2 Post-blizzard Texas Exposés from WSWS

‘Half of Texas without clean water as state and federal governments look the other way’, Chase Lawrence, Feb. 19, 2021  (w/permission, large excerpts)

waiting in line for propane in houston

“More than 14.6 million Texans, about half of the population of the state, remained under a boil-water advisory Friday, according to Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Young. This encompasses more than 1,225 water supply systems and 63 percent of Texas counties following the record winter storm which hit the state last weekend.

In a press conference Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros stated that “we know that there are tens of thousands of leaks,” and that the Austin Fire Department responded to “thousands upon thousands of burst pipes.” In Houston, the fire department received almost 5,000 reports of burst pipes.

Texas Republican officials are currently in the process of trying to pin the blame on each other for the disaster. Governor Greg Abbott blamed the state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), claiming that it told state officials five days before the blackouts that everything would be under control.

The “rolling blackouts,” which ERCOT claimed would be temporary, turned into multiple-day blackouts during freezing temperatures. The state government has done basically nothing to remedy the problem, with no systematic mobilization to bring utilities back and distribute food and water to millions of desperate Texans.

While people were left in the dark with many lacking water and heat, images of empty downtown office buildings with their lights on could be seen on social media in Austin, Houston, Dallas and other cities throughout the state. These are not areas that are largely populated or occupied for business, as most of the upper-middle class jobs that are in the city centers have gone remote as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Austin Energy officials have claimed that shutting down the vacant office buildings would cut off electricity to critical infrastructure and government buildings. Democratic Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner washed his hands of any blame Monday, tweeting, “ERCOT is the traffic manager of the electric grid which reports to the State. Neither the City nor the County controls or regulates ERCOT or the power generators. That is solely the responsibility of the State.

With empty office buildings remaining well-lit and heated, thousands of homeless people have been left in the bone-chilling cold. Some churches have allowed people to shelter inside, and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas saw 800 people sheltered, according to Wayne Walker, a pastor and CEO of OurCalling. In Austin, officials said that 1,000 people are at shelters across the city, including the Palmer Event Center. Many more homeless are not in shelters and forced to suffer the cold, with those seeking shelter in non-profit and city-provided homeless shelters, which were already overcrowded, facing the deadly coronavirus.

One of the few measures taken by the Texas government, which has made a point of doing the least amount possible to help residents, was to open “warming” centers, many of which close at 9:00 p.m., forcing residents to return to freezing homes and apartments. On top of this, the warming centers themselves will likely serve as superspreader events for COVID-19 as social distancing and masking measures are extremely difficult to enforce.”  [longish snip]

“Illustrating the absolute contempt for the population held by both parties, the Biden administration sent an insulting 60 generators, 10,000 wool and 50,000 cotton blankets, 729,000 liters of water and 225,000 meals as of Thursday. This to a state where 14.6 million people are without water, 170,000 customers are still without power, and grocery stores across the state have empty shelves. The amount of water delivered would only satisfy around 200,000 people for one day.

The phrase “too little, too late” does not even begin to scratch the surface of the essentially non-existent and frankly ridiculous response by the administration hailed as “progressive” by the corporate media and pseudo-left.

Biden’s response is similar to the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc in New Orleans and surrounding areas in 2005, during which the Republican administration ignored the suffering of hundreds of thousands of residents of Louisiana.

Biden has barely said anything, only stating on Friday that he will sign a “major” disaster declaration sometime soon and would perhaps visit the state in the middle of next week. As with the initial efforts, his disaster declaration likely entails little of significance to Texans.

In continuing the Trump administration’s herd immunity policy, which sacrificed thousands of lives per day in order to keep the stock market afloat and continue the production of profits for the financial oligarchy, the Biden administration, while posing as a friend to workers, will do as little as possible to respond to the catastrophe in Texas. This would be seen as siphoning billions of dollars away from Wall Street and the Pentagon.

Amid the unfolding disaster, Comstock Resources Inc., a shale driller in Texas and Louisiana whose majority shareholder is Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is profiteering off of the crisis, increasing its prices upwards of 33,000 percent for each mBtu of natural gas.

While some natural gas producers have had a freeze because wells stopped working, Comstock is already ramping up production and charging $15 to as much as $179 per thousand cubic feet, as opposed to a last quarter average of $2.40 per thousand cubic feet. President and Chief Financial Officer Roland Burns stated Wednesday that “obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot.”

Amazon has started price gouging as well, with bottles of water being sold online for as much as $25, or more than five times the normal price.”

Next: ‘Corporate profit, electricity deregulation and the disaster in Texas’, Patrick Martin, 17 February 2021  (w/permission, large excerpts)

“In a social disaster now entering its fourth day, as many as 4.5 million people have been hit by rolling blackouts or the complete shutoff of electricity in Texas. Millions have lost heat amidst winter storms that have sent temperatures plunging into single-digit Fahrenheit numbers (-13 C) as far south as Austin, the state capital. The blackout is the largest in US history caused by deliberate action of the power utilities.

