Just hours before a mass shooting in Bryan, Texas, left one dead and multiple people injured, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted out that President Joe Biden was “threatening our Second Amendment rights” and attempting to “take away our guns.”
The shooting occurred at Kent Moore Cabinets on Thursday afternoon; one person was killed, while four others were critically injured, and one victim suffered non-critical injuries. One victim is a state trooper who helped chase down the suspect. A suspect – believed to be an employee of Kent Moore Cabinets – is in custody but has not yet been named by authorities.
Around noon on Thursday, Gov. Abbott took to Twitter to defend gun rights.
“Biden is threatening our Second Amendment rights,” the tweet read. “He just announced a new liberal power grab to take away our guns. We will NOT allow this in TX. It’s time to get legislation making TX a Second Amendment Sanctuary State passed and to my desk for signing.”
The “Second Amendment Sanctuary State” legislation Abbott is referring to is HB 2622, introduced in March, which calls to establish Texas as a “sanctuary” state in which federal gun laws cannot be enforced. The legislation is modeled off the sanctuary cities framework, in which cities could declare themselves sanctuaries within which Immigration and Customs Enforcement practices could not be enforced.
Abbott has repeatedly touted the sanctuary state bill, though in the past he’s signaled support for limited gun control. Following the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart that left 23 people dead and scores of others injured, the governor said he would consider supporting more scrupulous background checks.
“Right now, there is nothing in the law that would prevent one stranger from selling a gun to a terrorist, and obviously that’s a danger that needs to be looked into,” Abbott said in 2019, the Texas Tribune reported.
Since then, however, Abbott has again picked up the mantle of gun rights.
“Last session, I signed 10 laws to protect gun rights in Texas,” he said in February. “This session we need to erect a complete barrier against any government office anywhere from treading on gun rights in Texas.”
Gun rights advocates like Abbott are bristling against a series of six executive orders Biden unveiled this week aimed at curbing gun violence, including actions to remove “ghost guns” from the streets and the regulation of gun accessories.
During a White House Rose Garden speech on the orders, Biden called the US epidemic of gun violence an “international embarrassment,” and said: “The idea that we have so many people dying every single day from gun violence in America is a blemish on our character.”
Following the shooting, Abbott tweeted that he was working with state law enforcement on a “swift response” and that he and his wife Cecilia “are praying for the victims & their families & for the injured officer.”
This is the 14th such mass shooting in the state since January 1. Thus far, there have been more than 100 mass shootings in the US since the beginning of the year.
A judge in Texas on Friday ruled that the city of Austin and the county that encompasses it could continue to enforce its mask mandate after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued to stop the order.
Travis County District Court Judge Lora Livingston on Friday denied the Texas attorney general’s request to issue a temporary injunction against the Travis County and city of Austin orders that require masks in public spaces, the Courthouse News Service first reported.
“For however long the City’s Mask Mandate is in effect, our community is more safe because the message is clear that masking works and is effective,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a statement following the ruling. “Just the court’s delayed ruling, being in force during this past spring break, has been a victory for doctors and data over politics.
“Abbott’s decision to remove the mask mandate puts politics over people, rhetoric over the effort to further open, and keep open, schools and businesses,” he continued.
Abbott on March 10 ended the state’s mask order, despite warnings from public health experts that such decisions were premature amid the rollout of vaccines and the spread of mutated variants of the disease. Abbott also this month relaxed capacity limits on businesses, allowing bars, restaurants, and other businesses to serve customers at 100% capacity.
Part of Abbott’s order stated “no jurisdiction” could impose its own mask mandate unless they met a threshold determined by hospitalizations related to COVID-19, according to a report from The Texas Tribune.
But Travis County and the city of Austin continued to place restrictions on businesses in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including a mask mandate that was extended until April 15. Paxton sued Travis County and the city of Austin, arguing they were unable to propose mandates of their own because they conflicted with his order that lifted the mandate and allowed businesses to operate at full capacity.
