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Freeze 2021

The Big Freeze didn’t just screw Texas

I had no idea.

Texas’ deep freeze didn’t just disrupt natural gas supplies throughout Lone Star country—its effects rippled across the country, extending as far north as Minnesota. There, gas utilities had to pay $800 million more than they anticipated during the event, and Minnesota regulators are furious.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, told The Washington Post. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The gas and electric markets in Texas are lightly regulated and highly competitive, which has pushed companies to deliver energy at the lowest possible cost. But it also means that many companies were ill-prepared when the mercury dropped. To save money, they had skimped on winterizing their equipment. As a result, gas lines across the state—which has about 23 percent of the country’s reserves—quite literally froze. The spot price of natural gas soared to 70-times what it would normally be in Minnesota, and gas utilities paid a hefty premium when they used the daily market to match demand.

In a twist, the biggest gas utility in Minnesota is CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based company that also supplies a large swath of Southeastern Texas. The company said it spent an additional $500 million on gas that week in February, and it has asked Minnesota’s utility commission for permission to add a surcharge to customers’ bills. The surcharge not only seeks to recoup the additional money CenterPoint spent on natural gas, it also includes 8.75 percent interest. The company expects that each customer would shoulder a burden of $300 to $400.

Crazy, huh? I heard about this from friends on a recent Zoom call. CenterPoint is not only pushing to bill their Minnesota customers more to make up for the price differential, they’re asking to begin doing that in May instead of in September when price adjustments are normally made. They’re doing this because they say they’re in a cash bind, while at the same time their CEO is assuring investors that their cash position is just fine. They sure know how to make friends, don’t they?

The WaPo story has more details. This bit at the end caught my interest:

The state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former Democratic member of Congress, has filed a strongly critical response to CenterPoint’s plan.

It notes that over the two-year payout schedule, the interest charged to customers would amount to $60 million, “at a time when many of them are already behind on their bills.”

CenterPoint argues that the interest charge reflects its own capital borrowing costs and that it is an appropriate item to add to its bills.

“The company has already had to pay most of the natural gas costs from February, but these costs will only be recovered over an extended period of time,” [CenterPoint spokesperson Ross] Corson wrote. “Until recovered, CenterPoint Energy must finance these costs through a combination of debt and equity. Given the unprecedented magnitude of this financial commitment, it is appropriate to include finance charges.”

Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of a nonprofit called the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, asked in an interview why CenterPoint didn’t appeal for voluntary reductions in gas use when it saw prices spike.

She said the utilities should demonstrate why they had to rely so heavily on the spot market. But, she added, “there’s no getting around it — these are big costs that someone is going to have to incur.”

Natural gas, though, is an “essential good,” she said, adding that ordinary Minnesotans, collateral damage in the Texas disaster, are blameless.

“You know, somebody made a lot of money off people needing to heat their homes,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

There’s talk that Minnesota AG Ellison may file a lawsuit against CenterPoint over this. I can already hear the caterwauling from certain local politicians if that happens.

On a side note:

An updated analysis of February’s Texas power crisis by experts at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows that lost wind power generation was a small component of the huge losses in electric generation that plunged much of the state into darkness during the severe cold weather.

While Texas Republicans were quick to blame renewable energy during the storm — and have continued to target renewable energy for reform during this year’s legislative session — a recently updated report on the causes of generator outages during the week of Feb. 14 show that the most significant cause of the low power supply to the grid came from natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather, equipment failures and natural gas shortages.

In ERCOT’s first preliminary report on the causes of the power crisis, released in early April, the grid operator included a chart that appeared to show power generation losses from wind as just slightly smaller than natural gas generation losses that week. But that analysis used the capacity of the state’s wind turbines to generate electricity, not what wind turbines would have actually generated if not for the outages.

Wind power feeds into the grid depending on weather conditions, and renewable energy sources typically have much higher potential to generate electricity than what is actually produced on a day-to-day basis; sometimes renewable power generates a lot and at other times none or very little. ERCOT uses detailed weather forecasts to estimate how much wind and solar power will be available to the grid.

In the updated analysis included in a Wednesday ERCOT meeting, the grid operator calculated that for the week of Feb. 14, natural gas power losses were several times that of wind generation.

[…]

The analysis also provided a more detailed picture of the reasons for natural gas outages, showing that disruptions in natural gas supply to the plants were a bigger share of the outages than initially estimated. Still, weather-related problems and equipment problems remained the biggest reasons for natural gas plant outages.

Here’s a pretty picture for you:

Sure would be nice if the Legislature spent less time attacking transgender kids and renewable energy, and more time working to make the grid more reliable and less likely to produce another big freeze, wouldn’t it?

Beto and Julian rally against voter suppression

Good to see after a couple of brutal weeks.

Beto O’Rourke

Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro joined forces at the Texas Capitol on Saturday to rally against election reform bills that they called blatant attempts to suppress voters in Black and Hispanic communities.

As statewide elections near, Castro said Republicans in the Texas Legislature are responding with numerous bills aimed at suppressing minority voters.

“We are here today to say ‘No, we will not stand for that,’” the former San Antonio mayor told hundreds of activists who gathered on the south steps of the Capitol less than 24 hours after the Texas House approved an election reform that Democrats have vocally opposed.

O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who is weighing a potential run for governor, said Republicans are focusing on restricting voting when there are much bigger issues facing the state.

“These jokers can’t even keep the lights on, or the heat on, or the water running when the temperature drops in Texas, now they want to take over our elections,” O’Rourke said in reference to the deadly February storms that left millions without electricity.

First of all, that’s a good line. Could use a little tightening up, but it can be applied to a lot of things as we go forward. Maybe if we all make a commitment to starting sentences with “They couldn’t keep the heat/lights on, but they still [did whatever]”, we might get some rhetorical advantage. You have to start somewhere.

Second, I note that the article that is linked to in that penultimate paragraph is one of the stories that ran where the initial headlines were that Beto was not going to run for Governor. Usually since then, the accepted journalistic usage has been something like “has not announced any plans”, or some other variation that suggests Beto is just living his life. This formulation is different, and it leans more in the direction that Beto is actively thinking about maybe running for Governor. Is that based on anything – background chatter, idle speculation from other pundits/reporters, the need for Something To Happen – or is it just a random variation that means nothing? I have no idea. It was just a think I noticed, and it made me raise my eyebrows a bit.

For what it’s worth, and I realize this may become a Freezing Cold Take down the line, I’m inclined to think Beto will in fact run for Governor. I think the fact that he has been extremely tight-lipped about it to this point is a strategic choice meant to keep the focus on what the Legislature has been doing on them and on the Republican leadership. In a world where he was already an announced, or even seriously rumored candidate, he’d be a foil for Abbott and the rest to play off of. Is this a sure thing? No, it’s second-rate tea leaf reading by someone who can easily shrug his shoulders if this turns out to be incorrect. Does this mean Julian Castro is a no go for Governor? No, it just means that I think the (subtle and possibly ephemeral) signs point more towards Beto. They’re not both running for Governor, I’m confident of that. I’ve been Team Julian all along, and if it turns out that he’s taking the plunge this time while Beto warms up for a Ted Cruz rematch (or open seat) in 2024, I’ll happily admit my error.

That’s what I think. Any wagers you place based on this are entirely your responsibility.

So we bail out the electricity providers

I guess I don’t know enough about our weird electricity market to suggest a viable alternative to this, but it sure doesn’t speak well of our system.

An approximately $2.5 billion plan to bail out Texas’ distressed electricity market from the financial crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri in February was approved by the Texas House Thursday.

The legislation would impose a fee — likely for the next decade or longer — on electricity companies, which would then get passed on to residential and business customers in their power bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday said they could not yet estimate how much it would impact Texans’ electricity bills.

House lawmakers sent House Bill 4492 to the Senate on Thursday after a 129-15 vote. A similar bill is advancing in the Senate.

Some of the state’s electricity providers and generators are financially underwater in the aftermath of the February power outages, which left millions without power and killed more than 100 people. Electricity companies had to buy whatever power was available at the maximum rate allowed by Texas regulations — $9,000 per megawatt hour — during the week of the storm (the average price for power in 2020 was $22 per megawatt hour). Natural gas fuel prices also spiked more than 700% during the storm.

Several companies are nearing default on their bills to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers most of the state and facilitates financial transactions in it.

Rural electric cooperatives were especially hard hit; Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million customers, filed for bankruptcy citing a $1.8 billion debt to ERCOT.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, the bill’s author, said a second bailout bill will be necessary during the current legislative session for severely distressed electric cooperatives.

“This is a financial crisis, and it’s a big one,” James Schaefer, a senior managing director at Guggenheim Partners, an investment bank, told lawmakers at a House State Affairs Committee hearing in early April. He warned that more bankruptcies would cause higher costs to customers and hurt the state’s image in the eyes of investors.

“You’ve got to free the system,” Schaefer said. “It’s horrible that a bunch of folks have to pay, but it’s a system-wide failure. If you let a bunch of folks crash, it’s not a good look for your state.”

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, a newly-created Texas Electric Securitization Corp. would use the money raised from the fees for bonds to help pay the companies’ debts, including costs for ancillary services, a financial product that helps ensure power is continuously generated. The aid would only be allowed for the debt that would otherwise be defaulted.

Hard to say how much this will increase the average monthly electric bill, but I’m sure someone will study that. Having a bunch of bankruptcies would be bad for a variety of reasons, so this is what we’re doing, but let’s take a moment to review the bidding on our deregulated electricity market. Massive statewide blackouts (and water failures) during the freeze because there was no requirement to weatherize the systems (even though we had experienced similar, though smaller scale, blackouts before, in recent memory), which led to a huge financial crisis in the industry that is now requiring a state bailout as well as a large state investment in weatherization, because otherwise that was never going to happen. All this, and we have higher consumer prices than other states. Is this a great system or what?

Meanwhile, in other ERCOT news:

During February’s deadly winter storm, Gov. Greg Abbott and many state lawmakers quickly criticized the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because several members of its large governing board reside outside Texas.

Many of the out-of-state board members are experts in the electricity field, but resigned following criticism of the agency’s oversight of the state’s main power grid during the storm that left millions of Texans without electricity for days in freezing temperatures.

State lawmakers are now trying to change the way ERCOT is governed by requiring members to live in Texas and giving more board seats to political appointees — changes that experts say may do little to improve the power grid.

One former board member who resigned after the storm, Peter Cramton, criticized legislation for politicizing the grid operator’s board.

“These people would be political types without electricity expertise,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Texas House has already approved House Bill 10, which would remove independent outside voices on the ERCOT board and replace them with five political appointees. The governor would appoint three of those people, while the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would each appoint one. None of the appointees would be required to be electricity experts. The only requirement is that appointees live in Texas.

Senate Bill 2, which has cleared the upper chamber, would give the governor five ERCOT board member appointments.

[…]

The political appointees replace what are now called “unaffiliated members,” who mostly served as outside expert voices. The other board members currently represent regions across the state that make up the ERCOT grid, as well as non-voting members such as the chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

Some power grid experts have said in legislative testimony, at industry events and in interviews that they don’t see how giving more power to the political class — and making minor tweaks like requiring all board members reside in Texas — could improve the grid operator.

“From the consumer standpoint, we really depend on those unaffiliated directors to make decisions that are in customers’ interest and in the interest of the overall health of the ERCOT market,” Katie Coleman, who represents Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, said at a recent industry conference.

Seriously, WTF are we even doing here?

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

A plan to help finance what will likely become mandatory power plant upgrades to withstand more extreme weather in the wake of the February power crisis received preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday.