As of Wednesday, according to the misnamed Electricity Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the industry-dominated electricity distribution coordinator, 1.4 million people were without power in Houston, the state’s largest city, while one-fourth of residents in Dallas, the second-largest city, were similarly cut off. At least 21 deaths have been attributed to the combination of winter storms and power outages, with causes ranging from road accidents to house fires to people overcome by carbon monoxide.

The cause of the disaster is not any actual shortage in the production of electricity in the United States. On the contrary, the power supply is adequate and prices are comparatively stable. This social tragedy is the product of a series of decisions made by private corporations and public officials, all driven by a common concern: the maximization of capitalist profit.

Ten years ago, a mid-February deep freeze caused a power crisis in Texas. This prompted studies and multiple warnings of what might occur in the event of a similar or more far-reaching occurrence. The current crisis, occurring in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is not a “natural” disaster, but the result of the deliberate and criminal refusal to heed those warnings.

A major factor is the decision of Texas state officials, adhering to Republican Party doctrine, to take no notice of climate change, despite a series of climate-induced disasters that have befallen the state—tornadoes, floods, droughts, wildfires. Above all, there was Hurricane Harvey, which spawned floods that devastated the Houston area in 2017, killing more than 100 people and causing damage estimated at $125 billion.” […]

“But there are other political and economic decisions that underlie the current crisis. Texas operates a state-wide power grid that is disconnected from the major national grids that cover the remaining 47 states of the contiguous US. The state government has chosen this policy in order to evade the authority of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which oversees power grids that cross state lines. The lack of a connection to neighboring states means that when the Texas system experiences a crisis, it cannot easily draw on external power supplies.

Such a crisis developed Sunday night as a savage midwinter cold front swept into the state. Sub-freezing temperatures knocked out nearly half of the state’s energy generating capacity.

While Texas politicians have focused on the fall in wind and solar generation, down about four gigawatts (million kilowatts), by far the biggest drop came in conventional gas-driven generation, which lost more than 30 gigawatts because the temperatures made it more difficult to pump natural gas out of underground storage tanks. Cooling water at some nuclear power plants froze. Even antiquated coal-fired plants were forced to close, as coal supplies froze to the ground.

The deep freeze drove up energy demand to nearly 70 gigawatts, as Texans sought to heat their homes. But the supply problems cut available electricity to less than 45 gigawatts. Prices on the spot market, the only means through which Texas utilities could draw additional power, rocketed from $22 a megawatt hour to $9,000 on Monday.

ERCOT instructed utilities not to pay the exorbitant short-term rate—which would drastically cut into their profits since many customers are paying longer-term fixed rates—and to impose rolling blackouts instead.

The shutdown of power plants that caused the power shortage was itself the result of the drive for profit. There is no technical obstacle to weatherizing power plants, whether gas-driven, nuclear or based on renewable resources like the sun, wind and water. Such plants operate even in Siberia, Canada and Alaska.

But the deregulation of Texas utilities meant that it was entirely up to corporate executives to decide whether to make the investments required to protect their operations from cold snaps that have become increasingly common in the last two decades. They declined to make such deductions from profit.

Moreover, Texas officials decided in the mid-1990s that they would no longer require utilities to set aside a certain proportion of capacity as a reserve against surges in demand. Elsewhere in North America, such supply buffers are maintained at 15 percent or more. But Texas had no backup plants to activate when the crisis hit.

Once the shutdowns began, all the inequities and injustices of American capitalism in 2021 were spotlighted. Working class and minority Texans live in substandard housing, without insulation against unexpected cold and without adequate heating capacity.” […]

“Few can match the Texas ruling elite and its political servants for blatant class prejudice. The mayor of Colorado City, a small town in west Texas, had to resign after a social media rant in which he denounced residents who expected local government do anything about the crisis. “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout,” he declared. “The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING!” He continued with a tirade against “socialist government,” adding that the “strong will survive and the weak will [perish].”

This is not just the opinion of a backwoods reactionary. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who just concluded a four-year term in Washington as Trump’s secretary of energy, declared Wednesday, “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” This millionaire ignoramus is more than willing to fight to the last freezing child to keep Texas utilities unregulated.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott found time amidst the crisis to appear on the Sean Hannity program on Fox News and blame the crisis on solar and wind energy, although he admitted that these account for only 10 percent of the state’s output.

The truth is that Texas is the number one producer of electrical power in the United States, with nearly twice as much as any other state. Any shortfall is entirely due to the criminal mismanagement by the corporate elite and its political front-men like Abbott and Perry.”

(cross-posted at caucus99percent.com)

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