“It’s clear we haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet,” said Mark Escott, the acting health authority for Austin and Travis County,” noting the city was still seeing around 100 new cases of COVID-19 diagnosed each day. “And it’s clear that if we are able to maintain those protections it’s going to buy us time to get more people vaccinated. And ultimately it’s going to save lives.”
Lawyers for the state have argued that cities and counties were unable to impose their own restrictions because they conflicted with his statewide mandates issued under the Texas Disaster Act, though the judge has expressed doubts about the notion.
“He could…say because he’s declared a disaster you must not wear red on Tuesdays and you may not wear red on Thursday, that is an order the governor could put in place, and we couldn’t do anything about it because under the Texas Disaster Act he has unlimited power,” Livingston asked lawyers for the state, according to Courthouse News Service. “Is that the position your taking?”
Paxton is likely to appeal the decision, the Texas Tribune reported. Livingston has not made a final ruling in the case, meaning the mask orders by Austin and Travis County officials could eventually be blocked by the state.
According to data analyzed by Johns Hopkins University, Texas has reported more than 2.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, which has resulted in more than 47,000 deaths. At present, just 12% of the Texas population is fully vaccinated for COVID-19, according to the Hopkins data.
Paxton previously sued Austin and Travis County over a local ordinance that created a curfew during the New Year’s holiday weekend last year. While Paxton won that suit, the ruling came after the holiday, meaning it had been already been enforced.
A Texas judge on Friday ruled that the city of Austin is able to keep its mask mandate for at least two more weeks, running against Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to roll back a statewide mandate.
Abbott earlier this month issued an executive order that lifted the state’s mask mandate beginning March 10.
With this ruling from Judge Lora Livingston, Austin can keep its mandate in place until at least March 26, KXAN reported. When the two weeks are up, there will be a hearing to determine whether Austin’s mask mandate remains in place going forward.
In response to Abbott’s order, city officials announced that a local mask mandate would remain in place until April 15 to “avoid another surge of cases” of the coronavirus.
The announcement from Austin officials drew ire from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who threatened to sue for enforcing mask-wearing despite Abbott’s order.
After receiving a letter from Paxton indicating intent of legal action, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he and Abbott were “simply wrong” and said their decision is an “assault against doctors and data.”
Most Texans have not yet received a coronavirus vaccine. Just over 9% of the state’s population has been vaccinated, vaccine-tracker data from Johns Hopkins University showed. Meanwhile, Texas has been rebounding from a devastating winter storm that led to disruptions in vaccine operations in the state.
Health officials have been sounding the alarms against relaxing COVID-19 restrictions like mask-wearing.
Mask-wearing for months has been one of the guidelines that various health agencies have touted as most effective for preventing the spread of the coronavirus in public spaces. Texas, however, is not alone in the decision to roll back mask mandates. Other states such as Mississippi, Montana, Iowa, and North Dakota have either entirely rolled back or announced plans to end mask mandates.
An ABC News-IPSOS poll released last week said 56% of Americans surveyed believe that government officials are loosening mask mandates too quickly.
Abbott’s executive order contradicts the guidance from health officials like Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who cautioned that despite three FDA-approved vaccines on the market, “now is not the time to relax restrictions.”
Adler called the judge’s ruling “good news” in a tweet.
“No matter what happens then, we will continue to be guided by doctors and data. Masking works,” Adler tweeted.
On Monday morning, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia introduced a resolution at the Commissioner’s Court meeting – a meeting of all four of the Harris County’s commissioners, the officials responsible for the county’s roads, bridges, and policy budget decisions, moderated by County Judge Lina Hidalgo.
Harris County encompasses Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US, with over 4 million inhabitants. The Houston Chronicle reported that at least 1.4 million Houston-area households were impacted by Storm Uri and power grid failures, which lasted from February 10 to February 17.