The failure of power plants to produce power during very cold temperatures was a major cause of the February power outages in Texas that left more than 4.8 million customers without electricity for days and caused more than 100 deaths. Natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather was the most significant source of outages, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers much of the state.

House members voted 126-18 in favor of a $2 billion program that would be created by House Bill 2000 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We are looking forward to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Huberty said. “We can’t shut the Texas economy down by losing power and losing lives. That can never happen again.”

Modeled after the state’s water infrastructure fund, House Bill 2000 and the corresponding House Joint Resolution 2 would allocate $2 billion of state funds to help finance what could be expensive — and likely mandatory — upgrades to power plants in Texas to withstand more extreme weather conditions by providing electricity generators with access to grants and low-cost loans for the projects. House Joint Resolution 2 was also advanced in a 126-18 vote.

Most power plants in Texas are not built to withstand very cold weather and experts have said that retrofitting plants will be more costly and difficult than building weatherized plants in the first place. Still, it is technically and economically possible, energy experts have told the Tribune, depending on the type of weatherization the state may eventually mandate.

Concerned that a mandate to upgrade would cause companies or municipalities to shut down power plants and further reduce the state’s available power supply, lawmakers sought a way to provide a financial boost to the effort.

A State Utilities Reliability Fund (SURF) and the State Utilities Reliability Revenue Fund — modeled after the state’s existing funds for water infrastructure projects — would be created by Huberty’s proposed constitutional amendment and corresponding bill. The plan would need to be approved by voters in November if passed by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate because it alters the state’s constitution.

In 2013, the Legislature created the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, by allocating $2 billion from Texas’ economic stabilization fund, better known as the “rainy day” fund. It offers subsidies and help with low-cost loans for municipal water infrastructure projects, said Rebecca Trevino, chief financial officer of the Texas Water Development Board, which is charged with managing the fund.

The “SURF” fund would function similarly, but instead of offering the low-cost loans and grants to municipalities, the fund would also offer those financing tools to for-profit power generation companies and others to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather conditions.

I’m okay with this approach, even if it is using public funds to subsidize for-profit companies, because the need outweighs the other concerns. We’re not going to scrap the system we have now for something that makes more sense, so the least we can do is address this glaring need so we (hopefully) never face a situation where hundreds of people die because of weather.

The caveat comes from the comparison to the water infrastructure fund that the Lege authorized following the 2011 drought. There may be a nice clean report on the SWIFT homepage that tells me just how much new water infrastructure has been financed and built (or is being built) as a result of that fund, but I’m not seeing it. I would like very much for there to be an easy-to-find progress report on whatever future SURF page we wind up with, so this is visible to everyone. Maybe if the progress we get isn’t what we hoped for, that will enable us to spot it and do something about it in a timely fashion.

Trib polling roundup, part 1

On COVID and vaccinations.

Texas voters are feeling safer about being out in public, and better about getting COVID-19 vaccines, but a majority of the state’s voters still consider the coronavirus a “significant crisis,” according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In the first UT/TT Poll of the pandemic, conducted a year ago, 63% of Texans said they were “only leaving my residence when I absolutely have to.” That has fallen to 21%; in the current poll, 33% said they were “living normally, coming and going as usual,” and another 44% said they are still leaving home, “but being careful when I do.” The majority of Democrats, 55%, were in that last group, while 55% of Republicans said they are living normally.

“Democrats are still living as if it’s April of last year, but Republicans are pretty much back to normal,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Those Texas voters haven’t thrown caution to the wind, however: 74% said they’re staying away from large groups, 64% are “avoiding other people as much as possible,” and 80% are wearing masks when in close contact with people outside their households.

I personally am in the “I leave home but am careful when I do” group – I’ve been in that group for awhile, and I expect to stay in it for the foreseeable future. Mostly that means I wear a mask when inside someplace other than my house, and it means I try to avoid being inside someplace other than my house if there isn’t a good reason for it. In other words, shopping is fine, ordering at restaurants (I’m eating outside or taking it to go for now) is fine, visiting the doctor or getting a haircut is fine, but I’ll pass on going to a bar or movie theater at this time. We have been to hotels, and we will travel via airplane in July. When the societal vax level is higher, I’ll be more open to more things. Your level of risk acceptance may vary.

Two-thirds of Texas voters said vaccines against the coronavirus are safe, while 18% said they’re unsafe and 16% were unsure. Democrats (86%) were more likely than Republicans (53%) to hold that view. Likewise, 66% said the coronavirus vaccines are effective, including 86% of Democrats and 55% of Republicans.

Asked whether they’ll get vaccinated when they can, 64% either said yes or that they’ve already been vaccinated, 22% said they won’t get a shot and 14% were unsure. Again, there was a partisan split behind those results, with 84% of Democrats saying they would get vaccinated or already have been, 51% of Republicans and 51% of independent voters saying the same.

In a June 2020 UT/TT Poll — before vaccines had been developed — 59% of Texas voters said they would get the shots if they became available, 21% said no and the rest were undecided. In October’s poll, 42% planned to get vaccinations, and 51% said in February of this year that they would either get the vaccination or already received it. Vaccine hesitancy has dropped accordingly, from 57% saying they were not going to get shots or were undecided in October, to 48% in February, to 36% in the most recent poll.

It’s that fourteen percent we need to concentrate on. Maybe over time pressure from family members or the threat of being fired will get some of the total resisters to get vaxxed, but the folks who are merely hesitant or who have obstacles in their way need to be accommodated in whatever way we can. Getting above 75% for the total vaccination rate would be big.

When it comes to government response to the pandemic, Texans hold the performance of their local governments above either state or federal governments. More than half (53%) approve of how their local officials have handled things, while 45% approve of the state’s work and 47% approve of the federal government’s response.

The good marks for local government, unlike those for state and federal governments, come from both parties. Among Democrats, 56% approve of local handling of the coronavirus, and 54% of Republicans feel the same way. The federal government, with a Democrat in the White House, gets 76% approval from Democrats and 58% disapproval from Republicans. And the state, with a Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, gets approval from 72% of Republicans and disapproval from 71% of Democrats.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) approve of President Joe Biden’s handling of the coronavirus, while 35% disapprove. For Gov. Greg Abbott, 43% approve of his work and 48% disapprove; a year ago, 56% thought the governor was doing a good job with the coronavirus.

That’s a pretty robust approval number for President Biden, and a surprisingly poor one for Greg Abbott. It may just be that Democratic approval for Abbott has fallen to the kind of levels that Dan Patrick gets, but that would still be a big deal, since Abbott significantly outperformed Patrick in 2018. If Biden’s approval level remains in that ballpark, 2022 may be a pretty decent year for Dems here. Insert all the usual caveats about how far off things are, it’s one poll, the national environment matters, etc etc etc.

On the Big Freeze and its power outages:

Texas voters overwhelmingly support requiring energy providers to protect their facilities from bad weather, and a slim majority thinks the government should pay for that weatherization, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Having lived through a statewide winter freeze and electricity outages in February, 84% of Texas voters said those facilities should be weatherized, and 52% said government funds should pay for it.

“The main thing that the Legislature is talking about — weatherization — is the main thing that voters say they should do,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Other proposals have strong support: 81% of voters think the members of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, should live in the state; 81% said companies and regulators should be required to ensure higher levels of reserve power to meet spikes in demand; 78% want a statewide disaster alert system.

It remains to be seen what the Lege will actually do, but as far as what candidates should be talking about in 2022, it’s pretty clear on this front.

On voter suppression:

Asking whether the state’s election system discriminates against people of color depends on whether you are talking to Hispanic voters, who are split, Black voters, a majority of whom say it is discriminatory, and white voters, most of whom say it isn’t, according to the new University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Overall, 52% of Texas voters said the system doesn’t discriminate. But the question is divisive: 73% of Democrats said it does and 88% of Republicans said it doesn’t. Among white voters, 62% said the system doesn’t discriminate, but 58% of Black voters said it does. Hispanic voters were divided, with 43% saying it does discriminate and 42% saying it doesn’t.

[…]

Most voters (80%) agree that counties should keep paper records so voters can verify that their ballots are counted. And 65% agree that vote-counting equipment shouldn’t be connected to the internet or other computer networks. Smaller majorities — 56% each — said they would require the state’s biggest counties to livestream and record areas where ballots are counted, and that they would prohibit counties from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who didn’t request them.

“Texas voters are open to increasing security, against increasing barriers and decreasing convenience,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “When convenience begin to compete with election integrity and fraud, the Republicans back off a little.”

Other proposals have the support of most Republicans, but not of most voters. Allowing volunteer poll watchers to take pictures, record video and audio of voters has the support of 48% of Texans, but 71% of Republicans. While 47% of Texans would allow drive-thru voting, 64% of Republicans said that should be prohibited. Only 36% of Texas voters would prohibit counties from allowing more than 12 hours per day during the last week of early voting, which has the support of 60% of Republicans.

The data is here, though that’s just the high-level stuff. Giving more latitude to poll watchers got a plurality, but drive-through voting (47-42) and extended early voting hours (47-36) were preferred by the voters, so that’s two out of three for the good guys. People like convenience, it’s a simple enough thing. I’ll take my chances campaigning on that next year.

The plight of the city-owned gas utilities

It’s rough.

In the wake of last month’s winter disaster, which nearly crashed the state’s power grid and killed more than 100 people, state lawmakers convened hearings to probe how a weeklong winter storm had crippled the state. They have proposed laws to prevent similar catastrophes in the future.

Meanwhile, staggeringly high bills for the storm are coming due.

Most Texas residents receive their natural gas from large private utilities such as CenterPoint Energy, Atmos Energy and Texas Gas Service, which collectively incurred billions of dollars in extra costs buying natural gas at the height of the crisis. In public filings and statements, they said they would pay their suppliers with cash reserves and by borrowing money.

Yet about 80 Texas communities operate their own natural gas utilities, many artifacts from an earlier time that municipalities have held on to in an effort to keep rates low. Most are small cities that don’t have the same resources or bargaining power to cover the massive bills they owe to companies that delivered the gas. They have fewer customers among whom they can spread unexpected costs.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has vowed to investigate the storm’s sky-high gas prices. Unlike the state’s electricity market, where the Electric Reliability Council of Texas pays an independent market monitor to ensure companies follow the rules, the gas industry has no equivalent watchdog position.

Deals between municipalities and gas delivery companies are considered arrangements outside most regulation, said Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, whose district includes several city gas utilities facing astronomical February bills. “These are signed contracts between a city and a gas supplier without state oversight,” she said, “which is why Texans must take a hard look at the issue of potential market manipulation and regulatory failures that have created this ridiculous ripoff.”

Officials in hard-hit cities have pledged not to pass on the bloated costs to customers all at once, saying they will break up any money owed into small increases billed to residents over as long as a decade or more. For now, however, the giant bills municipal utilities owe to distributors loom.

In Bellville, whose municipal gas utility serves a population of 4,097, February’s gas bill came to about $2 million — “a sixth of our entire annual budget,” said Mayor James Harrison. He said finding the money to pay for what was essentially one week’s worth of gas could set back the city’s development for years.

“We have plans to retop streets, take out a bond to build a new police station,” he said. “We’re not trying to get out of the bill. We’re just looking for answers right now, and we don’t have any.”

“We don’t have that kind of money,” added Bay City Mayor Robert Nelson. “Our customers don’t have it. How can we pay it?”

It’s not clear to me that this isn’t just how the market is set up to work, but there could be something there to investigate. I think Sen. Kolkhorst has identified the problem, so it’s mostly a matter of what if anything the Legislature wants to do about it. My guess is that this isn’t a high enough priority for them, but it is in their power. I wish the people of Bellville and Bay City and wherever else good luck in sorting this out.

