Unless your stocking caps and heavy coats are stored somewhere you can see them regularly, you may find it hard to recall that less than six months ago, in the midst of a debilitating pandemic, many of us were contemplating the possibility of freezing to death. These days, with the summer sun withering grass and backyard gardens, with temperatures camped in the mid-90s, February’s winter storm seems like a bad dream, although continuing higher-than-usual utility bills for many Texans is a jolting monthly reminder that, yes, we lived through a two-week winter nightmare.
Winter Storm Uri cost us an estimated $293 billion in damages and some estimates put the actual death toll closer to 700.
One Texan who hasn’t forgotten is Dallas resident Kelcy Warren, although not because he worried that he and his family were in any danger. Warren, co-founder and now executive chairman of Energy Transfer Partners, lives in a 27,000-square-foot ivy-covered stone castle on nine acres in North Dallas. He bought his humble abode in 2009 for a reported $29 million.
What the pipeline tycoon remembers, we suspect, is not the nearly $300 billion that the storm cost Texas. It’s the figure $2.4 billion. As Justin Miller reports in the current issue of the Texas Observer, that’s the profit Warren’s company collected during the blackouts, a sizable portion of the $11 billion profit the natural gas industry as a whole collected by, in Miller’s words, “selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis.”
Warren, a hefty donor over the years to former Gov. Rick Perry, former President Donald Trump and other Republicans, made sure that Gov. Greg Abbott didn’t forget either.
On June 23, Warren wrote out a check to Abbott’s reelection campaign in the amount of $1 million. That’s the biggest check Warren has ever given a Texas politician, according to campaign finance reports.
It doubtless made an impression on Abbott, even though energy interests are his biggest political contributors, pouring more than $26 million into his political rise, the Associated Press has reported, citing an analysis by the National Institute on Money in Politics.
Following the regular session of the Legislature, Abbott signed into law a package of legislation that allegedly strengthened regulation of the state’s woefully compromised power grid. “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” the governor proclaimed at a bill-signing ceremony in early June.
It was hard not to laugh in the face of the governor’s faux-earnest remarks, particularly when the grid nearly collapsed again shortly afterward under the weight of early-summer heat. Everything was not done to fix the grid. Cosseting the utility industry, including oil and gas, was a higher priority.
Lawmakers approved more than $9 billion in bailouts for the electric utility industry, to be paid by ordinary utility users over the next two or three decades. By spreading the cost of the winter storm to all Texans over a long time, they’re betting the monthly add-on will be so small that folks won’t complain.
Elected officials not in thrall to money made off the misery of others would have addressed the energy needs of the people of Texas, not the millionaires and billionaires who help keep them in office. For example, they could have required generating reserves, so that sufficient power will be available, whatever the weather emergency. They could have ordered the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) to connect to the rest of the country, just in case. They could have restructured the market, so that both consumers and businesses have direct incentives to use energy more efficiently.
And they could have refused to make exceptions for natural gas companies on weatherization and set real deadlines. Instead, the Legislature required only gas facilities that are deemed “critical” to make changes, knowing that many gas companies failed to fill out simple paperwork in the past to be deemed “critical,” leading their own power to be cut during the winter storm just when they were needed most.
Given the looming danger of climate change, neither the governor nor the Legislature can assure us that we won’t have to cope with another Uri, or that we’ll be ready for it. They can’t assure businesses considering Texas as home base that we can keep the energy flowing. Why not build that billion-dollar factory or ultra-modern corporate campus in Oklahoma or some other Sun Belt state that can guarantee a reliable energy supply?
Granted, taking on a thorough reform of the state’s energy system requires hard work, attention to detail, refereeing among a variety of conflicting interests. It’s much easier to punish and scapegoat renewable energy sources, bloviate about a border wall and concoct schemes to keep the wrong people from voting. It’s also much easier for elected officials to keep their sugar daddies happy.
Mother Jones magazine reported some years back that one of Kelcy Warren’s songwriting endeavors included the following lyrics: “Do you ever talk with angels? Put in a good word for me.”
We can’t confirm that. We can confirm that a politically ambitious governor we know talks to angel donors frequently, putting in a good word and more. Those angels keep him happy. The rest of us, meanwhile, probably should keep those winter coats and stocking caps hanging on convenient hooks.