Texas governor faces criticism over handling of winter storm fallout
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) is coming under intense scrutiny over his handling of mass power outages in the state caused by harsh winter weather conditions, as he prepares to run for reelection next year on the heels of two major disasters.
The state’s Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa accused Abbott of “playing politics with alternative sources of energy” in a statement on Monday, saying that as Lone Star State residents struggle, the governor “continues to relax and wait.”
Julián Castro, the former Democratic mayor of San Antonio and secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Obama, tweeted that Abbott “failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess.”
Millions of Texas residents were left without power as the state experienced unusually cold weather, with a number of areas recording temperatures in the single digits. And forecasts show more cold weather on the way.
Virtually the entire city of Galveston has been cut off from power since early Monday morning, and nearby Houston is also being hit hard by outages. Social media has been filled with Texans describing struggles to keep medical equipment working, unsuccessful attempts to find available hotel rooms and frustration with not knowing when the lights — and heat — will come back on. Some areas have also had limited water supply or spotty cellphone coverage due to the power outages.
The emergency comes as Abbott prepares to run for his third term as governor. A University of Houston poll released earlier this month showed him with a 39 percent approval rating. President Biden, who lost Texas in the 2020 election, had a higher approval rating at 41 percent.
Democrats have long worked to create a “blue wave” in Texas in hopes of flipping the traditionally red state, but their efforts have fallen short. Still, Democrats in the state point to progress over the past several years. President Biden lost the state to former President Trump by 6 points, down from former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s 9 point loss to Trump in 2016. And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) came within points of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in 2018.
Hinojosa said Abbott’s handling of the winter weather power outages coupled with what critics say is Abbott’s botched coronavirus response could put Democrats over the edge in 2022.
“We’re going to hang all of these things around his neck because people need to be reminded about how horrible he’s been as a governor,” Hinojosa said.
The Hill has reached out to Abbott’s office for comment.
The governor is taking a series of steps to address the crisis, including deploying the state’s National Guard in an effort to help relocate vulnerable people, including elderly individuals, to warm shelters.
And he focused the blame on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) on Tuesday, calling for state lawmakers to launch an investigation into the council.
“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said. “This is unacceptable. Reviewing the preparations and decisions by ERCOT is an emergency item so we can get a full picture of what caused this problem and find long-term solutions.”
The outages this week can be tied to deregulation, as well as Texas being unique in having a power grid contained in the state, cutting it off from help from other parts of the country when there is a power shortage or outage. In addition, many power plants are not equipped to operate in temperatures this cold.
“Texas is pretty much an electric power island, you can’t go get more when you need it, and that’s on purpose, so Texas sets the rules for how Texas operates,” Robert Cullick, a former utility executive at Austin Energy, told The Hill Tuesday.
Cullick, speaking from his home in Central Texas that has been without power for the last two days, said that Abbott’s promise to take a look at the power system was overdue.
“Who is responsible for ensuring that there is enough capacity to serve enough customers in the state? In the way it’s ERCOT … but not in the same way it used to be before the 1990s, where utilities could be fined for not coming through with electric power they said they were going to come through with,” Cullick said.
“The state has had a couple of times to review this, and decided each time it didn’t want to pay for each utility to have the capacity to serve,” he noted.
Texas residents have received mixed messages from ERCOT and other private companies.
Margaret Bentley, a Texas native, told The Hill Tuesday that she had just regained power at her West Texas home in Alpine after being without it for two days, during which time her water heater burst and the temperature dropped to around 40 degrees inside.
“Customers were asked to cut back as much as possible on any unnecessary electric use,” Bentley said. “The outages were meant to be ‘rolling blackouts’ and I was prepared for an outage of perhaps five hours or so, but I never anticipated we’d be left out of power for more than 48 hours and the temperature remaining well below freezing for most of that time.”
“I have no idea how the elderly or people who were ill or on oxygen or struggling with COVID might have fared,” she added.
ERCOT’s senior director of system operations said the council was optimistic the number of outages would be reduced throughout the day, while Texas energy group Oncor tweeted that ERCOT was “unable to predict when grid conditions will stabilize,” and urged customers to prepare for extended outages.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) called for the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees to come together for a joint hearing next week to look into the factors that led to the widespread power outages.
Other politicians in the state have also called for an investigation into ERCOT, including San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose own home was without power on Tuesday.
As a result of state leadership on the issue, local leaders often have their hands tied on power-related issues, such as “rolling outages” that often impact the state during the sweltering summer months.
A spokesperson for Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson (D) told The Hill that ERCOT has not provided the office with updates on the situation, and while Johnson was working to open neighborhood warming centers, there was little he could do to restore power.
“We don’t have a municipal utility. … All of that stuff is out of our hands. Some people have been calling on the mayor to turn the power back on; we don’t have that ability,” the spokesperson said.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D) called for “systemic changes” as a result of the crisis.
“So many cold and without power, people in danger and everybody frustrated including me,” Adler said in a statement provided to The Hill. “ERCOT has to explain how millions of Texans are without power. ‘Rolling’ outages are not that. There have to be systemic changes. This is happening every ten years and there’s got to be a better plan.”
Despite the backlash against ERCOT, Democrats say that Abbott ultimately holds responsibility for not acting earlier to prepare the state for a major weather emergency.
“We’ve got a state grid that collapsed as a result of the fact that the energy system in the state, the power system has been deregulated over the years, and there has not been enough money invested into the system to maintain and to improve the power plants,” Hinojosa said.
And Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) tweeted that Abbott “is the person who let it get this bad.”