How our water systems failed during the freeze

Good analysis of something that has received far less attention than the blackouts that resulted during the freeze. Which is interesting because the blackouts were the main cause of the water outages and resulting boil notices. And the fix here is relatively simple.

There generally are two sources of drinking water in Texas: underground wells and surface water, drawn from lakes, rivers and reservoirs. Both require pumps to move the water to storage tanks, purification plants and out to customers. And pumps require power.

In Houston, most drinking water is pulled from lakes Houston, Conroe and Livingston. The city’s issues during the freeze began at the Northeast Water Purification Plant, one of its three primary treatment facilities, where some of its generators did not turn on as designed that Monday, Feb. 15, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Internal reports, emails and texts obtained through public information requests by the Chronicle illuminate the problems. The emergency generator failures reduced the plant to about 20 or 30 percent of its normal capacity, according to situational reports from the Office of Emergency Management. This started a drop in pressure that workers struggled to halt.

NRG, which operates the generators, was supposed to be able to start them remotely. The generators were providing power to the grid when it collapsed, which caused them to trip offline, the company said. NRG employees taught Public Works officials how to reset them by phone. The city also had left two breakers in the wrong position prior to the storm, complicating the efforts to switch to back-up power, according to Houston Public Works. The power was restored three hours after it went out.

“Nearly lost the water system,” [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock texted another city official later that afternoon, “but recovered it sort of.”

Meanwhile, eight of 40 city-operated generators failed at wells that pull water from underground. Though workers tested the generators monthly, checking their oil and fuel, Haddock told state lawmakers earlier this month the machines “were not prepared for starting in 12 degrees.”

One froze and was not functional again until temperatures rose. Another at the Katy Addicks well started initially before its supercharger failed. Others had mechanical issues related to the cold.

City staff chased outages with portable generators, recalled Phillip Goodwin, Houston Public Works’ regulatory compliance director. As power came on in one place, it would go out somewhere else in the system.

Water pressure in the city dropped, and by late Tuesday Houston officials saw a few readings below the state-mandated levels.

Haddock texted Turner at 8:13 p.m.: “I can tell you we are doing everything humanly possible.”

Some 13 hours later, Turner announced a boil water advisory was in effect, per Texas Commission on Environmental Quality requirements when water pressure drops too low.

It would be four days before the water was declared safe to drink. Dallas never needed a boil notice; the advisories in San Antonio and Austin lasted longer than Houston’s.

Turner said the bottom line is that the generators did not work as intended. He has instructed his departments to review what went wrong and build more “resiliency and redundancy” into the system.

“When you have power outages of that magnitude, it’s going to impact your systems across the board,” Turner said. “We have to put ourselves in the best position to prevent it from reoccurring, or at least at that magnitude.”

[…]

At the peak Friday, more than 1,800 of some 7,000 public water systems were under boil water advisories. Hurricane Harvey, by comparison, prompted some 200 systems to issue boil advisories, said TCEQ Executive Director Toby Baker. Houston was not one of them.

The TCEQ, which monitors boil notices and provides emergency assistance, plans to survey and hold roundtables with local providers to figure out what went wrong. They are forming a group to look at helping water systems get listed as critical infrastructure with electricity providers, among other issues.

Public Utility Commission rules say water facilities may be defined as “critical load” like hospitals, but the water utility must notify its electricity provider and be deemed eligible.

I certainly would have thought that water systems would be considered critical infrastructure. It would have saved a lot of trouble if the water treatment plants around the state had not lost power during the freeze. That might have caused more homes to lose power, perhaps, but if we’re forcing the power plants to weatherize then maybe that will be less of an issue. Requiring backup generators and a regular schedule for testing and maintaining them would also help. HB2275 would create a grant fund for infrastructure fixes – there may of course be some federal money coming as well, but we can’t count on that just yet – and I guess it’s up to the TCEQ to decide if water systems are “critical infrastructure” or not.

I mean, look, most of us were able to get by for a couple of days with the boil notices and maybe using melted snow as flush water. We won’t have the latter during a summer power-and-water outage, but never mind that for now. All I’m saying is that for a state that loves to brag about luring businesses here, this is some bad advertising for us. We have plenty of other challenges right now, many of them being perpetuated by the Lege. We should try not to add to them.

ERCOT roundup

Just a few stories of interest that I didn’t feel like putting in their own posts…

ERCOT will argue it is immune from lawsuits.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas will argue that it has governmental immunity that protects it from the at least 35 lawsuits that have been filed against the operator after February’s disastrous winter storm which killed dozens of people and created millions of dollars of damages.

“ERCOT has and will continue to assert that it is entitled to sovereign immunity due to its organization and function as an arm of State government,” the organization wrote in a Wednesday court filing requesting to consolidate several of the lawsuits it’s battling.

Sovereign immunity grants protections for state agencies against lawsuits, with some exceptions. And this isn’t the first time ERCOT has made the argument — with some success — that it should be shielded from lawsuits due to its role acting upon the directives of state agencies and lawmakers.

In 2018, an appeals court in Dallas ruled that ERCOT, despite the fact that it is a private nonprofit, has sovereign immunity after Dallas-based utility Panda Power sued the operator over allegations of flawed energy projections.

That immunity was challenged at the Texas Supreme Court last month. However, the high court refused to rule on the issue, claiming it lacked jurisdiction because the original case that posed the question was dismissed — a hotly contested opinion with four of the nine justices dissenting.

See here for the previous update. I don’t know what practical effect this might have if ERCOT succeeds, but as a general principle I think this kind of legal immunity needs to be carefully limited. Maybe it’s appropriate here, but there needs to be a strong argument for it.

ERCOT: Blackout primarily caused by power plants freezing up:

The massive loss in power generation during the Texas blackout in February was caused primarily by power plants freezing up under historically cold conditions, according to a new report by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Tuesday.

The state’s grid operator reported that on the morning of Feb. 16, the most severe moment of the blackout, 54 percent of the loss of power supply stemmed from weather-related issues at power plants, while 12 percent was due to a lack of fuel such as natural gas. Some 51,000 megawatts of generation — more than half of the system’s capacity — were offline at the height of the blackouts at 8 a.m. of Feb. 16, ERCOT reported.

The findings come as state officials are debating how to fix the state’s energy system to prevent a repeat of the power outages that left millions of Texans without power for days on end.

The report Tuesday offered a fairly limited perspective on what went wrong, failing to explain why specific types of generation were unable to operate during the winter storm or what happened. But it will add questions to how well prepared ERCOT and the state’s power plants were for cold weather, despite warnings from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to winterize following a less severe cold snap in 2011.

[…]

After weather-related problems, the second biggest loss of generation on Feb. 16 was caused by planned or unexpected outages prior to the cold snap that began sweeping Texas earlier in the week, accounting for 15 percent of lost power supply.

Another 14 percent of lost generation came from equipment failures unrelated to the weather. Only four percent of outages were due to transmission problems or a short drop in the frequency of the power grid that occurred early Monday morning.

I don’t know enough to say what this means in terms of figuring out the best path forward, but I sure hope that the Legislature has some people who know how to read a report like this available to explain it to them. We screwed this kind of response up last time. We have no excuse for screwing it up again.

Faulting ERCOT, insurer says it shouldn’t have to cover storm damages:

ERCOT’s insurance company is seeking a court ruling excusing it from defending Texas’ electric grid manager from lawsuits or covering damages stemming from the catastrophic power failure in February.

The Cincinnati Insurance Co. on Tuesday sought relief from the U.S. district court in Austin, arguing it does not have to defend the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because it does not view the power outages as an accident, defined by the insurer as a “fortuitous, unexpected, and unintended event.” As a result, the company said it has no obligation under its insurance policy to cover ERCOT, which faces a flood of lawsuits after the winter storm.

“The allegations in the Underlying Lawsuits allege ERCOT either knew, should have known, expected, and/or intended, that Winter Storm Uri would cause the same power outages which occurred as a result of previous storms in Texas, including storms in 1989 and 2011,” the insurer said in court documents. “The Underlying Lawsuits allege the power outages caused by Winter Storm Uri were a result of the exact same failures including failures of the same generators which failed in the previous winter storms, and therefore, the power outages were foreseeable, expected, and/or intended.”

[…]

ERCOT’s insurance policy with Cincinnati Insurance, effective until June 2022, states that the insurer “will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ to which this insurance applies. We will have the right and duty to defend the insured against any ‘suit’ seeking those damages.’

The policy, however, says Cincinnati Insurance has no duty to defend ERCOT in cases in which the insurance policy does not apply, and retains the discretion to investigate any “occurance” and settle any claim or lawsuit that results from it. The insurer defines “occurrence” as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.”

In case you were wondering why ERCOT really doesn’t want to be sued. Also, when was the last time that an insurance company paid a claim without fighting it?

An open Texas power grid would boost reliability and renewables, experts say.

Since the February power outages, Texas legislators have been busy weighing a host of improvements for the state’s grid, from weatherizing equipment to shaking up oversight to partnering with the billionaire investor Warren Buffett on new emergency-use power plants.

But hardly any of them have focused on what some believe could be a more widespread fix: plugging into other U.S. power supplies.

While Texas has long opposed opening its grid to avoid federal oversight, and ostensibly to keep prices low, energy experts say the calculus is not what it once was and that the benefits of connecting to the outside world are at least worth examining, especially as renewable energy is poised for a major expansion under the Biden administration.

Not only is the state missing out on a potential lifeline in future blackouts, they warn, it also risks passing up billions of dollars in new investments for clean, marketable electricity.

“We export every form of energy you could imagine except electrons,” Michael Webber, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told reporters recently. “This is ridiculous,” he said. “Let’s at least study the option.”

There are some good arguments for this, and some reasonable ones for maintaining the independence of the Texas grid. Just because our setup is dumb and expensive and unreliable doesn’t mean it has to be that way, after all. But this is all an academic point, because there’s a zero percent chance this happens. Go ahead and write a report, but don’t ever expect Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick to read it.

It was worse in Harris County during the freeze

Very interesting.

Harris County residents were far more likely to have lost electricity and water during February’s winter storm and blackout crisis than residents of other Texas counties, a survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found.

The findings may help explain why Harris County residents account for a third of the almost 200 deaths so far attributed to the storm, while only accounting for 16 percent of the state’s population. Most froze to death in their homes or while exposed to the elements, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning or died when medical devices failed without electricity.

“During the week of the winter storm, Harris County residents were significantly more likely than other Texans to lose electrical power, lose internet service, lose access to drinkable water, be without running water, lose cell phone service, have food spoil, suffer economic damages, and experience difficulty finding a plumber,” the survey authors wrote.

Ninety-one percent of Harris County survey respondents said they lost power during the blackouts, compared to 64 percent of respondents from the other 212 counties on the state’s main power grid. Asked if they had lost water, 65 percent of Harris County residents said yes, compared to 44 percent of those in other counties. Thirty-eight percent of local respondents said they suffered burst pipes.

On average, Harris County respondents were without electricity for 49 total hours and 39 consecutive hours, confirming that the outages were not rotating as the grid operator, ERCOT, had hoped. CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s electricity distributor, said during the crisis it could not rotate blackouts because the drop in available power to distribute was so severe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72 percent of Harris County respondents said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that the power outages were distributed in an equitable manner.

[…]

The survey also measured how Harris County respondents rated the performance of government officials and entities during the storm. President Joe Biden and County Judge Lina Hidalgo scored the highest, with more than 45 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly approving of their handling of the crisis.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state government as a whole were rated poorly, with about 21 percent somewhat or strongly approving of their performance. ERCOT polled the worst, with 78 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly disapproving of the power grid operator’s performance.

The survey found broad support among Harris County residents who identify as Republicans, Democrats and independents for a series of reforms. More than 70 percent of these respondents said they supported requiring the electric grid and natural gas pipelines to fully winterize and giving the Public Utilities Commission greater oversight over the electric grid.