In the aftermath of the deep freeze – which incapacitated much of Texas’ power grid, left millions powerless for a week, and killed at least 80 Texans – Garcia, the former Harris County Sheriff, called for the entire Public Utility of Commission of Texas to resign, and for Gov. Greg Abbott to “replace the members with dedicated and experienced individuals who can lead the agency out of its current state of failure.”
The Harris County Institute of Forensic Science said that at least 25 Harris County residents died during the deep freeze, with the toll expected to rise.
The PUCT regulates the Electric Reliability Council of Texas power grid. The PUCT failed to heed winterization warnings outlined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2011, according to local news station WFAA. Garcia also said that Abbott, then-Texas’s attorney general in 2011, should have acted sooner.
Garcia’s resolution, which passed and was followed by harrowing testimonies from Harris County residents who lost loved ones, homes, and businesses, opened the door for conversations about how Harris County could move away from ERCOT to a new power grid system.
Insider spoke to Garcia about how Harris County is dealing with the aftermath of the freeze, and who should be held accountable. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Currently, what are the biggest needs right now for residents in Harris County at this moment?
We’re working to provide a response to all of the challenges of the community. And although, we’re still recovering from a winter freeze, the reality of it is – is that this is much more compounded from the fact that we were dealing with a pandemic before the winter freeze came in. So just like it was during the pandemic, the economy has been disrupted. And so providing people food, nonperishable food items, and water has been a critical mission drain almost the entirety of the pandemic.
But when you throw a winter freeze, an unprecedented historical winter freeze into the equation, now it’s become more food, water, and other essentials. But a unique one is the fact that we also have to help people get their plumbing problems addressed because although the city water lines are functioning and other main utilities are functioning, the water is drinkable. It’s safe. The problem is people cannot turn on their water lines at their homes. Even though they can live in those homes, they can’t turn on those water lines and get drinking water to their faucets because there’s lines inside their homes that have disrupted. And as a result, their homes have, or will receive water damage.
Could you explain some of the maybe less directly visible, but still ongoing crises that are kind of coming out of this deep freeze and power grid failure?
Well, it is a lot of what we’ve already heard is that schools are disrupted. Some of the schools also received water damage. The vaccine process has become much more complicated because people are like, well, I had an appointment to go get my vaccine today, but I’m trying to fix my plumbing at home.
And then look, the state for some reason, has it in for struggling families, because now Sid Miller, the agricultural commissioner was cutting critical funding to food banks, like the Houston Food Bank is needed in order for us to provide fresh produce and non-perishable food items to the homes of families. And so there’s a lot of things that are moving that have made the overall process complicated. But these are the issues that are in the forefront of people’s minds. They’ve got to get their plumbing fixed. They want to get their vaccines, but they also get to feed their families.
On a state leadership level, where does the responsibility lie for how everything related to the state’s power grid was handled over the last few weeks, and in years prior?
Well, look. In 2011, the governor was then the attorney general, but he spoke up. He spoke up about the last winter freeze that we had in 2011. He inserted himself right in the middle of the conversation, although he was not the governor. And so the fact that he’s been in state government leadership for 18 years, it’s hard not to look at him and say that he doesn’t bear any part of the responsibility.
And then, as attorney general, he said, we’re going to look into this. We’re going to keep this from ever happening again. And then, we had some explosions in 2013, refineries. And now as the governor, he said, we’re going to look into this. It’s not going to happen again. And now more explosions in 2020. And I’m the commissioner now. And I know for a fact that he has not reached out to our office to say, what can we do to help? Here’s my plan. Here’s what I’m looking to do.
So consistently from 2011 as the attorney general, 2013 as the governor, 2020 as the governor, and then in 2021, with this freeze where his campaign donors are resigning from the Public Utility Commission, his former employee has resigned from the… or used to work in ERCOT and is part of the Public Utility Commission. The governor owns this debacle, from beginning to end with failed promises, failed leadership. And so look, with the time that we all had to prepare for this winter freeze, my precinct was able to acquire generators. We were able to make a plan to stand up warming centers. We were able to get employees to staff those warming centers to make difficult decisions with their families. We were able to get food and water.
