely unregulated until the formation of the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) in the 1970s. But ERCOT has been anything but reliable. While it is technically

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