Fifty-three percent of respondents, however, said they were unwilling to have higher utility bills to ensure the grid is better-prepared for severe weather.

The landing page for this poll is here. The data for Harris County is here and for the state as a whole is here. The poll was done via a webpanel, with a sample of 1500 adults in total, and an oversample of 513 adults in Harris County. Note that as before, the partisan makeup of the sample is more Democratic than it would be if we were talking about registered voters. In Harris County, it was 38% Democrats, 36% Independents, and 18% Republicans, and statewide it was 32% Dem, 30% Independent, and 25% Republican. I sent an inquiry about that, and was told that among those who reported voting in the 2020 election, Trump won by a 51-47 margin, not far off from the actual 52-46 spread. In other words, if there’s a Democratic skew it’s among the non-voters.

I say all that up front because there were approval ratings in the polls, at least for how the freeze was handled. For the statewide sample:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 15%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 15%, somewhat disapprove 10%, strong disapprove 38%
Your County Judge: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 26%, somewhat disapprove 7%, strong disapprove 16%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 14%, neutral 27%, somewhat disapprove 8%, strong disapprove 17%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 21%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 21%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 32%

And for Harris County:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 12%, somewhat approve 9%, neutral 17%, somewhat disapprove 9%, strong disapprove 47%
County Judge Lina Hidalgo: Strong approve 35%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 18%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 27%, somewhat approve 19%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 19%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 36%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 20%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 19%

Again, bear in mind the partisan breakdown of the sample. There’s a lot more to the polls, and a separate set of questions about lifting COVID-19 restrictions that I’ll write about separately, so go check it out.

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.

Our COVID numbers are staying down

Let’s keep this going.

While the East Coast struggles with a fourth wave of rising COVID-19 infections, Texas experts say the state is doing “reasonably well” as case rates stabilize across the state.

Case rates and hospitalizations have plateaued in the region in recent weeks, averaging roughly 3,500 new daily reported cases, the lowest it’s been since early-to-mid September. The decline in hospitalizations has been an even more welcome trend, with fewer than 3,000 patients hospitalized for COVID, the lowest it’s been since June.

Medical experts such as Dr. Carl Vartian, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, suspect the winter freeze, increasing vaccination rates and the prevalence of antibodies in Texas’ population have kept case rates low over the last month.

[…]

“Texas is doing better than most states, which are seeing a pretty sharp rise in the number of daily new cases,” said Ben Neuman, a virologist at Texas A&M University.

The lower rate of infections doesn’t mean that Texans can let their guard down, though. Fewer than 37 percent of state residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and just over 20 percent have been fully vaccinated.

“You have to plateau before you rise, and I think that’s where we’re headed,” Neuman said.

The flat line of case rates starts with a sharp drop-off in testing. According to data from the Department of State Health Services, results from PCR testing dropped sharply during the winter freeze in February, and have not rebounded. As of April, Texas is testing at just half the rate it was before the state iced over.

While the number of daily tests has declined heavily, so too has the positive test rate. It’s now under 5 percent, and the second-lowest it’s been since the start of the pandemic, according to state data. Even with the reduced number of tests being conducted, fewer people are testing positive for COVID.

The low number of tests mean there could be a lag before a potential surge, Neuman said.

In Houston, medical experts are cautiously optimistic there won’t be a rise.

Usually, case rates spike first, followed by hospitalizations the week after and ventilator demand and deaths after that. So far, all three have stayed low in Houston, Vartian said.

The freeze was basically a one-week lockdown in the middle of February, and that no doubt helped keep infections down. I don’t know what it’s like anywhere else, but at least in my little part of the world people are still masking up, despite the Governor’s order. I won’t extrapolate from such a limited data point, but I feel hopeful that at least in the big cities people are still inclined to be cautious.

And I take heart at the progress in getting shots into arms. The Astros are getting their shots. The Rockets are getting their shots. Judge Hidalgo has gotten her first shot. People are celebrating the ways that their lives have been improved by getting vaccinated. (Can confirm, by the way.) I’m hopeful. We still have to be careful, but I can see the road ahead, and it’s going someplace good.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

The deaths of nearly 200 people are linked to February’s cold snap and blackouts, a Houston Chronicle analysis reveals, making the natural disaster one of the worst in Texas this past century.

The tally, which is nearly double the state’s official count, comes from an investigation of reports from medical examiners, justices of the peace and Department of State Health Services, as well as lawsuits and news stories.

The state count, which is preliminary, has yet to incorporate some deaths already flagged by medical examiners as storm-related.

The 194 deaths identified by the Chronicle so far include at least 100 cases of hypothermia that killed people in their homes or while exposed to the elements, at least 16 carbon monoxide poisonings of residents who used dangerous methods for heat and at least 22 Texans who died when medical devices failed without power or who were unable to seek live-saving care because of the weather.

Sixteen deaths were from other causes, such as fires or vehicle wrecks, while the remaining 40 were attributed by authorities to the storm without listing a specific cause.

“This is almost double the death toll from Hurricane Harvey,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “There was no live footage of flooded homes, or roofs being blown off, or tidal surges, but this was more deadly and devastating than anything we’ve experienced in modern state history.”

The toll is almost certain to grow in coming weeks as death investigators in the state’s most populous counties clear a backlog in cases from the cold snap. The Travis County medical examiner alone is investigating more than 80 deaths between Feb. 13 and Feb. 20.

The deaths come from 57 counties in all regions of the state but are disproportionately centered on the Houston area, which at times during the crisis accounted for nearly half of all power outages. Of the known ages, races and ethnicities of the victims, 74 percent were people of color. Half were at least 65. Six were children.

The previous count released by the state was 111, but as noted then and in this story that is sure to go up. There’s no central database for this kind of thing, only 14 counties have a medical examiner’s office, and not all county data is currently available. As with COVID deaths, there are likely some cases where one could argue whether the freeze was the actual cause of death or whether it was just proximate. The main point here is that the freeze was responsible for a lot of misery around the state and by any count more deaths than there were from Hurricane Harvey. It remains to be seen if the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission (which currently has no members) are taking adequate action to prevent this from ever happening again.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

Expanding telemedicine

Seems like a good idea.

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually.

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue.

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care.

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19.

[…]

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect.

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1.

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website.

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services.

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings.

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans.

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated.

This makes sense, in the same way that lifting the rules about drinks to go made sense. And as is often the case, Texas had been a laggard compared to other states. Telemedicine was only legalized by the Legislature in 2017, following a federal anti-trust lawsuit that forced the issue. I wouldn’t want telemedicine to become the default, but that’s not what’s on the table here. Having it be part of the mix is valuable, and allowing it to grow and change as the needs of the patients demand it is what should happen. If one of those bills can be passed it would be a good thing.

Freeze-related lawsuit filed against CenterPoint

Of interest.

Several more Houston families of victims of the February freeze are among the latest to sue CenterPoint Energy for allowing vulnerable people to languish without power during what were supposed to be brief blackouts.

Travis Flowers, 66, and Qazi Momin, 83, relied on oxygen tanks to survive, according to separate lawsuits — both of which were filed Friday by lawyer Tony Buzbee.

In the case of Flowers, the power at the Army veteran’s Houston home went out Feb. 15 and his wife, Brenda Flowers, swapped out his powerless tank for a portable device. By then, the home was too cold for the backup tank to work, according to the lawsuit. Flowers’ oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and he died at a hospital.

Two days later, when the power went out at another residence, Momin’s caretaker found him breathing rapidly. His oxygen tank was without power, the suit states. She “tried to make him comfortable using pillows to support him” but hours later, he stopped breathing.

Her phone was dead “so she went to her car to charge it so that she could call for help.”

Details surrounding Flowers’ and Momin’s deaths could not be found in medical examiner records.

The wrongful death litigation, among several filed after the winter storm that knocked out power for millions of Texans, both accuse CenterPoint — a private utilities company — of negligence for cutting power to Flowers’ and Momin’s homes as the temperature lingered below freezing.

[…]

Although CenterPoint was acting on instructions from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to lighten the power load, the regional energy company, Buzbee contends, was able to choose which circuits to sever power to and for how long. ERCOT, who is named in this case but not a defendant, manages most of Texas’ electrical grid through a deregulated market.

The lawsuit claims the energy company failed to disclose the possibility of a failing power grid or prepare Houstonians to keep warm or leave the area. The nine-page document points to a tweet that CenterPoint officials wrote the morning of Flowers’ death that states “controlled, rotating electric outages” would begin but that they would be temporary.

“At (the) same time that CenterPoint and others were telling the public that the blackouts were temporary and rolling, public officials were urging people to stay home and off the roads,” the suit reads.

Transparency and “balanced rotations of power” in Houston neighborhoods, Buzbee argues, could have saved their lives.

There have been other freeze-related lawsuits filed, against the now-bankrupt Griddy and against Entergy, with the latter also from the busy office of Tony Buzbee. There’s also litigation against ERCOT, though it remains an open question as to whether or not ERCOT can be sued in this fashion. I don’t have any particular insight about this action other than to say that however much you might think CenterPoint is at fault, the greater responsibility in my opinion lies with the Legislature and the state’s regulatory structure. None of that can really be sued (except maybe ERCOT), so here we are.

On a related note:

Last month’s disastrous and deadly winter storm impacted most Texans served by the state’s main power grid, with almost 70% of those people losing power in subfreezing temperatures and almost half experiencing a water outage, according to a new report from the University of Houston.

And although Texans were told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages ahead of the storm, those who lost electricity ended up going an average of 42 hours without it, the survey found.

As the updated death toll from the storm reached 111 deaths last week, the severity of its full force has continued to come into focus. The damage the storm wrecked could make it the costliest disaster in Texas history.

That report is here. I figure we were without power for about 50 hours at our house – about half of Monday, all of Tuesday, and about half of Wednesday. Doesn’t have any direct bearing on the litigation around this, but it’s another reminder of just how bad this was, if for some reason we needed one.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

What is Ken Paxton hiding?

I was almost tempted to start this post with the rhetorical “Just when you think Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower” gambit, but then I realized I have never thought Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower. Even with that, this is amazing.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas attorney general’s office is attempting to withhold all messages Ken Paxton sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Several news organizations in Texas have requested copies of the attorney general’s work-related communications. The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records — even if those records are stored on personal devices or online accounts of public officials.

After Paxton’s office refused to release copies of his emails and text messages, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Antonio Express-News are working together in an effort to obtain the documents and review Paxton’s open-records practices.

The news outlets discovered that Paxton’s office, which is supposed to enforce the state’s open records laws, has no policy governing the release of work-related messages stored on Paxton’s personal devices. It is unclear whether the office reviews Paxton’s email accounts and phones to look for requested records, or whether the attorney general himself determines what to turn over without any outside checks.

[…]

Amid a massive FBI investigation into the Capitol riot, the public has been eager to understand why and how their elected officials attended the rally. Paxton has refused to release his communications about the event, which could illuminate his real-time reaction to the riot, who booked him as a speaker for the rally and who covered his travel expenses.

As Texas attorney general, Paxton oversees an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. Any government body in Texas, from police departments to the governor’s office, must seek the agency’s approval to withhold records from the public.

The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News have requested all of Paxton’s messages from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11. Lauren Downey, the public information coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General, said she didn’t need to release the records because they are confidential attorney-client communications.

Downey sought confirmation from the agency’s open records division, arguing the messages included communications between the attorney general’s executive leadership and its criminal prosecution division to discuss litigation, as well as texts between Paxton and a lawyer in the attorney general’s office regarding “legal services to the state.”