The county had a broader warming center plan, but it didn’t work because those facilities did not have generators. So people who would have otherwise gone to libraries came to the precinct to warming centers because we were prepared. Imagine if I had the resources or repairs, the county had had the resources that the governor has at his disposal, what more we could have done to protect our residents? And so I’m sorry, I’m not trying to pick a fight, but the reality of it is he’s the governor. He’s appointed his donors. People he knows incredibly well, if not personally, to these critical areas of responsibility and leadership within the PUC. He has indicated as the attorney general that this freeze would never ever happen again. So I’m sorry, it’s happened again. He owned it in 2011. He owns it today.
And in the context of the warming centers, both in your precinct and the county broadly, are you seeing or anticipating any kind of COVID-19 surges in the aftermath of the freeze?
Yes. Look, why were we telling people to think about celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s differently? Because we didn’t want the co-mingling of families. And as a result, the potential for superspreaders to occur at the community level.
It’s the same thing now. Look, pipes have busted. And if that had happened to my sister who takes care of my 97-year-old mother, do think I would say, sorry, go get you a hotel room? No, I would say, come on over to our house and then risk the potential, the possibility of my mother being infected. So this is exactly what we are concerned is going to happen in Harris County as a result of this freeze. Families are taking care of families. People are coming together. People are calling for, for lack of better words, strangers who are plumbers to come fix their homes. And all of this is bad. It’s a bad mix for trying to control the pandemic.
I’ve been following your push for Harris County to leave ERCOT. So I wanted to ask you about what you think that should look like, and then what the processes in place are right now, like what’s possible right now and in the near future?
Well, what it should look like is what the state government should have been looking at since 2011. We should have been thinking about how to make all counties much more resilient. But Harris County, because of our size, our place in the state and national, if not global economy, should have received some degree of prioritization. And so, we should have had a more robust winterization program and strategy, but we should have been looking at what if another major freeze to that of 2011 could have happened again.
Because that one, although not as severe as this one could have caused near similar challenges for us, if it had happened under the same details that had happened in 2011. So what this simply looks like is a robust, candid, and thorough discussion about what should the strategy look like? I’m not about doing a knee-jerk reaction to say, we’re going to unplug from here. I want a strong, thoughtful, strategic conversation that provides for resiliency, that provides for our business community to have a grid that they can depend on, in particular our refineries. Many of our refineries had to undergo emergency shutdowns because it became too late for them to realize that it was not a one-day freeze, but rather nearly a week-long freeze. And this was something that they were not prepared for. So they had to undergo emergency shutdowns, which are dangerous for everyone involved. The refinery workers, the surrounding community, and our economy in particular.
I’m keeping an open mind, and I want to bring thoughtful people into the conversation to see what this ought to look like. But the fact remains at this, we have three different systems. We have the West Texas system, the East Texas system, and then we have our ERCOT. So the fact that Harris County can’t think about our self-interest or that of our immediate region would be a failure. We would be doing exactly what the state has done. We would have failed on behalf of our citizens, our business community.
And look, we have seen failed promises on behalf of Attorney General Abbott, now Gov. Abbott. I’m not going to sit around and stay quiet and assume the state is committed to fixing this. So I have decided to take action here locally, and we’ll see what the cost involved could be. But we got to have this conversation because we know the state’s not looking out for us.
Are you bringing in experts from other states or federal regulators that work on this into this conversation as well, or is this all happening within the state?
No. In fact, I’m looking to get the federal government to be a part of the thought process. And so, I’m going to be reaching out to the Department of Energy, but I want to make sure that we’re bringing the smartest academics, the smartest industry people, and bringing in some of our local leadership as well, from some of our industries to have that conversation of what this could look like.
