from the whoops-you-froze-to-death-surcharge dept
Texas consumers recently learned the hard way that regulatory capture can prove to be fatal. Texas energy companies (and the regulators and lawmakers who love them) ignored a decade-plus of warnings that they needed to harden their utility infrastructure in the face of climate change. As a result, we’re still measuring the casualties. Not only did 700 Texans die after they lost power during a brutal cold snap last February, but a new report by ProPublica found that an additional 1,400 Texans were hospitalized, and at least 7 died.
A joint investigation by ProPublica, NBC, and The Texas Tribune found that lax regulatory oversight (aside from, yes, poor human decision making) was a primary reason people keep dying from something so avoidable as carbon monoxide poisoning:
“regulations that would force companies to reduce generatorsâ€™ carbon monoxide emissions and make the machines safer have been stymied under a statutory process that empowers manufacturers to regulate themselves.”
If you squint and tilt your head just right, you may be able to detect a common theme across countless U.S. business sectors (also see: telecom, banking, insurance, energy), where letting giant companies monitor themselves doesn’t always work out so great.
You would have thought Texas regulators and energy companies learned something from the experience of February, but you’d be wrong. Texas state lawmakers did pass a law urging Texas utilities to maybe someday think about hardening their infrastructure for increasing colder weather, but they included loopholes that excluded a systemic cornerstone: natural gas companies. Then mysteriously forgot they included those loopholes (which likely means gas industry lawyers wrote the law and the lawmakers they throw campaign contributions at failed to read it, which happens much more than you’d think).
Some companies have wisely updated their infrastructure and symptoms, but they have been warning local reporters they’re in the minority, and Texas regulators and lawmakers still aren’t taking the problem seriously. Especially when it comes to protecting the reliable flow of natural gas across the state, and tracking upgrades with any consistency:
“energy experts say Texasâ€™ 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 Februaryâ€™s storm â€” which could exceed Hurricane Harvey as the costliest natural disaster in state history â€” a lack of data from regulators and industry groups makes it impossible to know how many power and gas facilities are properly weatherized.”
The Texas natural gas industry did find the time to implement a new $3.4 billion surcharge (with the blessing of state regulators) on Texas consumers’ energy bills. So instead of forcing the Texas gas industry to update it’s systems to avoid more fatalities, they passed bills that intentionally exempted them from such requirements. Then greenlit steep new surcharges that made consumers pay for the sector’s incompetence. All while denying that the underlying reason (climate change caused by pollution) this is even happening in the first place. Great.