Editorial Roundup: Texas

Austin American-Statesman. May 22, 2022.

Editorial: Abbott and ERCOT should face facts: The grid isn’t fixed

It’s been almost a year since Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed that he and state lawmakers did “everything that needed to be done” to prevent electricity blackouts like the one that left hundreds of Texans dead and millions more shivering in the dark for days during a brutal freeze in 2021.

But as temperatures soared toward triple digits this month and the Texas grid manager twice resorted to urging conservation measures normally reserved for summer, Abbott’s boast appeared to be little more than hot air. The conservation warnings had some Texans bracing for the worst, and it’s easy to understand why. The grid reform bill Abbott signed last year fell short of the structural overhaul many experts believe is needed to protect us.

Yes, Abbott and the legislature made modest improvements to the supply side of the grid -- mandating new rules to safeguard gas transmission in freezing weather, for example. But they failed to address the demand side by helping to make homes and businesses more energy efficient. Lawmakers also should have encouraged more use of distributed energy, such as generators and solar panels, that could help alleviate strain on our overburdened grid during times of peak demand.

Even as it issues conservation notices, the Electricity Reliability Council of Texas – or ERCOT – continues to assert that the grid is stable. Naturally, some Texans fear another catastrophe on the scale of the 2021 freeze, when we briefly risked losing electricity for months. They wonder if this problem will ever get fixed. Sadly, experts predict more pain unless politicians confront reality and tackle structural grid problems in earnest.

We hope ERCOT’s predictions of stability this summer are accurate, but recent events don’t inspire confidence. The Texas Tribune reported last week that ERCOT, which manages the grid, canceled crucial spring repairs at at least one power plant on May 12 and required it keep producing electricity through the unseasonably hot weather. The plant broke down under the strain, as did five others that were asked to postpone maintenance. An ERCOT spokesperson denied that maintenance delays caused the failures, but power plant officials said they know better.

Record heat in early and mid-May triggered those two ERCOT notices urging Texans to raise their thermostats and turn off major appliances. Brad Jones, ERCOT’s interim CEO, insisted last week that the May 13 conservation notice was just an informal “request to help us out.”

Are any Texans actually buying this? It’s past time that Abbott, ERCOT and the Texas Public Utility Commission come clean about the severity of our grid problems and what it will cost to fix them. Texas energy capacity is strained. Climate change is driving longer, hotter Texas summers. Our population is soaring as new companies, including energy-devouring tech firms, arrive. Abbott, who is seeking reelection, refused to call lawmakers back to Austin for a special session to fix the grid last year. Texans are still waiting for him to confront this looming crisis with the urgency it requires.

Texas is not plugged into the national energy grid, making us an outlier that can draw only very limited amounts of electricity from other states during extreme hot and cold weather, when energy demand is high and reserves are low. That’s something Beto O’Rourke, Abbott’s Democratic challenger in the November election, vows to change if elected. But Ed Hirs, a University of Houston energy economics professor who predicted our current grid travails a decade ago, said it would take five years, at minimum, to make that complex shift. That’s assuming Texas lawmakers, who are notoriously averse to federal oversight, would agree to do it.

“It’s going to take probably a series of catastrophes and tragedies before we have any political integrity,” Hirs ominously told our board last week.

In the near-term, the PUC should work with utilities to quickly develop incentives for conserving energy at critical times. Prodding residents to program their internet-wired thermostats in a way that reduces energy use during peak demand would help. So would urging HVAC companies to step up production of efficient and cost-saving heating and cooling systems that use less energy.

These initiatives could help relieve some strain on the grid, but more comprehensive solutions are needed. Abbott, ERCOT, and the Public Utility Commission should level with Texans and admit the grid is broken, then set about fixing it with the urgency it demands. Hundreds of people died the last time the grid failed. Texas can’t allow that to happen again.

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Dallas Morning News. May 17, 2022.

Editorial: Texas’ energy pipelines are creating an unfair market

Wild West of pipelines increases costs at every level of powering Texas.

When the lights went out across Texas last year, a lot of people and businesses lost money. But one group of companies profited: pipelines.

All consumers are now responsible for the $3.6 billion cost of emergency power that we will pay on our electricity bills for years. Meanwhile, three major pipeline companies made $3.4 billion during the outages: Kinder Morgan, Enterprise Products Partners and, at $2.4 billion, Energy Transfer.

The deadly outages amounted to a wealth transfer.

The reasons are as mysterious to regular Texans as the network of pipelines buried underground. It has to do with an industry that provides a critical service to Texans but is not properly regulated and enjoys outsize market power.

The Texas Legislature must shine a light on this corner of the energy industry and impose law and order on the Wild West of pipelines.

