A massive winter storm blanketed Texas in snow in mid-February. The unexpected low temperatures crippled Texas’ energy infrastructure and left millions without power, both in Texas and Mexico, which relies heavily on Texan energy. The storm and ensuing power outages have been linked to at least 70 deaths and will cost upward of $20 billion in damage.
Many factors contributed to this tragic event, chief among them Texas’ unique energy system. While most of the United States is attached to one of two major grids, Texas has its own grid in an effort to avoid government regulation. Its market-based and deregulated system generally lowers monthly costs for consumers and is supported by large reserves of natural gas. Texan energy does technically have a regulatory body, the non-profit agency known as the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. However, this council has very little power compared to regulation agencies in other areas of the country.
This minimal regulatory oversight translates to fewer consumer protections. Private energy companies exercise wide discretion over utility pricing and the implementation of precautionary measures to guard against catastrophe. Because Texas, unlike many other states, did not winterize its pipelines, wind turbines and power plants, the cold weather rendered this infrastructure useless. Texas also does not mandate a “reserve margin,” an amount of energy available above the predicted demand, because the state can often readily pull natural gas from the ground when demand outstrips supply. However, when the plentiful natural gas fields in West Texas froze from the unexpected low temperatures, Texas was left with nowhere to turn, unable to access a shared grid and import energy from other areas of the country.
Though this winter storm was unexpected, it was not unprecedented. There have been many cold winters in Texas’ history — in fact, a severe cold spell in 2011 also led to widespread blackouts. But the failure to enforce recommendations about winter protections following those storms left the state completely unprepared for this situation. Texas’ model continues to encourage low prices at the expense of reliability; by design, when things fall apart, the blame lands squarely on the system rather than on individuals.
However, as we acknowledge that this infrastructure collapse stems from policy choices and the nature of the system, we must hold Republican politicians accountable for how they are framing the issue and distorting public understanding of the roots of the problem. Instead of accepting what happened and making sure it doesn’t happen again, many Texas lawmakers turned to shifting the blame. Gov. Greg Abbott and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (LA’06), among others, blamed renewable energy for the power grid failure, despite the clear evidence that the failure of natural gas was a far more important factor. Former Gov. Rick Perry even claimed that Texans would rather suffer without power than give into Democrats’ demands for more regulation.
The politicization of climate change is an important facet of this issue. Gov. Abbott did not want to admit that natural gas and fossil fuel infrastructure failed Texas and tried to put the blame on the Green New Deal — which certainly hasn’t been implemented in Texas — and frozen wind turbines, which were only a fraction of the problem. In fact, unexpected weather like this will only become more prevalent as climate change worsens; these projections highlight how Texas should move toward renewables and positive climate action to mitigate the effects of freak weather events.
To make matters worse, Sen. Ted Cruz abandoned his freezing constituents to jet off to Mexico, only returning due to the intense backlash he received. Meanwhile, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised nearly $5 million dollars to help struggling Texans affected by the crisis. Texans must hold accountable the politicians who are lying to them and leaving them to suffer, such as Gov. Abbott, Sen. Cruz and Rep. Crenshaw, by voting them out in favor of politicians who prioritize improving the lives of their constituents.
On the other hand, I have seen many people on the internet stating that Texans are getting what they deserve for being a red state. This viewpoint is deplorable. For one, Texas is one of the most gerrymandered states. Many Texans, especially those who are low-income and have suffered most from the outages, did not vote for the Republican lawmakers who promote and maintain deregulation. And no one deserves to freeze in the dark, regardless of who they voted for. Last year, former President Trump blamed California for the devastating wildfires the state endured. Blaming Texans now holds the same ignorance and vitriol.
Instead, we should channel the spirit of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and donate money and send aid to Texans who are struggling to rebuild. We should support efforts to change the Texas energy system and help elect representatives who truly care about the people. And we should remember that blaming victims always says more about our bitterness than the characters of those who are suffering.