And look, I’m not looking for a quick fix because for something of this magnitude, there is no quick fix. But imagine what we could have gotten if, for the last 10 years, the state had made a commitment to fix it. I don’t know whether it’s going to take us 10 more years to fix it, but we lost 10 years in net action on this issue. So I’m looking to bring those people together and see where that leads us.
And what is another crisis compounding in Harris County in the aftermath of the freeze that people should be aware of?
Well, the reason that this is critical, is because there’s no doubt that there were businesses around the state, around the country that were looking to come to Harris County, Texas. Today, they may not because they cannot count on the fact that we were prone to power outages. They can deal with predictable rolling blackouts, like the East grid had. They had outages, but there’s were planned in 45-minute increments. And so, they have some of the similar infrastructure that we have, but they didn’t have the full power outages that we had. So the fact that the business community has to count on the light being on, on the lights working and electricity and power to fund their operations tells me that they may be rethinking the possibility of relocating to Harris County, Texas.
Secondly, I think there may be some businesses here in town saying we have flooded enough and we have had outages enough. Maybe we need to look to somewhere else in Texas or across the country to take our businesses. So to me, these are the potential long-term impacts of what has been happening here in Harris County. And look, Harris County has been under Republican control for decades, and we’re now bringing action to the table because I feel very strongly that had there not been a change in county government, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation once again.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday that he would lift Texas’ mask mandate and reopen the state “100%” starting next Wednesday, but a Texas ER doctor says the state is “nowhere near” its goal of herd immunity in order to safely reopen.
Dr. Natasha Kathuria, an emergency medicine physician based in Austin told Insider that lifting health safety restrictions “is a very dangerous message that the governor is sending to Texans that may have dire consequences.”
In January, Texas became the first state to administer one million doses of the vaccine and had administered 5.7 million vaccines by the time of the Tuesday announcement. But as the second-largest state in the country, “only 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated as of today, with about 13% receiving one dose,” Kathuria, who has expertise in public health and epidemiology, said.
“That’s nowhere near the goal of 75%, which would achieve herd immunity,” she added.
Kathuria told Insider that lifting the state’s health safety guidelines was a “devastating” blow to the state’s medical community – one that comes just after the devastating winter storms that slammed Texas last month.
As hospitalizations and cases improved with the vaccine rollout, the ER doctor said there was a “new sense of hope as a very palpable weight of fear was lifted off our shoulders.”
“But before we knew it, we were blindsided by a new tragedy – the Texas freeze of the century,” she told Insider. “This hurt us in a way that COVID-19 never did, paralyzing many of our hospitals, shutting down labs, halting water and power to some of our hospitals, and preventing ambulance transfers, while leaving millions upon millions without heat, water, or power.”
“We’re still seeing the fallout of that storm. Patients who couldn’t get medical care during the storm are now presenting with debilitating conditions over a week later,” Kathuria continued. “And COVID-19 is still here, still circulating, and still causing suffering.”
Experts told The New York Times that conditions caused by the winter storm could have contributed to the doubling of infections in the state, which grew from a seven-day average of 4,412 cases on February 20 to 7,693 by Monday.
“While our daily vaccination rates are higher than ever and our medical community has been giving our all to fight this infection, we are not ready to roll back our mask mandates or open up to 100%,” Kathuria told Insider. “We have come so close to the finish line in America and we have the end in sight with vaccines rolling out faster than ever, but we can’t let our guards down this soon.”
Abbott’s announcement to reopen the state comes a day after Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned states not to reopen too soon as coronavirus variants continue to spread.
Kathuria said she urges her fellow Texans to heed the advice of scientists, saying she is seeing the suffering caused by COVID-19 “first-hand in every shape and form in my ERs.”