The open records division has 45 business days to issue a ruling on whether the communications should be open to the public. That decision is pending.

James Hemphill, a lawyer and open records expert who serves as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the records described by Downey appear to fall under confidential communications. But it’s odd, he added, that Paxton would have no other routine emails or texts during that six-day time frame that could be released.

“It would seem unusual for every single communication made by any kind of lawyer to be subject to attorney-client privilege,” Hemphill said, cautioning he hasn’t seen the records himself.

Downey also told the Chronicle that the attorney general’s office does not have any written policy or procedures for releasing public documents stored on Paxton’s personal devices or accounts.

It’s a long story involving multiple news outlets, as well as Paxton’s Utah trip during the freeze, which he appears to have been lying about. Part of the problem here is Ken Paxton’s utter contempt for the rule of law, and part of it is that there’s no obvious mechanism for holding him accountable. Filing a lawsuit may eventually result in some of this information turning up – assuming Paxton doesn’t just delete it all, while citing a data retention policy to back his actions up – but who knows how long that could take. For sure, the Republican legislature isn’t going to do anything. The voters get the ultimate say, but that’s a long way off as well, and as long as this communication is being withheld, they don’t have the full story. I know that you already know this, but Ken Paxton is the worst. See Lauren McGaughy’s Twitter thread for more.

SCoTX punts on ERCOT lawsuit question

Wimpy.

The Texas Supreme Court punted Friday on a question dogging millions of Texans affected by last month’s catastrophic power failure: Can ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, be sued?

The state’s highest court ruled 5-4 that it won’t decide — at least not now — on closely-watched case between Dallas electricity generator Panda Power and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The $2.2 billion case filed by Panda Power in 2016 raised the question whether ERCOT is a governmental agency that has sovereign immunity protecting them from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private, nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country that has received such protection.

Five justices led by Justice Jeff Boyd said the Texas Constitution prohibits them from ruling on the case after the trial court issued a final judgment dismissing the case. Based on a finding of sovereign immunity by an appeals court, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the dismissal by the lower court made the case moot and that it no longer had the authority to rule in the case.

“Because the trial court’s interlocutory order merged into the final judgment and no longer exists, we cannot grant the relief the parties seek,” the majority opinion written by Boyd stated. “As a result, any decision we might render would constitute an impermissible advisory opinion, and these consolidated causes are moot.”

Four dissenting justices led by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, argued they should rule on the case because the public has an interest whether ERCOT can be sued in the aftermath of last month’s storm. Several lawsuits have been filed against the state grid manager, including over the deaths of an 11-year-old boy and a 95-year-old man, who were both found dead in their freezing Houston-area homes.

“The answer to the immunity issue in this case has become perhaps more important to the public than even to the parties,” the minority opinion, written by Hecht stated. “The parties want to know. The public wants to know. The court refuses to answer.”

The ruling by the high court has widespread implications in the wake of last month’s deadly and devastating blackouts, which contributed to more than 50 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage.

David Coale, an appellate partner with Dallas-based law firm Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann, said the Supreme Court could still decide on ERCOT’s immunity as appeals from the Panda Power case come up through the legal system. In the meantime, ERCOT’s immunity — upheld by a Texas appeals court in 2018 — remains intact, but the state grid manage faces an onslaught of legal cases without any guidance from the Supreme Court.

“The court may have punted, but it didn’t walk away,” Coale said. “It acknowledged that another appeal involving the same parties is on its way up to them, and it can revisit these issues then.”

See here and here for some background. I guess I can understand the “let’s do this all in the correct order” idea, but as the story notes the question about whether ERCOT has sovereign immunity or not is very pertinent right now. Maybe if the ultimate decision is that ERCOT cannot be sued it would be nice to let all those folks who are now suing them know, so they won’t waste a bunch of time and money pursuing their cases. I’m not a lawyer, what do I know? You can find all the relevant opinions and concurrences and dissents here if you need a little light reading for the weekend.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Harris, Fort Bend, and Travis Counties submitted amicus briefs urging SCOTUS to find in favor of ERCOT not having sovereign immunity. This Bloomberg article, which is behind their paywall but which you might be able to see if you haven’t exceeded your monthly allowance, details those filings.

Our rinky-dink critical infrastructure

Good Lord.

On Valentine’s Day, the major utility that supplies electricity to West Texas readied for a severe winter storm. Hired contractors prepared to fix power lines, managers started up the storm emergency center, and operators reviewed the list of facilities that should — no matter what — keep power during an emergency: 35 of them on Oncor’s list were natural gas facilities that deliver fuel to power plants.

As Sunday turned to Monday, Allen Nye, the CEO of Oncor, one of the state’s largest transmission and delivery utilities, thought his team was ready.

But the situation rapidly deteriorated as the storm bore down on Texas. At 1:20 a.m., the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid, ordered the first cut of power to bring demand down to match an extremely low power supply as the frigid temperatures caused power plants to rapidly trip offline.

Oncor’s team, along with other utilities, began a plan to roll outages at 15- and 30-minute intervals. But just before 2 a.m., ERCOT ordered them to take even more power offline — then kept ordering more reductions. By late Monday morning, ERCOT had ordered 20,000 megawatts of power offline; Oncor’s share was 8,000 megawatts, or enough to power 1.6 million homes.

Rolling the outages “quickly became impossible,” Nye said. “We sat there praying that electrons showed up.”

With millions of Texans without power, Nye got an urgent request from DeAnn Walker, then chair of the Public Utility Commission: She needed Oncor to flip the switch back on to certain natural gas facilities that couldn’t deliver fuel to power plants without electricity. A PUC spokesperson said Walker was “ceaselessly” on the phone, calling Nye about dozens of natural gas facilities that weren’t on Oncor’s “critical” list.

That meant that Oncor, which delivers power to the Permian Basin — the state’s most productive oil and natural gas basin — had unwittingly shut off some of the state’s power supply when it followed orders to begin the outages.

The desperate scramble to power up natural gas facilities again exposed a major structural flaw in Texas’ electric grid: Oncor and other utilities didn’t have good lists of what they should consider critical infrastructure, including natural gas facilities — simply because natural gas companies failed to fill out a form or didn’t know the form existed, company executives, regulators and experts said.

[…]

“In my opinion, if we had kept the supply [of natural gas] on, we would’ve had minor disruptions,” James Cisarik, chairman of the Texas Energy Reliability Council, told legislators. “[Texas] has all the assets, we just have to make sure we evaluate every link in that chain to keep it going.”

The failures were years in the making: There is no requirement for natural gas and other companies that operate crucial parts of the grid to register as “critical.” And a trend toward electrifying key components of the state’s natural gas infrastructure in recent decades, plus the lack of a single agency to oversee all parts of the electric delivery system, created what Kenneth Medlock, a fellow in energy and resource economics at the Rice University’s Baker Institute, called a “single point of failure” — one that state regulators were blind to.

“That’s a failure of regulation,” said Medlock, who is also the senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice. “That’s all it is. It’s relatively simple.”

That’s one way to put it. “Infuriating” and “inexcusable” also come to mind, along with a bunch of swear words. As someone once said, there’s a lot more to gain by avoiding stupid mistakes than there is by coming up with genius solutions. This is the sort of thing that the Legislature should be focused on. If this kind of simple, no cost fix is not implemented, you know who to blame. The Chron has more.

Griddy files for bankruptcy

Live by market disruption

Griddy Energy, a California-based retail power company, filed for bankruptcy on Monday citing financial woes brought on by the power crisis in February.

Griddy’s business model exposes consumers to the wholesale market, which in normal times could mean savings, but when the grid crashed many customers had exorbitantly high bills in the thousands.

The power company’s Chief Executive Officer Michael Fallquist said the bankruptcy plan would provide financial relief to it’s customers, and also took aim at The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the state’s grid manager.

“Prior to Winter Storm Uri, Griddy was a thriving business with more than 29,000 customers who saved more than $17 million dollars since 2017. The actions of ERCOT destroyed our business and caused financial harm to our customers,” Fallquist saod. “Our bankruptcy plan, if confirmed, provides relief for our former customers who were unable to pay their electricity bills resulting from the unprecedented prices.”

Two weeks ago, ERCOT barred Griddy from participating in the state’s wholesale power markets, effectively shutting down the company.

See here and here for some background. This doesn’t mean Griddy is going away, just that it’s working through some tough times. It also apparently means that may of their customers may be off the hook for the ridiculous prices they had been charged.

Griddy’s approximately 29,000 customers were charged $29 million for energy during the winter storm, according to court documents. The wholesale electricity retailer, which has recently been forced out of the market, charged a $9.99 monthly fee and, in turn, passed along wholesale prices to customers.

When wholesale energy bill prices skyrocketed during the storm as temperatures plunged below freezing, Griddy customers were subject to the same costs with no buffer. Some reported bills over $15,000. Most Texas customers were shielded from the rising prices because they pay a fixed rate for electricity, although they could see prices increase in the near future to offset the added costs incurred by the power companies.

Houston-based Griddy’s Chapter 11 filing outlines a plan to wipe out its former customers’ debt during the company’s liquidation if approved in bankruptcy court.

“Our bankruptcy plan, if confirmed, provides relief for our former customers who were unable to pay their electricity bills resulting from the unprecedented prices,” Griddy CEO Michael Fallquist said in a statement on its website. He emphasized Griddy did not profit from increased prices and only made money off of the fixed monthly membership fees.

However, thousands of dollars have already been automatically drained from customer’s bank accounts and charged to their credit cards.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that Griddy and his office are “engaged in ongoing good faith negotiations to attempt to address additional relief for those Griddy customers who have already paid their storm-related energy bills.”

Not perfect, but it’s a start. Here’s the longer version of the Chron story for more.

The state of the Public Utility Commission

News item #1:

While many Texans last week were worried about sky-high electric bills from February’s winter storms, the state’s sole utility commissioner was privately reassuring out-of-state investors who profited from the crisis that he was working to keep their windfall safe.

Texas Monthly has obtained a recording of a 48-minute call on March 9 in which Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Arthur D’Andrea discussed the fallout from the February power crisis with investors. During that call, which was hosted by Bank of America Securities and closed to the public and news media, D’Andrea took pains to ease investors’ concerns that electricity trades, transacted at the highest prices the market allows, might be reversed, potentially costing trading firms and publicly traded generating companies millions of dollars.

“I apologize for the uncertainty,” D’Andrea said, promising to put “the weight of the commission” behind efforts to keep billions of dollars from being returned to utilities that were forced—thanks to decisions by the PUC—to buy power at sky-high prices, even after the worst of the blackout had passed.

Billed as “Learning the Texas Two Step: A Chat with the PUCT,” the call originally was scheduled for early February but was postponed until after the winter storm. The conversation shows a coziness between a top Texas regulator and some of the biggest players in the electricity market at a time when the PUC’s oversight is under fire from lawmakers. At one point, during a discussion about whether natural gas, which also saw huge price spikes during the crisis, would be “repriced,” D’Andrea said no, adding that most legislators understand that gas is priced by global markets and is out of their purview. “But I’ll let you know if I hear anything crazy on it,” D’Andrea said.

You can click over and listen to the audio and read the explanations for the words that D’Andrea used if you want. In the meantime, here’s news item #2, from later that same day.

Public Utility Commission Chair Arthur D’Andrea, the only remaining member of the three-seat board that regulates Texas utilities, is resigning from his post, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday night.

Abbott said in a statement that he asked for and accepted D’Andrea’s resignation and plans to name “a replacement in the coming days who will have the responsibility of charting a new and fresh course for the agency.” D’Andrea’s resignation will be effective immediately upon the appointment of a successor, according to a copy of D’Andrea’s resignation letter that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

He is the latest in a long line of officials who have left the PUC or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since last month’s deadly winter storm plunged large swaths of Texas into subfreezing temperatures and overwhelmed the state’s electricity infrastructure, causing massive power outages. At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of the storm — most of them from hypothermia — according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The reason for D’Andrea’s resignation was not immediately clear late Tuesday.