The outages in 2021 revealed a problem that, in all of the hype about fixing the grid, hasn’t been addressed. Freezing weather across the state caused energy equipment to break down. Some power plants froze, and others lacked fuel because natural gas equipment also froze up. In many cases, power generators had to buy emergency fuel at a high cost. So, as natural gas market rates shot up, so, too, did electricity prices.

We might say: tough luck, that’s how capitalism works. Except in Texas, oil and gas pipelines are not exactly a free market. As the Houston Chronicle explained in a recent article, the lack of regulation of intrastate pipelines results in some companies enjoying monopolies in certain regions.

Interstate pipelines regulated by the federal government must deliver oil and gas for any number of suppliers, renting out space on the pipeline for a fee. The pipeline cannot own the oil and gas, it can only deliver supply, and prices are transparent.

But Texas intrastate pipelines have only safety regulations. Pipeline owners may buy and sell oil and gas, too, and there’s no requirement for transparent pricing. So if, for example, a natural gas-fired power plant gets its fuel from a single pipeline, the plant has little ability to negotiate prices.

A free market is the right approach; we are not calling for an old-fashioned regulated utility. But a free market requires guardrails to ensure fair competition.

This is a job for the Texas Legislature. We doubt that the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, will initiate and enforce pipeline regulations.

The Legislature would be wise to conduct a serious review and pass a new regulatory approach to intrastate pipelines.

As Texas becomes the energy producer for the world, we must get the basics right.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. May 17, 2022.

Editorial: Texas is the king of energy states. Why the hell can’t we be sure the power will stay on?

Ah, the rituals of a Texas summer: A run through the sprinklers. A hot grill and a cold beer. A trip to Dairy Queen.

Add to that cranking up the thermostat, frantically shutting off electronics and staying up until midnight to get laundry and dishes done, thanks to our increasingly questionable power supply. Not just in this unseasonably hot week, but for the foreseeable future.

Late Friday, the overseers of Texas’ power grid urged residents to curtail their power use because of high demand as temperatures climbed and a handful of power plants unexpectedly went offline. It’s become a frequent, if irregular, irritant any time there’s unusual weather, thanks to the epic fail of February 2021.

The warnings continue this week, with temperature records in danger across North Texas and elsewhere.

The notification Friday came as most Texans were in their cars on the way home or cranking up to cook dinner and slide into the weekend. Call that a new Texas tradition, too — poor communication, if not downright obfuscation, from the folks in charge.

The underlying problems are many, and the electricity market is complicated, in part by the task of balancing demand with a supply that has to be delivered in real time. There are issues of pricing, oversight and Texas’ continuing refusal to connect to the larger U.S. power supplies. But one thing is increasingly clear: Texas needs more power supply

After all, two factors will not change. The state’s robust population growth shows no signs of abating, and extreme weather, often at times we don’t traditionally expect, will be more frequent as climate change settles in.

And while we continue to make our homes and machines more efficient, we also gradually demand more power for things like electric cars and crypto mining.

Power plants can’t be thrown up in a few weeks like a new corner Starbucks. But Texas leaders need to do all they can to expedite the process. State incentives for additional power capacity are a starting point; our deregulated market doesn’t reward companies for having backup generation they don’t often use. Our congressional delegation can help by leaning on federal regulators to smooth the way for new plants as much as is reasonable.

There’s little left to debate about connecting to our neighbors in case we need help. Texas is surrounded by two giant grids serving the rest of the country. At this point, any argument against joining the union is outweighed by the possibility of the lights going off.

An uncertain power grid requires better communication from leaders. A late Friday news dump is a classic technique to bury bad news, not rouse the public to action.

And some offered a weak explanation amounting to, ”Hey, we’ve always had these problems, but now we’re telling you about them.” That doesn’t inspire confidence.

Gov. Greg Abbott has sought primarily to reassure Texas that reforms enacted in 2021 fixed the problem. Governance and oversight have improved, but he should be straightforward that work remains to be done. He should appeal to Texans’ practicality in the face of challenges and explain clearly the need to expand the power supply.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a populist at heart, gets it. Friday night, he issued a strong statement about the need for greater reliability, specifically through more electric capacity.

The notion of blackouts when we need power the most — again — is maddening for Texans. It adds to the overall sense that our institutions and politics aren’t up to the challenges of the day.

Better communication, and in particular honesty about the needs going forward and the trade offs necessary to fulfill them, are the only way to ease the public’s mind.

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Houston Chronicle. May 20, 2022.

Editorial: Finally, highest-ranking Texas Republican calls out Paxton as “embarrassment’

John Cornyn couldn’t ignore Ken Paxton anymore.

We’ve waited seven long years for somebody at the top of the Texas GOP to tell us how they really feel about Paxton’s shameful tenure as attorney general and his uncanny ability to avoid trial on a federal securities fraud indictment handed down way back in 2015.

