Senator Ted Cruz’s flight to Cancun was highly disrespectful to both residents of the state of Texas and Americans everywhere, who expect government officials to formulate some sort of coherent response in emergency situations. Senator Cruz should be ashamed of his actions. He does, however, appear to have reoriented himself following his vacation, telling reporters “I didn’t want all the screaming and yelling about this trip to distract even one moment from the real issues that I think Texans care about, which is keeping all of our families safe.” While it remains debatable to what degree Senator Cruz has served in the interest of Texans subsequent to this disaster, his thinking is on the right track. Partisan anger is misguided, because those at fault are not politicians, but career bureaucrats and wealthy executives. After neglecting to modernize power equipment and state infrastructure, operating as a localized monopoly, and failing to prepare a contingency plan in the event of a natural disaster, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) deserves to be held accountable. It is this agency that is fundamentally responsible for the crisis. State government priorities change, but ERCOT’s have always remained the same.
A myriad of issues with Texas’ power grid led the state into its present situation. Above all else, a sense of complacency contributed to the avalanche of crises that began last February—power outages, equipment failures, and food shortages abound. Texas energy officials should have acted on the advice of federal regulators and the outcomes of previous disasters, the 2011 blizzard in particular, which demonstrated that the state’s power equipment was in dire need of winterization. Unfortunately, blizzard preparation appears not to have been a priority for the Lone Star State. Those in charge of the grid should have incorporated the prospect of increased electricity demand due to inclement weather into their overall strategy, but chose not to.
Texas’ power grid is isolated and unattached to major national electric grids. As a result, the state cannot easily import electricity from elsewhere. By removing its power grid from the national apparatus, Texas sought to obtain energy independence. While a noble goal in of itself, grid isolation appears to have had a much different impact than was intended. The state’s quest for energy independence cannot be construed as beneficial to the public interest if the public is expected to sacrifice a reliable and stable power grid in times of crisis. Northern states, subject to frequent blizzards, import power from regional partners if their local grid is at its breaking point. Texas did not have this option precisely because of the course it had charted.
ERCOT, the operators of Texas’ grid, failed to adequately respond to the accelerating electricity demand that is a natural component of most large-scale crises scenarios. ERCOT instituted rolling blackouts across the state, a cruel remedy that resulted in intermittent periods of power loss for those who desperately needed it. Electric prices soared, as consumers paid the price for one corporation’s failure. Structured as a nonprofit under joint ownership by the state government and private sector, ERCOT acted in accordance with neither market forces nor state interests. Rather, its behavior was dictated by the whims of an insular group of agency executives.
There remains plenty of blame to go around for the winter storm debacle; the question is, who should take it? Senator Cruz, despite his high office, should be one of the first to be excused. As a member of the federal legislative branch, he possesses no power to compel the governor or state legislature to do anything. It’s true he could have been using the time he spent in Cancun to draft an aid bill with his fellow congressmen, but that would have meant traveling out-of-state anyway, which was the subject of the bulk of criticism he received. Should Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who lobbied the White House to issue a Federal Emergency Declaration for Texas, be called to account? I think not. Texas did not fail Texans; the same cannot be said of ERCOT. Out of all the actors in the recent crisis, ERCOT officials are the most to blame. They were unable to provide supply of energy to Texans, as is specifically their purpose.
Though a private entity, ERCOT should nevertheless be brought to account for a crisis that stemmed from its incompetence. Reform is needed to prevent a crisis of similar scale. Texas ought to strive for energy independence in the long-run even while allowing grid interconnectivity with other states. The state should work with regional partners to import electricity, granting Texans peace of mind in times of crisis. ERCOT’s monopolistic grasp on the state’s energy supply must be weakened; conservatives and liberals alike should work to make this happen. Partisan critiques, while gratifying to a small minority, are ultimately unhelpful and unproductive. There will always be time for infighting in the future, but the time for change is now.