I think we have a reasonable hypothesis about it – this article goes on to mention that Texas Monthly story about D’Andrea’s phone call. None of the members of the PUC – all of whom were appointed by Greg Abbott – remain. Heck of a job, there. Be more mad at the PUC. Kimberley Reeves has more.

Winter storm death count at 57

This is likely to rise as we get better data.

At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The largest number of deaths — at least 25 — occured in Harris County, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported.

The deaths occurred in at least 25 counties between Feb. 11 and March 5, the state agency said. The majority of verified deaths were associated with hypothermia, but health officials said some were also caused by motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls, and fire.”

The preliminary data is “subject to change” as state disaster epidemiologists gather additional information and additional deaths are verified, the agency said. The information will be updated weekly, it said.

For purposes of comparison, there were 103 deaths in Texas attributed to Hurricane Harvey, 68 to direct effects of the storm and 35 more in the aftereffects. The financial costs of the freeze were higher. Just keep all that in mind when you see Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and others play the blame game.

Abbott vs Patrick on power outage blame game

This ought to be interesting.

The blame game over the state’s faulty electrical grid is creating a rare public rift between the two top Republicans in state government that could have a major financial impact on some utility companies and their customers.

First Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s newest appointee to oversee the state’s utility system for a lack of “competence and questionable integrity.” Hours later, Abbott released a late-night letter to the public, addressed to Patrick. In it, Abbott defended his appointee and pushed back against Patrick’s solution for inflated power bills due to the winter storms.

The divide comes as Abbott is scheduled to be in Houston on Monday for a press conference to talk about election integrity legislation he is supporting in the Texas Legislature.

For most of the last two years, Abbott and Patrick avoided such confrontations, instead trying to project unity on most issues such as the pandemic and legislative priorities like property tax reforms and changes in public school funding.

But that unity has eroded since the deadly winter storms that blasted Texas last month, leaving millions without power and broken water pipes despite a decade of warnings that the state’s power grid was vulnerable increasingly common winter storms.

At the core of their public dispute is how to deal with outrageous wholesale electricity bills that some utilities are facing. Patrick says sky-high emergency prices left in place too long by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas resulted in $4 billion to $5 billion in overcharges for utility companies. He says the error can be reversed retroactively by Abbott’s appointed members of the Public Utility Commission, which has authority over ERCOT.

But ERCOT leaders and Abbott say there is a difference of opinion of whether there was an error at all. ERCOT’s leader Bill Magness said the prices were kept intentionally high, to assure public safety by drawing more power to the grid to help Texans weather the freeze.

Abbott says the utilities commission cannot legally reverse the past charges anyhow, and if that is going to be done, it would have to be done by the Legislature.

[…]

Patrick did not like answers from Abbott or the governor’s new Public Utility Commission chair, Arthur D’Andrea, who has testified that he cannot reverse the wholesale energy prices retroactively.

During a Senate committee hearing on Thursday, Patrick did something he’s only done one other time during his two terms as the lieutenant governor: He personally attended the committee hearing and grilled D’Andrea directly himself.

“In light of the PUC chair’s refusal to take any corrective action, despite the fact that he has the authority and the evidence is clear, I am asking Gov. Abbott to intercede on this issue,” Patrick said in a press statement he sent out late Friday. “I am also asking Gov. Abbott to replace Mr. D’Andrea on the PUC when he fills the other two vacancies there. Mr. D’Andrea’s position requires both professional competence and honesty and he demonstrated little of either in the hearings yesterday.”

Patrick said D’Andrea does have the authority to fix pricing during “unusual circumstances.”

Less than two hours later on Friday night, Abbott shared with the media a letter to Patrick in which he points to his long legal history as a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and the Texas Attorney General before he became governor in 2014 to make the case that D’Andrea was correct.

“As a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and former Attorney General, I agree with the position of the PUC Chair about his inability to take the action you requested,” Abbott wrote in his letter. “You asked that I ‘intervene to ensure the right thing is done.’ The governor does not have independent authority to accomplish the goals you seek. The only entity that can authorize the solution you want is the Legislature itself. That is why I made this issue an emergency item for the Legislature to consider this session.”

See here for some background, and here for more detailed coverage of Dan Patrick versus the PUC dude. The tea leaf reading is rampant, with the spectacle of Patrick challenging Abbott in the primary for Governor as the uber-story. I think this is more an illustration of what kind of politician each of them is than anything else. Abbott is at heart a lawyer, the kind of lawyer who will comb the fine print looking for a justification for the thing he already wants to do, which in this case is make the blame for the freeze as well as the responsibility for fixing the underlying issues fall on someone else. Patrick, on the other hand, is a showman and self-promoter who has enough self-awareness to know that he came pretty close to losing in 2018 and it might be good for him to claim an accomplishment on something broadly popular while also beating up on someone more villainous than he is. (I refer to the PUC Chair here and not to Abbott, but if you took it the other way Patrick would not complain.) You have to admire his creativity on this.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick hastily convened a session of the Texas Senate on Monday as members suspended their own rules and took highly unusual steps to push through a bill that would force the state’s utility regulator to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month’s winter storm.

Senate Bill 2142, sponsored by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, had not even been filed when the day started Monday — and the full Senate hadn’t been scheduled to convene. But by 2 p.m., it had been read on the Senate floor, approved in a hastily convened committee meeting that featured no public comment and then approved by the full Senate on a 27-3 vote.

Thanks to that extraordinary pace, it became the first bill that either chamber of the Legislature had passed since convening Jan. 12. It will head now head to the House, where its fate is currently uncertain.

“The Senate has acted,” Patrick said after Monday’s vote. “We are asking the governor to join us. And I think if he will say he’ll sign this bill, it may help us get this bill through the House.”

[…]

The filing of SB 2142 came after Friday’s deadline for filing legislation during the 2021 legislative session. But the Senate found a way around that rule in one of its bolder procedural moves Monday. The chamber brought back up its motion to adjourn Thursday and withdrew it, essentially going back in time on the legislative calendar and allowing Hughes to file his legislation before the Friday deadline.

Dan Patrick: He literally traveled through time to lower your electric bills. The ads, they write themselves. Look, I don’t think this makes Patrick any less likely to run for re-election as he has said he will, but a little speculation – and a little marketing – never hurt anyone. In the end, this will probably be more heat that light. If only we could get our power generation plants to store it all up for the next winter freeze.

The freeze was hard on the trees

Palm trees in particular.

Galveston’s majestic palm trees could be another casualty of Texas’s four-day freeze last month.

The cold snap that left millions of Texans without power and caused burst pipes across the state has also had a pronounced effect on local vegetation. Weeks after the freeze, with the winter weather now normalizing to mild temperatures for the region, many trees in Galveston remain in a torpid state — with brown leaves, broken branches and a general hang-dog appearance.

“Your queen palms, Japanese blueberry trees, citrus trees, olive trees — there’s probably a 90 percent chance that those are just really not going to come back,” said Orvis Himebaugh, owner of Tree Worxx, a company that specializes in tree servicing in Galveston County and the Houston area.

Galveston’s iconic palms, synonymous with the island’s laid-back ethos, bore the brunt of the impact from the harsh weather. The lofty trees — there are more than 20 species of palms on Galveston Island — are surprisingly resilient, able to withstand the region’s volatile climate from hurricanes and tropical storms to the occasional frost. But the sustained subfreezing temperatures and vicious winds in February proved too severe for the trees to overcome.

Himebaugh said the palms on the island’s West End were hit particularly hard by the freeze, as there are fewer buildings on that part of Galveston to shield the trees from being pummeled by arctic winds. He added it will take up to two months to determine whether any of the damaged trees will perk up.

In Houston, where palm trees are also flagging from the spate of cold weather, the official prognosis is that it’s too soon to tell which will survive. Jeremy Burkes, division manager of urban forestry for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said it could take anywhere from six months to a year for trees to make a full recovery.

“It (a palm tree) is completely brown, there’s a good chance that it may not make it,” Burkes said. “But if there’s any, any sign of green, then we’re hopeful that the tree is going to thrive and come back.”

As the story notes, there was some variation in the damage to the Galveston palms based on geography – some places had more wind than others, which magnified the effect of the freeze. Houston palm trees generally did better than those in Galveston. There’s one on my street that appears to have ridden it out. We won’t know for a few months if the damage is permanent or if some of these trees can recover. Just another thing to worry about.

More storm polling

Not sure things are as negative as this story makes it sound.

Two out of three Texans lost electricity, water or both in last month’s devastating winter storm, though it’s unclear their harrowing experiences will have lasting political consequences, according to a poll released Sunday by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.

By a 2-1 margin, Texas registered voters say state and local leaders failed to adequately alert the public about the deadly punch the storm could deliver to power and water services so residents could prepare. Leaders underestimated the threat, a majority of Republicans and more than 70% of independents and Democrats believe.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the arctic blast and prolonged blackouts and water outages divides Texans. The poll found 53% say the Republican governor did well or very well, while 46% say he performed either not well or not well at all.

“Memories of what leaders could have done may fade, because it is not clear that one entity is to blame,” said UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, who directed the survey.

The poll, taken Feb. 22 to March 2, was conducted after the ice melted, power was restored and most residents regained water service, though some boil-water notices remained in effect. The poll surveyed 1,210 registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.84 percentage points.

Interviews ended the same day Abbott lifted his July requirement of face coverings in public spaces and rolled back COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and public venues, so the poll was unable to gauge Texans’ reactions.

Before Abbott’s surprise announcement, though, the poll found 92% of registered voters wore a mask in the previous week.

Of those, 34% reported masking up because of the governor’s order — and half said they donned face coverings because local businesses posted signs requiring them.

“Mask-wearing increased after the statewide mandate, compared with 68% in April 2020, so I expect many will continue with the habit,” Owens said. He noted that 83% of respondents say their choice to wear a mask is personal and not affected by the state’s or local businesses’ requirements.

[…]

By a 3-1 margin, registered voters say they already have received one dose or are definitely or probably going to get vaccinated when more shots become available. Though 16% say they have decided they will not take the vaccine and 10% are unlikely to do so, the results should hearten those hoping for the state to achieve herd immunity.

The poll results are here, and the UT-Tyler polling homepage is here. They had some goofy numbers for the Presidential race in 2020, so I’m not going to take this as anything but another data point. The vaccination-willingness numbers are better than the ones in the UT/Trib poll, for what it’s worth. I think we’ll have a much clearer picture of that in a month or two.

They did give us some approval numbers as well:

The poll also was taken shortly after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said he regretted and had changed his mind about slipping off with his family to Cancún, Mexico, amid the power outages that affected more than 4 million Texans and inflicted widespread damage and hardship.

While in October, 44% of Texas’ registered voters had a favorable impression of Cruz and 37% did not, his numbers dipped last month to 42% favorable, 45% unfavorable.

[…]

Despite COVID-19, a recession and the double whammy of blackouts and water outages, Abbott’s job approval has dipped only slightly and remains the most favorable among top state Republicans. By 53%-42%, voters say they trust Abbott to keep their communities safe and healthy during the virus outbreak.

The poll found 52% approve or strongly approve of the way Abbott is handling his job, while 31% disapprove or strongly disapprove. In October, his job rating was 54%-34% — just slightly more robust.

Though former President Donald Trump carried Texas in November by 6 percentage points, new President Joe Biden is more trusted by Texans to keep their communities safe from COVID-19. By a narrow margin of 51%-46%, state voters express confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic. In October, just 44% trusted Trump to handle it, while 54% did not.

