Politicians believe, possibly correctly, that an important survival skill of their profession is to be able, when their constituents are enraged, to show that they too are enraged.
Anger is especially effective if politicians can identify a villain on whom constituents can focus their anger. In recent weeks, the villain of choice is the Energy Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.
“Many of you are angry – and you have a right to be. I’m angry too,” said Gov. Greg Abbott in a televised address last week. Earlier, in response to the resignations of ERCOT board members, he said, “ERCOT leadership made assurances that Texas’ power infrastructure was prepared for the winter storm, but those assurances proved to be devastatingly false. The lack of preparedness and transparency at ERCOT is unacceptable, and I welcome these resignations.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, referring to the outrageously high electric bills some Texans are facing because of huge spikes in natural gas prices, said on CNN, “You know, as far as I’m concerned that bill should be sent to ERCOT and there will be hell to pay if there is any notion that the residents of this state should pay for this disaster.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton demanded documents from ERCOT and other Texas energy entities, saying in a news release, “I’m using the full scope of my Constitutional powers to launch an investigation into ERCOT and other entities that grossly mishandled this week’s extreme winter weather. While Texans pulled together to get their communities through this disaster, they were largely left in the dark.”
ERCOT wasn’t alone in being attacked. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also attacked the wind and sun. Abbott famously went on Fox News and blamed the massive blackout on failing wind turbines. On a visit to Lubbock, Patrick said the state needs to shift focus from renewable energy, like wind and solar, to “reliable” energy like gas, coal, and nuclear, reported local TV station KCBD.
Abbot later admitted that wind and solar power were not expected to provide a large part of the power and that cuts in power from natural gas, coal, and even nuclear plants played a significantly larger role. As for his Fox performance, Abbott said, “I was asked a question on one TV show about renewable, and I responded to that question.” It was a blatantly dishonest statement, as you can see here.
But there’s a deeper and broader dishonesty involved in all this rhetoric. ERCOT likely deserves much of the anger directed at it, but in taking shots at it state officials are ignoring other key players in the drama – namely those responsible for overseeing ERCOT. It’s somewhat akin to blaming an employee without looking at the role of their supervisors.
And who are ERCOT’s clearly denoted supervisors? One is the Legislature itself. The other is the state’s Public Utility Commission (PUC), whose members are appointed by Gov. Abbott. On Monday, PUC Chair DeAnn Walker resigned.
If being able to channel constituents’ anger is a common political skill, being able to admit responsibility is a rare political virtue. Happily we have an example of it in an op-ed piece by state Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) in the San Antonio Express-News.
“There is no question that we in state government are responsible for this colossal failure,” Larson wrote. He noted that back in 2011 a winter power shortage led to blackouts. The Legislature grilled ERCOT and the PUC but did not order them to require electricity providers to build in sufficient extra capacity or to winterize their operations.
Now, he wrote, the Legislature must take charge with a number of initiatives:
- The governor “should purge PUC and ERCOT leadership and replace them with engineers, accountants, power-generation experts and customers who reside in Texas.” The resignation of the top leadership at ERCOT has provided an opportunity to improve that agency.
- The Legislature should pass a bill requiring the state’s Sunset Commission to assess the performance of ERCOT and the PUC. That is an excellent idea. A thorough, dispassionate analysis is needed.
- The Legislature should ensure that energy providers winterize their operations and that the state moves to a “capacity market” in which providers are paid to be ready to meet the extraordinary demands of severe weather events. The result would be modestly higher average bills for customers, but the deaths and massive costs of events such as the recent deep freeze would be avoided. (Rep. Steve Allison, another San Antonio Republican, on Monday filed a bill to require the PUC to develop weatherization rules for electric generation plants.)
- “To deal with massive utility bills created by this storm, the Legislature must help customers pay for exorbitant energy costs assessed during the extreme weather. This can be accomplished by using the state’s rainy day fund to offset costs and working with the power industry to negotiate a settlement that covers costs while avoiding an adverse impact on ratepayers.”
Larson makes one off-key recommendation – that the three commissioners heading the Public Utility Commission be elected statewide rather than appointed by the governor “to ensure its commissioners are directly accountable to voters.”
This is a fantasy. Let me ask you this: Can you name the three members of the Texas Railroad Commission? If you can, you are probably an oil and gas executive, since that’s the industry the Railroad Commission regulates, not railroads.
Elections of such specialized positions are false democracies. Ordinary voters have little information about the candidates, who receive the largest share of their campaign contributions from the industries they regulate. Knowing little else about them, voters tend to vote solely on the basis of party, ethnicity, sex, or name recognition. There is no “accountability.”
Other than that, Larson’s recommendations are good. Nirenberg and City Council would do well to pick up on one of them: commissioning an independent expert review of the operations of CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System. CPS Energy leaders say all of their varied electricity generators – natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar, and wind – suffered reduced production during the freeze.
Yet the utility, like other providers around the state, did little to winterize their production facilities after the freeze-related outages of 2011. The pain in San Antonio would have been considerably less had they done so. CPS Energy would have needed to buy less natural gas on the spot market at outrageous surge prices. Admittedly they, like ERCOT with the Legislature, were not pressured by City Council to do this. One of the results of term limits is that no city officials in power in 2011 are in a position to be held accountable.
Nevertheless, the mayor and council members should adopt for themselves with regard to CPS Energy the responsibility Larson accepts toward ERCOT: “A lot of blame is being cast in every direction. It is time for the Legislature to accept responsibility for millions of Texans going without power. We must make these structural changes to protect our citizens and our economic development efforts.”