In a phone call with reporters Thursday, Cornyn, Texas’ senior U.S. senator and a former Texas attorney general himself, decided to finally say the quiet part out loud.

“This is the chief law enforcement officer of the state of Texas, and it’s a source of embarrassment to me that that has been unresolved,” Cornyn said..

Most officeholders refrain from taking sides in party primaries, and Cornyn isn’t going so far as to endorse Paxton’s GOP opponent, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, but we’re glad to see the senator weigh in nonetheless. He saying what many frustrated Texans — those who still respect law and order — have been saying for a long time. We just wish he’d spoken up sooner, perhaps before the March 1 primary that ended in a two-way runoff between Paxton and Bush. We still believe former Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman was the best candidate of the bunch.

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San Antonio Express-News. May 20, 2022.

Editorial: True reform, not Title 42, the solution

Those who support maintaining Title 42 point to an overtaxed immigration system on the brink, one that would have been pushed beyond its limits with the repeal of this Trump-era policy.

The Biden administration had sought to end Title 42 on Monday, but the repeal, as expected, was blocked late Friday by District Judge Robert R. Summerhays.

Like many, we had concerns about the Biden administration’s preparedness to handle any influx of migrants, estimated to grow to as many as 18,000 a day, had Title 42 been repealed.

But we don’t support Title 42, which is neither a policy solution nor an effective deterrent. It is a public health law, not an immigration law, that has been used to deny people their legal right to claim asylum, spurred dangerous and deadly crossings, and also prompted repeat crossings.

The very existence of Title 42 — which we view as a legal shortcut — shows the dire need for comprehensive immigration reform. This lack of reform, coupled with a bitter political environment, is why our Editorial Board will be further exploring border and immigration issues throughout the summer and fall, seeking to cut through the political rhetoric to advance meaningful policy solutions.

We, too, want a safe, secure southern border. We want an immigration system that has penalties for illegal entry, supports border communities, honors asylum claims and efficiently processes people.

As for Title 42, we see a misapplied public health law that has become a political lightning rod.

Title 42 dates back to 1944 with the aim of preventing the spread of communicable diseases. Its antecedent is an 1893 law designed to prevent the spread of cholera.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invoked Title 42 on March 20, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the United States.

“But, really, I think the Trump administration saw it as far less of a public health measure and far more of a way to block unwanted migration,” Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University and the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, told us.

Title 42 has resulted in nearly 2 million expulsions. But as Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, senior policy counsel with the American Immigration Council, testified to Congress on April 6, “Title 42 itself has been a major contributor to increased border crossings because it caused a significant increase in repeat border crossings.”

In a subsequent interview, Reichlin-Melnick told us, “Because it’s not an immigration law, a Title 42 expulsion carries no immigration consequences.”

He continued: “The most likely outcome of an expulsion under Title 42 is simply going to be a bus ride back to Mexico, if you are caught. And that incentivized a lot of people to start crossing the border repeatedly, rolling the die every time.”

To repeal Title 42, he said, would have spurred an initial influx of migrants. But in the longer term, he said, numbers would likely stabilize and decrease with a return to traditional immigration law.

And here is another point to consider: Title 42 has created much of this pressure.

“Certainly, there would be a lot of people, but that situation is the result of more than two years of violating international law by not processing asylum-seekers,” said Erica B. Schommer, a clinical professor at St. Mary’s School of Law.

Initially, a repeal would be messy, she said, “but it is a mess that we made.”

To solely focus on numbers ignores humanitarian concerns. Title 42, coupled with Remain in Mexico, has forced asylum-seekers to either wait in Mexico, at great risk, or attempt potentially deadly crossings.

“Title 42 has actually pushed people into making that perilous journey through either the desert or across the Rio Grande,” Maurice Goldman, an Arizona-based immigration attorney and past president of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told us.

Yes, federal officials and border communities are stressed to the max. There were more than 177,000 U.S. Customs and Border Protection “encounters” in the Yuma, Ariz., sector through April of this fiscal year, a 401% increase over the prior year, and there were more than 236,000 encounters in the Del Rio sector through April of this fiscal year, an increase of 161 percent.

But Title 42 has so many exceptions, it is “more of a symbolic provision at this point,” Goldman said. “It’s giving people this sense of security that probably isn’t even there.”

As Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told us during a visit to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen on Monday: “I think that the United States, it needs to have control of who enters the country but, at the same time, must have a pathway to enter the country legally, safely, orderly, and that is through the ports of entry, through the bridge. And right now, that is happening through exceptions to Title 42.”

Title 42 is neither grounded in immigration law nor is it mitigating COVID or alleviating illegal immigration. It reflects our failure to address root causes of immigration, bolster border communities and prioritize modern-day security. It is the product of a broken system, not a solution.

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