A Dangerous Narrative Emerges In The Wake Of Texas Power Blackouts
A dangerous narrative emerged in Texas late this week in the wake of severe arctic storms that led to rolling and long-term blackouts that at one point saw as many as 4 million Texans lacking power to their homes. That narrative holds that the severe weather event was somehow a once-in-a-lifetime freak event that does not merit being included in the normal course of planning by Texas regulators, legislators and power providers.
In an interview on local Dallas TV Thursday evening, a spokesman for the state’s Public Utilities Commission repeatedly referred to the weather event as a “meteor strike,” telling the interviewer that it would make no sense to plan for such a once-in-a-lifetime event. The next morning, in an interview on Fox Business, former Texas Governor Rick Perry basically spoke from the same set of talking points, referring to the storm as a “black swan event” that no one could have reasonably planned for.
This of course is the same narrative that emerged in the wake of a very similar arctic blast that led to the implementation of rolling blackouts by state grid managers in 2011, again impacting millions of Texans, when Mr. Perry was still the Govern0r of Texas. The prevalence of that narrative helped to form the excuse used by Texas legislative and regulatory officials, as well as business leaders, to make no real reforms to the system, and basically hope against hope that the state would simply get lucky and avoid a repeat of such an event in the future.
Snow covers the ground of a neighborhood school in Waco, Texas as severe winter weather conditions … [+] AFP via Getty Images
The emergence of this “black swan,” “meteor strike” narrative now sets up the rationale for doing little of real substance again, just a decade after the previous “once-in-a-lifetime” “meteor strike” event. The question now becomes whether Texans and current state officials and business leaders have such a case of bad short-term memories that they meekly accept that this was some sort of once-in-a-lifetime event.
Clearly, it wasn’t. The reality is that Texas is the recipient of this kind of severe, long-term freezing event on a regular basis, pretty much once every decade or so. You don’t have to have spent a lifetime living in Texas as I have to understand that. Anyone who has bothered to spend maybe 10 minutes Googling “Texas severe winter weather events history” immediately comes across an array of websites detailing similar events taking place throughout the state’s recorded weather history.
Here’s a funny thing about that: If you take the time to go through some of those websites, you won’t find any mention of the term “rolling blackouts,” “statewide power failures,” or “millions of Texans without power” associated with any of those events prior to the one in 2011.
KENS channel 5, the San Antonio CBS VIAC +0.9% affiliate, has a site dedicated to the memories of the great 1985 snowstorm that blanketed the city and most of South and Central Texas with a record 14 inches of snow. I lived in the city at that time and remember it quite well. Driving to work on Loop 410 that morning was like driving in a carnival bumper car rink.
In the video clips contained on that site, you will see and hear Mayor Henry Cisneros and other city officials talk about plowing roads, dozens of traffic pileups, iced-over bridges and all the other impacts you might expect from such a storm. But you will not see or hear them talk about millions of Texans going without electricity in any of those clips.
Four years later, in 1989, my family and I had moved to the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex when another major arctic storm held most of Texas in a deep freeze for several days. Again, there were no rolling blackouts during that event. Ironically, we had also just moved to Houston a few months before another freak winter weather event on Christmas eve 2004 blanketed much of the state with snow, even pouring a record four inches on the southernmost city of Brownsville.
This could go on and on, but suffice it to say that severe arctic weather like Texas saw this week is in no way unprecedented and in no way any sort of “meteor strike” or “black swan event.” Was it a rare thing? Sure, if you consider about once every 10 years to be rare.
But was it outside the realm of predictability? Obviously not, and had Texas public officials summoned the will to require the state’s power providers to winterize their facilities following that very similar 2011 event, an awful lot of human misery and damage would have been avoided this week. Perry is no longer governor, but his prominence as a former governor, presidential candidate and energy secretary lends impact to his words. Fortunately, current Governor Greg Abbott has thus far avoided falling into the “black swan” comfort zone.
The “meteor strike,” “black swan” narrative dominated the post-freeze debate in 2011, and little was done as a result. After this year’s event, all Texans should pressure their public officials to soundly reject that narrative and those who push it.