Over the weekend of February 12, and extending throughout the next week, one of the largest winter storm warnings over the U.S. since at least 2005 was issued. The onslaught of ice and snow has subsequently left over 4 million Texans without power. This prompted calls from top Texas officials, including Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan and Governor Greg Abbot, to investigate and reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, also known as ERCOT. On its face, this situation seems no different than what any other state would have done. However, examining the root causes behind the ERCOT crisis of supply and the history of Texas politicians shunning any and all federal intervention clearly displays the fallacy of so-called “Texas Independence.”
ERCOT: Autonomy at the Expense of Reliability
To save time, I’ll only give a brief overview of ERCOT. The Texas Tribune has a great analysis of the history and practices of the grid. Essentially, ERCOT was established in line with a guiding belief still present in the Texas government: Texas ought to be free of federal control whenever possible. Further deregulation of ERCOT in the early 2000s affirmed Texas lawmakers’ dedication to this principle. It also backs the “free market” mentality of many Texas politicians.
It is worth noting that there are three major electricity grids in the U.S.: Western Interconnection, Eastern Interconnection, and ERCOT, both the name of the grid and the organization that maintains it. ERCOT is the only grid in the county that falls outside the regulatory authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
ERCOT is a private “non-profit” with a board of directors that is made up of various stakeholders, including the companies and electric groups it is supposed to be regulating. Currently, one-third of the board of directors lives out of state. This group includes the director, vice chair, finance chair, governance chair, and the director for the independent retail electric provider market segment. All five of these members have announced their resignations. These are people not affected by the outages millions experienced, nor are they accountable to the stakeholders they ostensibly represent.
Texas’ On-and-Off Relationship With the Feds
Texas politicians, especially Republicans, have a long history of criticism of federal energy policy, but especially the energy policy of Democrats in other states. For example, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Houston), mockingly tweeted “Alexa, show me what happens when you let Democrats control energy policy” in the midst of California’s record breaking heatwave. Alongside Crenshaw, U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Panhandle), and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas criticized and mocked California’s rolling blackouts. It is worth noting that, unlike the current ERCOT fiasco, the California blackouts were caused by natural gas plants not ramping enough energy to supply the grid. They also occurred during peak summer months, not the middle of a winter storm.
Governor Greg Abbot has especially been opposed to federal intervention in various areas of state policy since his days as Attorney General — including energy policy, the environment, education, and voting rights to name a few. For practically any issue, Republicans in Texas will have a plethora of arguments as to why the state is better equipped to handle and manage it. However, Republicans are more than willing to accept federal aid on a variety of other issues, such as COVID relief, natural disaster aid, and no-strings-attached funding for education, among other areas. Texas received almost $40 billion in federal grants in 2016 through congressional appropriations. For Hurricane Harvey, billions in federal disaster relief was appropriated to Texas, along with thousands of federal personnel and significant amounts of equipment. The recent winter crisis saw the Governor requesting, and receiving, federal disaster aid in the form of generators and personnel to shore up the grid. Texas lawmakers are happy to accept federal funding until that money comes with strings attached.
Texas Secessionists in the Modern Era
Continued resistance to federal regulation comes hand in hand with a strangely prominent secession movement in Texas politics. Just last month, Rep. Kyle Biedermann (R-Fredericksburg) filed HB 1359, a bill to create a referendum on secession. Several key Texas Republicans, including Chair of the Texas GOP Allen West, came out in support of the legislation. This came after West endorsed secession in December, following the failure of Texas’ election fraud lawsuit at the Supreme Court.
This is nothing new for Texas politics. The Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM) has been a visible force in Texas politics for some years now, boasting a supportive base of around 400,000 Texans (approximately 1.4% of the Texas population). Since 2011, TNM has been actively pursuing legislation in the Texas legislature to allow a secession referendum. In 2013, according to TNM, 11 members of the Texas House and then Lt. Governor David Dewhurst supported or aided in pursuing a vote on a bill.
Texans’ emphasis on independence and freedom from federal regulation and control can likely be traced back to past debates on slavery and states rights, which lead to Texas’ secession during the Civil War. One reason many historians believe secession remains such a popular ideal today is a form of rose tinted historical nostalgia for the nine years Texas was its own nation. Secession is illegal, however, and it is unlikely that the movement will ever gain enough steam to pose a serious risk to the Union.
However, even if Texas were to secede, it would likely end poorly for the state. A similar situation to Britain and the E.U.’s crisis over trade and travel arrangements would likely arise, with the U.S. probably pursuing a punitive set of terms to discourage other states from seceding. Not to mention the enormous immediate financial cost of secession from the payout of Texas’ contribution to the national debt, along with the already shaky infrastructure our state maintains. If ERCOT failed so miserably despite having limited connections to the East and West grids and needed help from the federal government to recover from that failure, how would it fare with no outside help whatsoever? Very, very poorly. The nightmare scenario that almost occurred this year, a total blackout and collapse of the grid for “months” and the deaths of thousands, seems to be the most likely outcome in a world where the Republic of Texas is responsible for its own affairs.
What It All Means
Will the current crisis lead to any fundamental change in the way things are done in the Great State of Texas? Probably not. ERCOT, as a private corporation, has significant financial interest in heading off reforms before they begin. We might see some token changes, like an in-state residency requirement for ERCOT’s board. But until the leadership of the state changes, we will likely see more of the same for years to come: arguments for the free market, freedom from intervention and interference, and freedom, freedom, freedom. But freedom for ERCOT and freedom from accountability do not equate to freedom from blackouts, or freedom from fear.
Categories: Domestic Affairs
Incredible article Chris. Really appalling to see how support for Texan secession proposals has surged recently, from both a legal and moral perspective.
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