By a plurality, state voters approve of Biden’s performance as president, 47%-40%. Owens, the pollster, noted that before Biden’s Feb. 26 visit to Houston to witness post-storm relief efforts and COVID-19 vaccinations, his job rating was almost even — 43%-42% in this poll.

As the poll by The News and UT-Tyler went into the field, Attorney General Ken Paxton was dogged by negative publicity, such as accusations by former employees that he swapped political favors for a donor’s help with a home remodel and job for his alleged “mistress.”

Though he flew to the snowy intermountain West and not a tropical beach as Cruz did, and had some official business, Paxton’s trip to Utah during the recent storm, first disclosed by The News, raised questions about why he, too, chose to leave the state as many constituents shivered amid outages and frontier-style living conditions.

When poll respondents were asked if Paxton has the integrity to be the state’s top lawyer, 32% agreed he does, 29% disagreed and 39% were unsure.

As before, ignore the Cruz numbers, at least until we have a more consistent trail. Again, Abbott just seems to defy gravity. It’s going to take a lot of work to knock him down, and as we see later in the story, the various items on the Republican legislative to do list poll pretty well, too. This is also a reminder that many people have not paid all that much attention to the Paxton saga, so don’t take anything for granted there. I’d say it’s highly likely that Paxton would run well behind Abbott, as he did in 2018, but that may not be enough. The good news is the good approval numbers for President Biden, which are better than those in the UT/Trib poll, and also the Data for Progress poll. As noted, if Biden can stay up there, it can only help the Dems’ efforts next year. Not mentioned in the poll were the numbers for Beto (37 favorable, 42 unfavorable) or Donald Trump (43 favorable, 47 unfavorable). That’s a lot better for Beto than in that DfP poll, and about the same for Trump. He won’t be on the ballot, but we know he’ll be a presence, one way or another.

The opening bid on power outage response

Not bad, but there’s a long way to go and not a lot of detail just yet.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday announced seven priority bills responding to the winter weather crisis last month that left millions of Texans without power.

The proposals include overhauling the governance of the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas; mandating “weatherization” of power facilities and establishing a statewide disaster alert system. There is also legislation to ban variable-rate electricity pricing plans such as were offered by the company Griddy, which was recently effectively shut down in the state after customers were hit with bills in the thousands of dollars.

Phelan’s office called the proposals the “first phase” of the House’s proposed reforms in the wake of the winter storm. Not all the bills have been filed yet, so the specifics of some proposals have not yet been made public.

“We must take accountability, close critical gaps in our system, and prevent these breakdowns from ever happening again,” Phelan, a Republican, said in a statement.

[…]

House Bill 10, for instance, aims to reform ERCOT by restructuring its board. The legislation would replace the board’s “unaffiliated” members with members appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker. The bill would also mandate that all board members live in Texas. And it would add a new board member to “represent consumer interests,” according to Phelan’s office.

Some other ideas could prove challenging. House Bill 11, for instance, would order the Public Utilities Commission to require power generators to implement measures to avoid service outages during extreme weather events, including winter storms and heat waves. But retroactively equipping power plants and the state’s energy system to withstand cold temperatures is likely to be difficult and costly, energy experts have said. Building energy infrastructure that from the start is designed to perform in winter conditions is easier and cheaper, they have said.

Phelan’s office described another bill, House Bill 14, which hasn’t yet been filed, that would require the Railroad Commission of Texas to require pipeline operators to update their equipment to ensure reliability during extreme weather. It’s unclear how much either bill would cost the state or the power generators. Abbott has indicated in the past that he is interested in funding at least some of the weatherization.

These fall under the emergency items declared by Abbott, so they can be taken up ahead of other legislation. Once they’re written and filed, of course. I don’t have any immediate complaints – the general direction is good, and they seem to have hit the high points – but it’s very early in the process, and there will be plenty of opportunity for shenanigans and just plan resistance, so as always we will have to keep an eye on it. The pushback from the energy industry seems to be that the power outages themselves were the main driver of the natural gas shortage, not the wells and pipes freezing up. There’s probably something to that, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I decline to take their word for it. At least three of the bills will be carried by Democrats – Reps. Richard Raymond, Ana Hernandez, and Joe Deshotel. We’ll see what we get, and we should very much remember that a lot of this is about undoing or at least mitigating the effects of Republican deregulation, but this is a decent start.

Please don’t pay any attention to Ted Cruz’s approval ratings

I know, I know, I’m part of the problem. But seriously, this is utterly meaningless.

Not Ted Cruz

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s approval rating took a hit after his family trip to Cancún during the Texas freeze, according to polling by Morning Consult, though he still remains popular among Texas Republicans.

Polling conducted Feb. 19-28 found Cruz’s approval rating at 43 percent among Texas voters, 48 percent of whom said they disapprove of the senator. It was a reversal of his standing — and a double-digit drop in net approval rating — from polls Morning Consult conducted 10 days earlier.

Nationally, 49 percent of Republicans said they approve of Cruz — a 9 percentage point drop — even as his footing in his home state remained strong, with the approval of 71 percent of Texas Republicans.

One, this kind of poll, and Morning Consult’s polls in particular, are always volatile. Two, and this is a partial restatement of the first point, it’s just one damn result. We know better than that. And three, as I have said before, Ted Cruz will not be on any ballot until 2024. There’s literally no poll now that can tell us anything useful about what might happen to Ted Cruz in 2024. Please spend you limited time and brain energy on something more productive, like your fantasy football draft or what the next “Star Wars” spinoff will be on Disney+. Thank you.

Congress has questions for Abbott

Will he answer them? That’s the bigger question.

Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, including Reps. Marc Veasey of Dallas and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston, are conducting a probe into Gov. Greg Abbott and why Texas’ electrical grid was unprepared to handle last week’s snowstorm.

In a recent letter to the governor lead by Energy and Commerce Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, members picked apart Abbott’s response to the crisis, including the governor’s visit to Fox News in which he spread lies about wind and solar energy being the chief culprit behind the blackout.

“These statements either suggest a lack of understanding of the Texas power grid’s fundamental operations or were an attempt to shift blame away from the very real issues that have existed within the state’s energy structure for years,” read the letter.

“The response to this ongoing crisis raises significant questions regarding Texas’ grid design, preparation, and whether the state is taking appropriate action to aid citizens in this crisis,” the letter continued.

The members of Congress criticized Texas’ isolated power grid for being unable to import enough power from other states while it was under extreme stress — an issue of resiliency they said would be needed to be solved in the face of changing climate and more frequent extreme weather events.

Lawmakers also requested Abbott answer several questions relating to the crisis, including why Texas failed to implement weatherization recommendations made by a 2011 federal report that was conducted after a snowstorm caused blackouts in Texas that same year.

[…]

Members of the energy committee said they had “broad jurisdiction” over energy policy and requested Abbott deliver the answers before March 22.

They may indeed have jurisdiction, but that doesn’t mean Abbott will recognize or respond to it. Look at how spectacularly unsuccessful Congressional Democrats were at getting anyone from the Trump administration to respond to subpoenas. Like so many other norms, the custom and expectation that such subpoenas would be heeded was shredded by Trump and his goons. The problem here is not jurisdiction, it’s enforcement. No one is going to show up at the Governor’s mansion with an arrest warrant if Abbott sticks that letter in the round file. The worst he can expect is some carping from Congressional Democrats, and maybe a tut-tutting editorial or two. I’m not saying that Congress shouldn’t try to get answers from Abbott. I am saying that all they can do is ask. Until and unless they can do more than that, we shouldn’t expect better results.

ERCOT’s overcharges

Oops.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas made a $16 billion error in pricing during the week of the winter storm that caused power outages across the state, according to a filing by its market monitor.

Potomac Economics, the independent market monitor for the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which oversees ERCOT, wrote in a letter to the Public Utility Commission that ERCOT kept market prices for power too high for nearly two days after widespread outages ended late the night of Feb. 17. It should have reset the prices the following day.

That decision to keep prices high, the market monitor claimed, resulted in $16 billion in additional costs to Texas power companies. The news of the overcharging was first reported by Bloomberg.

Some of the providers that were charged during the high price period could pass the costs to customers, depending on the type of contract they have, according to Detlef Hallermann, director of the Reliant Energy Trade Center at Texas A&M University.

In Texas, wholesale power prices are determined by supply and demand: When demand is high, ERCOT allows prices to go up. During the storm, PUC directed the grid operator to set wholesale power prices at $9,000 per megawatt hour — the maximum price. Raising prices is intended to incentivize power generators in the state to add more power to the grid. Companies then buy power from the wholesale market to deliver to consumers, which they are contractually obligated to do.

Because ERCOT failed to bring prices back down on time, companies had to buy power in the market at inflated prices.

The error will likely result in higher levels of defaults, wrote Carrie Bivens, a vice president of Potomac Economics, the firm that monitors the grid operator. She said the PUC should direct ERCOT to remove the pricing interventions that occurred after outages ended, and allowing them to remain would result in “substantial and unjustified” economic harm.

At least $1.5 billion could be passed on to retail electric providers and their customers. Some retail providers have already begun to file for bankruptcy.

[…]

“The ERCOT market was not designed to deal with an emergency of this scale,” wrote Patrick Woodson, CEO of ATG Clean Energy Holdings, a retail power provider based in Austin, to the Public Utility Commission. The pricing failure, he wrote, “has pushed the entire market to the brink of collapse.”

Bivens wrote that while she recognizes that retroactively revising the prices is “not ideal,” correcting the error will reflect the accurate supply and demand for power during the period after the outages.

First and foremost, most if not all of that $16 billion in overcharges needs to be refunded to the customers and retail providers. This isn’t a matter of reading the fine print, it’s a matter of the market failing. No one should have to pay those extortionate rates, and no one should have their credit ratings dinged because they were charged those extortionate rates.

Second, the PUC cannot be allowed to authorize such rates again in the future. I don’t know if this was a process problem or a judgment problem, but either way the effect was extremely damaging. That needs to be a high priority.

But in some sense, these are just details. The big picture problem is that the system we have in place failed completely during the freeze week. The bright idea behind this deregulated, market-driven system of power delivery is that it’s supposed to provide incentives to power companies to ensure there’s a sufficient supply of power, while lowering prices for the customers. The latter has long been a massive failure, but we see now how the former failed as well. All it did was serve as incentive for the system to be gamed. We can tinker around the edges and maybe put in some guard rails, but the underlying problem won’t be solved.

Of course, the Republicans in charge aren’t interested in systemic reform, because they think everything was just fine outside of that one unfortunate week. The real first step in solving this problem is getting people into office that want to solve it. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: That’s not how you fix it.

Texas’ utility regulator had an opportunity Friday to eliminate some of the $16 billion that the state’s grid operator erroneously overcharged power companies during last month’s deadly winter storm — but the board of the Public Utility Commission chose not to do so.

Some Texas electricity customers could have benefited from a decision to readjust the electricity market prices for the week of the storm, according to PUC Chair Arthur D’Andrea and some independent analysts. But other customers could have been harmed by such a move, D’Andrea said.

“I totally get how it looks like you’re protecting consumers [by readjusting electric prices],” D’Andrea said Friday during a PUC meeting. “But I promise you you’re not.”

D’Andrea added that a retroactive decision would have winners and losers: “You don’t know who you’re hurting. And you think you’re protecting the consumer and it turns out you’re bankrupting [someone else].”

[…]

State Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, was hoping for a different decision by the PUC on Friday.

“Keeping the market at an artificial $9,000 for 32 hrs cost $16B,” Springer tweeted, adding that the Potomac Economics report “says those hours should be repriced, I agree.”

