If you read or watch the mainstream media, you’ll see a lot of talk about the winter storm catastrophe in Texas and about how the deregulation of the energy industry down there caused it.
If you need to be debriefed, here it is: about 20 years ago, Texas handed over control of the state’s entire electricity delivery system from federal authorities to a handful of private generators, transmission companies, and energy companies. This privatization was thought to benefit consumers by offering lower prices and giving them more choices about the energy they use. But the system also came with few safeguards or rules. Companies faced no penalty for failing to provide power during an emergency. There was little financial incentive, and no legal requirement, for these companies to invest in winterizing their infrastructure. Without incentives to protect people, companies chose short-term profit over putting in the investment for a winter storm. This left things vulnerable when this storm hit, causing sprawling outages with dozens dead and millions lacking drinkable water or heat.
What you won’t hear much about in the mainstream media are the political contributions that were behind that deregulation. The Texas politicians most responsible for not preparing the state for the winter storm have a thorny history of taking money from oil and gas companies, and then advocating for their deregulation.
There are examples of single industry executives forking over enormous sums of money to politicians. As TYT Investigates uncovered, Texas energy company Midland Energy’s founder Syed Javaid Anwar donated more than 1.7 million dollars to Texas Republicans as of 2018. Texas Governor Greg Abbott got over 1 million of that, in cash and in airplane rides. With that, Anwar was the single largest donor to Governor Abbott, and he was the single largest donor to former Governor Rick Perry too.
Then there’s the bigger picture. Overall, more than $26 million of Abbott’s political contributions are from fossil fuel companies: more than any other sector according the National Institute on Money in Politics and confirmed by followthemoney.org. Abbott appoints all three members of the Texas Public Utility Commission, which made key policy decisions that shaped the crisis.
Abbott had the nerve to blame solar and wind producers for the outages when he appeared on Fox News, when natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy systems caused nearly twice as many outages. Although he later walked his comments back, that tells you a lot about his frame of mind and where his loyalties lie. And with the sheer volume of donations he gets from oil and gas, it’s no wonder.
Significantly, Midland Energy founder Anwar has also given more than $400,000 in campaign contributions to Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick. The Texas Railroad Commission regulates the state’s oil and gas industry. He wasn’t the only energy exec that donated to them. Between 2010 and 2016, the Texas Railroad Commissioners received 6.6 million dollars, 60 percent of their campaign donations, from fossil fuel companies. The very companies they’re supposed to be regulating.
These politicians then went and advocated for a deregulated energy system in Texas. A bill passed in Texas state legislature in 2011 called SB 1133 did not require winterization, it only recommended it, leaving it up to companies to decide. The Texas Railroad Commission didn’t require proper winterizing. And bill HB 1986, which was up for debate at the same time as SB 1133 and would have required regulation of energy generating companies, was killed in committee. That bill would have prevented the winter storm from causing the damage that it has caused.
Now, Abbott is blaming the grid managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). But ERCOT is overseen by the Texas Public Utility Commission, whose members are, again, appointed by Abbott. “It’s almost like a murder suspect blaming their right hand for committing the crime,” Democratic state Rep. James Talarico told ABC News.
Because these are Republicans we’re talking about who tend to favor deregulating private industry, it’s hard to suss out where the ideology starts and the political contributions end. But we know that people like Anwar weren’t giving these politicians millions of dollars out of the goodness of his heart. He wanted to buy them, and he did. Moreover, we can expect that the amount Anwar spent on political bribes pales in comparison to what he would have had to spend to winterize his system in case of a winter storm. He was making an investment, really.
Christi Craddick, the chair of the Texas Railroad Commission that received $400,000 in campaign contributions from Anwar, has said before that “energy is non-partisan.”
I want to argue against that.
We’ll soon see the federal government come to the assistance of Texans in the form of FEMA relief aid and FEMA relief loans for small businesses. We’ll see some corporations attempt to get tax write-offs in the name of the winter storm’s destruction. So Texas Republicans want a deregulated energy system on the one hand, and then for the federal government has to swoop in and make up for it on the other. It’s not unlike how companies like Wal-Mart and McDonalds pay their workers poverty wages and then taxpayers make up the difference through Medicaid and food stamps. It’s political, and it’s partisan. Small government and corporate deregulation are simply failing us here.
In a way, though, Craddick is right about one aspect of this. Although it’s not at all what she intended when she said it, the issuing of political contributions from oil and gas companies to key decisionmakers is trans-partisan. Democrats get them and Republicans get them. These in turn alter what these representatives do and don’t do. In fact, just as I said it’s hard to know where these Republicans’ ideology starts and the contributions end, I would argue that it’s impossible for us as a country to understand how left or right we really are, or how we really feel about something like a Green New Deal, when our politicians are being given these very large payments that shape their decision-making.
My question is, why on God’s green earth doesn’t the mainstream media report on these contributions more, from oil and gas as well as elsewhere? They’re as clear as daylight. If you want to understand why a politician makes the decisions that they make, aka if you want to provide insight and analysis, which is your job, then maybe you should look at who’s paying these politicians and ask yourself why they would be paying them. The things they do and don’t do will become a lot clearer.
Republican Ryan Sitton, the former commissioner of the Texas Railroad Commission whose own political campaigns have been generously funded by the oil and gas industry, says that the industry doesn’t strong-arm politicians like people might think it would.
“They make donations, sure. But unless the entire energy industry is speaking with a unified voice, which almost never happens, there’s not that much influence,” Sitton said.
The influence can be soft, though. Industry executives need not be in constant communication with the politicians they fund. If you’re a politician and you get oil and gas money, you know what you’re supposed to do. If it didn’t work, the industry wouldn’t continue to do it.
In many ways, oil and gas companies and the politicians who receive their campaign contributions choose each other. Chevron isn’t going to solicit Bernie Sanders. But in many ways, they make each other. The contributions impact or intensify the politician’s worldview. The politician creates a universe for the companies to operate in. It’s a symbiotic thing. Whether it’s due to internal reevaluation or a much more subtle process, our politicians emerge from these relationships changed. All because of one little thing: money.
People are freezing and dying. We may want to reconsider how we do things.