TX/AZ Thanksgiving Break Clips
The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures and more than 200 people died.
Insulated piping at Vistra Corp.’s natural gas power generation site in Midlothian on October 15, 2021. 12 miles of pipes of…
Vistra Corp. said it’s protecting 12 miles of pipes at its Midlothian plant with insulation that contains heating strips to prevent freezing during extreme weather conditions. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune
Since the storm, Texas lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”
But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.
No matter what Morgan does, though, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said.
That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said.
Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing the company in a matter of days more than twice the amount it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a fraction of their capacity; the Midlothian facility ran at 30% of full strength during the height of the storm.
“Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan said recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.”
If another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview. The predicament in Midlothian reflects a glaring shortcoming in Texas’ efforts to prevent a repeat of February, when a combination of freezing temperatures across the state and skyrocketing demand shut down natural gas facilities and power plants, which rely on each other to keep electricity flowing. The cycle of failures sent economic ripples across the country that cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
The power and gas industries say they are working to make their systems more reliable during winter storms, and the Public Utility Commission, the state agency that regulates the state’s power industry, finally acted on recommendations made by federal regulators a decade ago after another severe winter storm.
But energy experts say Texas’ grid remains vulnerable, largely because newly written regulations allowed too much wiggle room for companies to avoid weatherization improvements that can take months or years. More than nine months after February’s storm — which could exceed Hurricane Harvey as the costliest natural disaster in state history — a lack of data from regulators and industry groups makes it impossible to know how many power and gas facilities are properly weatherized.
For millions of Texans, that means there is no assurance that they will have electricity and heat if another major freeze strikes the state.
“If we see a recurrence of the storm we saw last year, people should probably be worried,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, a consumer-advocacy nonprofit group.
Under a little-noticed provision of the Texas law, the nation’s most stringent anti-abortion measure, lawyers who take on cases to block Texas abortion regulations are now on the hook to pay the state’s attorney fees if they lose. So are their firms.
The new financial risk, critics said, could scare off lawyers at a time when the future of abortion rights is uncertain.
“The provision is unprecedented and highly problematic,” said Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at The Lawyering Project, which has challenged Texas abortion laws. “It’s designed to discourage attorneys from representing clients who want to challenge unconstitutional abortion laws and basically to deny those clients their day in court.”
The change in attorney fee burdens hasn’t drawn much attention, but it could have far-reaching impacts, especially as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing cases that could roll back abortion rights established five decades ago in Roe v. Wade.
Heading into the 2022 governor’s race, the political fault lines surrounding education are moving quickly, with a new focus on parent influence in schools and curriculum items like “critical race theory.” Many Republican candidates are pushing their stances on curriculum ahead of traditional policy questions like school choice and funding for public education.
“I will stop the ‘woke’ curriculum overtaking our schools, and ensure our kids are given the tools they need to grow and be successful in every phase of life,” states the website for Kari Lake, the GOP primary frontrunner.
It all amounts to a “pretty large shift” in the conversation about education policy, said Matt Simon, vice president for advocacy and government affairs at Great Leaders, Strong Schools, a pro-school choice group.
And it has emboldened Republican candidates to emphasize their stances on education, an issue that’s historically been a bigger talking point for Democrats. Chuck Coughlin, a consultant with GOP firm HighGround, told Arizona Capitol Times earlier this month that education is the top issue for Democrats, with immigration the most important for Republicans.
The candidates might be taking cues from a gubernatorial race across the country. Many analysts think that an eleventh-hour comment by Democrat Terry McAuliffe – “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” – helped Republican Glenn Youngkin beat him in the Virginia governor’s race.
The conservative message on education ties together a mix of issues ranging from pandemic restrictions on learning to questions about curriculum content.