“We must come together as a community to ease that suffering on humanity,” she said. “I urge our citizens to please heed the scientists during these times and during these matters of science. We must heed to the experts: the epidemiologists, physicians, virologists, researchers, and the CDC.”
Last year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he regretted reopening bars too soon in the early months of the pandemic, which led to spikes of COVID-19 infections in the state.
“If I could’ve done anything differently it would’ve been to delay the opening of bars,” Abbott told local news outlet WFAA last June. “The opening of bars, if I recall correctly, was around the Memorial Day time period.”
“And in hindsight, that should’ve been delayed,” Abbott said, “especially now knowing how rapidly coronavirus could spread in the bar setting.”
The reopening takes effect next Wednesday. It includes restaurants and bars.
“With the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus,” Abbott said in a statement. “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100 percent.”
“Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations, and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed,” he continued.
However, being the second largest state in the US, Texas is far from enough vaccinations to allow a safe and full reopening, according to Dr. Natasha Kathuria, an emergency medicine physician based in Texas who has expertise in public health and epidemiology.
“This is a very dangerous message that the governor is sending to Texans, that may have dire consequences,” Kathuria told Insider. “Only 7% of Texans have been fully vaccinated as of today, with about 13% receiving one dose.”
“That’s nowhere near the goal of 75%, which would achieve herd immunity.”
Abbott’s announcement comes a day after Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned states not to reopen prematurely as coronavirus variants continue to spread in communities.
“Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” Walensky said during a press briefing at the White House on Monday. “These variants are a very real threat to our people and our progress.”
“Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities, not when we are so close.”
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued an executive order on Tuesday to allow the state’s businesses to open “100%” and to lift the state’s mask mandate effective March 10 as federal health officials warn states against relaxing restrictions too soon.
So far, according to The Times, just over 12% of Texans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, and about 6% have been fully vaccinated, putting Texas toward the bottom of the pack of US states. The winter storms in February disrupted vaccine operations in Texas and nearby states.
Abbott’s executive order is precisely the type of action that Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned against on Monday.
“These data are evidence that our recent declines appear to be stalling – stalling at over 70,000 cases a day. With these new statistics, I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public-health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19,” Walensky said in a briefing of the White House’s COVID-19 task force.
“At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” she said, adding that “now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards that we know can stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, tweeted that reopening Texas was “not what I’d recommend.”
“Infections are still high. Variants of concern are spreading. And TX is 48th among states in vaccinations,” he said. “With more vaccines on the way, doing this in a couple of months would be far more reasonable. Doing it now? Big risk with people’s lives.”
Gov. Tate Reeves of Mississippi also announced on Tuesday that his state would fully reopen.
“Starting tomorrow, we are lifting all of our county mask mandates and businesses will be able to operate at full capacity without any state-imposed rules,” he tweeted. “Our hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed. It is time!”
Coronavirus restrictions – and by extension Abbott – have been at the center of a partisan tug-of-war in Texas. The conservative wing of Abbott’s party has hammered him over imposing any restrictions at all, while Democrats have criticized him as not going nearly far enough.
Problems with the power grid left millions of people without power or potable water as freezing temperatures and extreme weather descended on the state. Reporting later revealed that Texas’ power grid was minutes away from collapsing.
The Texas Democratic Party released a statement on Tuesday slamming the governor, who is up for reelection in 2022.
“What Abbott is doing is extraordinarily dangerous,” Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said. “He is the worst Governor in modern Texas history. This will kill Texans. Our country’s infectious disease specialists have warned that we should not put our guard down even as we make progress towards vaccinations. Abbott doesn’t care.”
Millions of Texans lost power last week and were stuck living in freezing conditions as their electrical bills skyrocketed. The crisis was totally preventable, according to a left-leaning economist who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin, and the reason why has to do with the state’s deregulated electricity system.
The Texas system had three vulnerabilities, according to his commentary:
Competition to provide power in the cheapest way possible meant that machinery was not well-enough insulated against extreme cold;
Wholesale prices could fluctuate while retail prices depended on consumer contracts;
And prices would rise when demand for power was the greatest.