You have the power to do something about that, Sen. Springer. What are you going to do?

PUC Chair resigns

The body count increases.

The chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, the agency that regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities, resigned Monday, according to a resignation letter provided to the Texas Tribune.

The Gov. Greg Abbott-appointed commission came under public criticism in the aftermath of Texas’ power crisis that left millions of people in the dark for days and claimed the lives of dozens.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for PUC chairwoman DeAnn Walker and Electric Reliability Council of Texas CEO Bill Magness to resign.

[…]

Lawmakers began to call on the commissioners to resign Thursday after hearing testimony from Walker, who took little responsibility for the crisis during the house and senate committee hearings on the power outages. Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, wrote on Twitter that he has “zero confidence” in her after the Thursday hearings and that she “must” resign.

Walker came under fire during questioning for not doing more to prevent the crisis from occurring. Lawmakers probed how much information she had on whether the state’s power system could withstand winter storms, and questioned why she didn’t raise concerns about the possibility of outages sooner.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

Walker deflected blame to ERCOT, the entity her agency oversees, and added of winterization: “It costs a lot of money.”

In her resignation letter to Gov. Abbott, Walker said she was resigning because she believed it to be in the best interest of the state. She also pushed back on criticisms that she did not take responsibility for the outages.

“I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation,” Walker wrote.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

See here for why we all needed more focus on the PUC and its all-Greg-Abbott-appointed board. I didn’t write about Walker’s testimony before the Senate, but the reaction was swift and unsurprising. I’m not going to defend De Ann Walker, but all this is a little precious given the warning the state got 10 years ago and the Legisnature’s steadfast refusal to take any action in response. It’s right for the Lege to call out ERCOT and the PUC and hold them accountable for their failures, but who’s going to do the same to the Lege and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the Railroad Commission? That’s on us, and if we’re not still paying attention next year when we get the chance to exert that authority, we’ll let them get away with it again. The Chron has more.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

Has Ken Paxton been lying about his travel schedule?

Would anyone be surprised if he had been?

Best mugshot ever

When the media reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had flown to Utah with his wife in the middle of the state’s power crisis last week, Paxton called it a business trip that had been planned in advance.

Now a group of whistleblowers from his office who sparked an FBI investigation of Paxton are casting doubt on Paxton’s explanation.

In court records filed Friday, the whistleblowers say the attorney general had told a Travis County judge he could not appear at a hearing in their case because he was scheduled to be in Austin on Feb. 18 for a House appropriations committee hearing. The committee later canceled the hearing because of the state’s weather disaster.

Instead, the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Paxton met with Reyes on the afternoon of Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 21, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Paxton has not said when he arrived in Utah; he returned on Feb. 23.

“This begs the question: did Paxton pre-plan his Utah trip with plans to skip his legislative testimony, the hearing before this Court, or both?” the whistleblowers’ attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “Or was Paxton simply lying to Texans about his trip to Utah having been pre-planned?”

See here for background on the Paxton travel situation, and here for the most recent update about the whistleblower lawsuit. It’s nice having a group of people who know Ken Paxton and his bullshit inside and out who are so motivated to call him on it. Other than adding to the public store of data about Ken Paxton’s dishonesty and lack of character, it’s not clear to me what effect this has on that lawsuit. The reason for asking to move the hearing was presumably legitimate, and for sure it would not have been heard on the original date once the committee meeting was canceled. I expect this is just to impugn Paxton’s credibility in the lawsuit, and to that extent it works as intended. The dude just can’t help himself. Reform Austin has more.

Why is Greg Abbott doing so little to help Texas recover from the freeze?

If this Politico story doesn’t make you mad, then either you’re a Greg Abbott shill or you really need to check your priors.

Assessing the effectiveness of disaster response is a famously fraught political game. What looks like a master class in bureaucratic crisis management from inside an emergency operations center can seem laughably insufficient to the people bundled in blankets outside an overwhelmed food bank. But all sorts of Texans, from shivering private citizens to frustrated public officials, say that Texas’ state leaders failed them.

In the face of a monstrous storm Abbott’s response was tepid, at best. He didn’t deploy the National Guard in any sizable numbers before, during or after the storm. There are no state aid facilities handing out water or food. In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, Abbott asked for direct financial assistance and help with emergency services. Normally, governors, including Abbott, request military help, money for local governments and hazard mitigation to make sure properties are habitable, and even social services. But not not this time. His request was comparatively minuscule. His office in Austin did not respond to a request for comment.

The storm revealed an uncomfortable power-play between GOP leaders in Austin and their mostly Democratic counterparts in the state’s big cities. In Texas, examples of local autonomy routinely run afoul of a governor who jealously guards his prerogatives to override everything from plastic bag bans to mandatory mask orders. But when the cities are in crisis, the sense is that it’s their problem to sort out, not his. Millions of Texans have nearly frozen in the dark and have been on a boil-water notice, without running water in days.

“The state government must provide emergency assistance to repair water infrastructure, or we risk millions being without water for a week,” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary, pleaded on Twitter. Abbott “failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess.”

[…]

In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, it was what the governor didn’t ask for that stuck out. He asked for no military help with logistics or aid distribution. He didn’t ask for disaster unemployment insurance, money for local governments, not even hazard mitigation for damaged homes, not even food or water. He asked for no military assistance. Abbott asked only for direct financial assistance for individuals and help keeping emergency services going until the storm passed.

In sharp contrast, Abbott asked for and got massive federal help before Hurricane Harvey even came ashore in August 2017. At his request, FEMA pre-positioned people and supplies, linking up with the Texas Emergency Management Agency, bringing in over 1 million meals, 3 million bottles of water, blankets and cots, and providing medical services to more than 5,000 Texans. The federal government even brought in 210,000 pounds of hay for livestock, according to FEMA’s 2017 after-action report. The Air Force flew 30 missions, mostly ferrying supplies. Abbott activated all 30,000 members of the Texas National Guard. But none of that happened this time.

Abbott was in a different political situation. On the one hand there was a Democratic president in office, not his old ally Donald Trump. On the other hand, Abbott’s biggest threat, as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and possibly the presidency in 2024, isn’t to his left but to his right. Florida transplant Allen West chairs the Texas GOP and is even calling for secession.

“My sense is that Abbott is calibrating his relationship with a Democratic president,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the human toll, Abbott, say, doesn’t want ads in 2022 portraying him as hat-in-hand to Biden. “The Republicans just want to do the bare essential here, and they don’t want to do too much. Plus, Abbott doesn’t want this storm to be the focus of another news cycle.”

“Federal assistance is needed to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health and safety,” he wrote to Biden without mentioning the long tail of the storm, prolonged lack of water, and the likelihood of continuing financial turmoil about how to pay bills as simple as essential as next month’s rent. And potentially worse: the rising specter of hunger in the poor parts of San Antonio and all of South Texas.

With little help from the state, the aid task has fallen on the local government, private citizens and local charities. Bexar County here was one of dozens forced to issue boil-water notices. Now, the city is still distributing water bottles for 14 days straight. Firefighters and fire department cadets loaded 31 pallets in cars at the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake University on Sunday, Feb. 21.

“We still have lots of people without water,” said the firefighter in charge, who would only identify herself as Bertha. “As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve seen nothing like this.”

[…]

So, FEMA has shipped generators, for example, but there is little need for them now that the power is back on. The usual National Guard and active military response is almost completely absent. At FEMA’s direction, the Air Force has been ferrying water from Joint Base Charleston, S.C. and Joint Base Travis, Calif., aboard C-17s to Texas, according to military officials. Marines in Fort Worth and Army troops here in San Antonio have handed out water on the order of local commanders. But that’s it. That’s all the military help there is.

Asked if the lack of military help, which was out in force during Ike and Harvey before, wasn’t coming because the governor hadn’t asked, a Defense Department official sheepishly responded: “I didn’t want to say that but yes. Usually, the governor asks for help.”

Critics of the governor see Abbott’s political ambitions at play. He is running for reelection and said to be eyeballing a presidential run. And so, the less he asks of the federal government the more he can claim in 2022 or 2024, that he doesn’t ask Washington for help. He can’t seem beholden to Washington, pressed from his right by hard-liners West, or his powerful right-wing lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick.

“Abbott doesn’t want to be seen with both hands out to the government,” said Henson, at the University of Texas. “If Republicans can get away with doing the bare minimum, they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

Absolutely infuriating. I didn’t know any of this before I read this story, and as much as I can’t stand Greg Abbott, it had never occurred to me that he wouldn’t ask the feds for all the help he could get. I still can’t quite fathom it. However angry you are at Greg Abbott, you need to be angrier, and you need to make sure everyone you know is angry at him. This cannot stand.

Biden’s visit to Houston

It’s so nice to have a normal, functional person as President, isn’t it?

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, in his first trip to Texas since taking office, toured Houston on Friday to size up the aftermath of the state’s recent winter weather crisis and promote the national coronavirus vaccination campaign.

“We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storm and this pandemic and economic crisis,” Biden said during a late afternoon speech outside NRG Stadium, the site of a vaccination mega-center. He promised his administration is in it “for the long haul.”

Biden hailed the mega-center — one of three federally backed mass vaccination clinics in Texas — as a key part of his strategy to have 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days in office. The country reached the halfway mark Thursday.

“The more people get vaccinated the faster we’ll beat this pandemic,” Biden said, reassuring Americans that the vaccines are “safe and effective” and cautioning that it is still “not the time to relax” measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined Biden in Houston, said Thursday his office is looking at when it could lift all statewide orders related to the pandemic. That would include the statewide mask mandate that Abbott issued last summer. He said an announcement could be coming “pretty soon.”

Biden on Friday spoke from a parking lot outside the stadium, in front of a FEMA trailer and a row of health care workers who administer vaccines.

[…]

On the flight to Houston, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters there is a need going forward for the federal government, states and the private sector to incentivize building the “kind of resilient infrastructure that we can truly depend on in the future.” Sherwood-Randall avoided prescribing specific proposals for Texas but noted the state made the decision to have its own grid and that meant that it lacked the “kind of backup in terms of supply or generation capability that they needed to have in this crisis.”

Before Biden spoke near the vaccination facility, he toured the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, where the county judge, Lina Hidalgo, explained how the building “has been our home away from home for five months” — first due to the pandemic and then during the winter freeze. Biden told officials they have a “hell of an operation here.”

“It’s probably the best one in the country,” the president said, according to a pool report. “You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”

As Biden saw the Emergency Operations Center, First Lady Jill Biden and Cecilia Abbott volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, packing bags for a program that provides food to students on weekends who depend on school meals during the week. After the president was done at the Emergency Operations Center, he met up with his wife to tour the food bank and meet with volunteers.

Politically, the trip marked Texas Republican leaders’ first face-to-face encounter at home with a new Democratic president whose policies they have vowed to resist. And Biden is aware — during a virtual meeting with a group of governors Thursday, he told Abbott, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to coming down tomorrow, to Houston, to be with you.”

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Sen. Cornyn was with Biden and Abbott in Houston, while Sen. Cruz was not, as he did not ask to be. I think we can all agree that that was for the best. I don’t know what President Biden would have said if someone had asked him about Abbott’s eagerness to lift the statewide mask mandate, but allow me to roll me eyes and heave a sigh of despair in his stead. Biden’s willingness to be a partner in the recovery is admirable and welcome and of course should be exactly what we expect, but it appears to be a one-way street. I’ll get to that in another post. I will say this much: Someone needs to be spending a few million dollars here in Texas highlighting what the President is doing to help not only the COVID vaccination effort but also the freeze recovery effort, to make sure that the credit goes where it belongs. Those approval ratings aren’t going to maintain themselves. The Chron has more.