Gov. Abbott's TV speech blames ERCOT for Texas blackouts, again fails to own up to wider failures

click to enlarge Gov. Greg Abbott lets his hands do the talking during his Wednesday prime-time address. - YouTube Screen Capture / Gov Greg Abbott
YouTube Screen Capture / Gov Greg Abbott
Gov. Greg Abbott lets his hands do the talking during his Wednesday prime-time address.
During a rare statewide address Wednesday evening, Gov. Greg Abbott aimed to reassure Texans that he and the Legislature will correct issues that caused millions to endure blackouts during last week's historic winter storm.

But observers say the televised prime-time speech fell back on Abbott's attacks on the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which only deserves part of the blame. It also did little to suggest the Republican governor is willing to commit to significant systemic changes.

"A week after this humanitarian crisis, all he had to offer was this really short speech where he took no personal responsibility and tried to shift the blame," said Wesley Story, communications manager at Progress Texas. "ERCOT is a really convenient scapegoat, but it's obvious that it's not solely to blame for this crisis."

Since the beginning of the outages, Abbott has lobbed attacks at ERCOT, the nonprofit that oversees the state's electrical grid, while avoiding criticism for state regulators or saying that the state's 1999 deregulation of power generation might share in the blame. Earlier Wednesday, ERCOT finalized the resignations of six board members.

"Many of you are angry — and you have a right to be," Abbot said during his five-minute address punctuated by frequent hand waves and jabs of his index finger. "I'm angry too. At a time when essential services were needed the most, the system broke. You deserve answers. You will get those answers."

Abbott blamed ERCOT for failing to be prepared for the storm and repeated earlier demands that the Lege mandate "winterization" of power systems. He also promised the Lege will probe utilities efforts to pass on the costs of the distastes to consumers, but he stopped short of pledging to put the brakes on rate hikes.

The governor's address came the day before committee meetings in the Texas House and Senate that will look into the widespread power failures.

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said Abbott is sticking to the ERCOT narrative to avoid admitting his own culpability in the disaster. The governor, after all, appoints the Public Utility Commission, which regulates ERCOT and opted for a largely hands-off approach during his tenure.

Jillson doesn't hold high hopes that Abbott or the Republican-controlled Lege will impose drastic changes on the state's electrical system.

"The leaders will dance as fast as they can for a couple months — until the warmer weather gets here — and they'll pass some legislation, maybe something that requires a study," he said.

While Jillson said power generators and utilities — both significant contributors to lawmakers' reelection campaigns — may see a some additional regulation, the new rules won't be "onerous or particularly expensive."

To that end, state lawmakers are unlikely to consider sweeping changes such as rethinking the deregulated energy market they approved in 1999 or merging Texas' energy grid with either of the two multi-state grids that serve the rest of the country, he added.

"Either of those things are reasonable courses of action — unless you're a Texan," Jillson said.

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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