Rather than working to overcome the vulnerabilities, Galbraith wrote, policymakers did nothing. And he has a unique perspective on the matter of government regulation. His father was famed 20th-century economist John Kenneth Galbraith, a former Harvard professor and advisor to several Democratic administrations, who long advocated thoughtful government intervention – and regulation.
John Galbraith’s views came back into vogue after the Great Recession of 2008, and James’ work in Texas has long swum against the state’s deregulatory tide, a fact brought into vivid relief by the current power crisis. In his own right, James has formerly served as executive director for the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress and directs the University of Texas Inequality Project.
James Galbraith took Insider inside how Texas fell apart and left its residents freezing amid a polar vortex amid a pandemic.
The problems with Texas’ deregulated system
Galbraith told Insider that while Texas created an incentive for energy producers to produce in the cheapest way possible, it didn’t provide another to build resilience into the system for extreme events. This caused demand to go up while supply for electrical sources went down, causing major losses of power.
“The facilities that are fed by natural gas ran into a freezing up of their meters, pumps and fuel lines. In some cases, the power plants went offline and they had to cut power to the wells,” Galbraith said. “So that was kind of a death spiral. At the same time, the consumer demand was going up very quickly, and in an electrical system, supply and demand have to be balanced at all times.”
When Texas moved to a deregulatory electrical system in 2002, it handed over the reigns to the nonprofit Electrical Reliability Council of Texas, which has around 70 providers. These companies competed with each other to keep prices low for consumers, but they also created a market where a surge in demand could overpower supply, as happened in early 2021.
Galbraith said the fossil fuel industry made “enormous contributions” to political leaders like Gov. Perry, who continued to support the fossil fuel industry as Sec. of Energy under former President Donald Trump.
Perry’s views seem unchanged: he wrote in a blog post on February 17 that Texans would rather continue dealing with blackouts than having a regulated electricity system.
How the crisis could have been prevented
When Texas previously experienced extreme cold weather in 2011, Galbraith said that should have made clear to policymakers that the state’s deregulated system was unstable, but they didn’t take action then.
“They should have kept the system under a full-fledged regulatory regime, which other states have,” Galbraith said. “And that meant that they should have been supervising the generating companies to ensure that they were doing a proper job of being prepared for worst-case scenarios. It’s not hard to work out what they should have done.”
If the state’s leaders took action in 2011, the 2021 freeze could have gone over much differently. But since it didn’t, Galbraith said he’s not sure if there’s a way forward that doesn’t involve taking over the whole system and making it a public utility that decides on distributions and investments.
“There’s so many weak links in the system right now that it’s hard to believe that there’s any fix available that’s short of a really comprehensive reformation of the system. I’m certainly prepared to advocate that.”
Lawmakers have responded to Texas’ crisis in varying ways. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz came under fire for going to Cancun during the power outage, and current Gov. Greg Abbott blamed solar and wind as causes for the blackouts and said on Fox News on February 16 that the outages show “how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”
Galbraith pointed to the electrical company Griddy, which supplied thousands of Texans with electricity at the wholesale price during a given time, and under a deregulated market, the prices spiked during the freeze, causing customers to face $5,000 electric bills for just five days, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Some Texans owed Griddy over $15,000, according to The New York Times, while the Wall Street Journal reported that Texas electric bills were $28 billion higher under the deregulated system.
However, Galbraith said that while the skyrocketing of electrical bills is a significant problem, the biggest issue is the failure of the system as a whole to provide power to millions of people.
“You have to ask: who’s liable? And I think the political leadership in the state of Texas is liable,” Galbraith said. “Because the people didn’t sign up to for the power system that was going to cause the pipes in their homes to break, and that is not the way a responsibly run system would work. They’re the ones who are stuck with those bills. That’s the scandal.”