Weather – We Like It Or Not

In January 1982, I worked at a chemical plant in Memphis when we suffered through a spell of bitterly cold weather like Texas went through last week. Chemical plants are like other similar facilities, such as oil refineries and power plants. Memphis is not in the deep South, but our plant was not designed for an extended period of extremely cold weather.

So I can understand why Texas has suffered as much as they have in their current cold snap. And the longer temperatures remain so much below freezing, the worse the damage will get. When we suffered our freeze in Memphis, our first priority was to shut down in a safe way and prevent leakage of hazardous materials. Once that was safely completed, all we could do was settle in for the inevitable thaw that would come.

But when the thaw came, that is when the true damage was revealed. All of the water and steam piping that froze, often burst. The sound of dripping water showed how much repair was needed before we could start up again. In our case, large diameter cooling water pipes had frozen solid and burst, which delayed our restart for weeks. This was certainly a contributing factor in the decision by Du Pont to close the process a year later.

For facilities in Texas, often it’s the smallest components that cause the biggest issues. Pressure sensors have very small diameter piping that leads to a gauge and signal transmitter. That little bit of piping is often what freezes, leading to a loss of the sensor. Faced with the option of running their process blind, operators shut down their facility. Then the loss of heat from combustion or chemical reaction leads to more freezing. It’s a vicious cycle.

There are other factors that exacerbated the situation in Texas. By isolating themselves from the national power grid, they were able to claim that their utilities were not engaged in interstate commerce. That freed them from Federal regulation, and enabled them to rely solely upon intrastate regulation. For Texas, that is a prime motivating factor, and one reason why the situation has been so dire during this time. The few corners of the state that are tied into the national grids (El Paso and Beaumont) appear to have come through this crisis with minimal damage, since they were able to import electricity from outside of the borders of Texas. But everywhere else has been held hostage to the native stubbornness of the state.

To many on the outside looking in, it is inconceivable that Texans would willingly put themselves through a disaster just to continue to be free of external regulation. But that would not be a true assessment of the state of Texas. I first visited Texas nearly 50 years ago, and was struck by the attitude I encountered there. If any place in the US could be an independent country, Texas was that place. In the intervening decades, it seems this feeling has only strengthened. What Texas will find out is that there are real benefits to be had in integrating with the rest of the country. What I fear is this most recent incident will only serve to ossify the attitudes of true Texans, and perhaps send the secessionist movement into overdrive. It seems as though the tendency in Texas, and through much of the country, is that it is much better to go it alone. As if someone could wall themselves off from the rest of the world and still maintain a standard of living better than anyone else.

This was the motivating factor leading to the building of “the wall”. If we could just put up a barrier and prevent the others from diluting our genes, we would solve many of the problems of the nation. Funny thing, though. In Texas the concept of private property rights proved ascendant to the need to build a barrier. In many of the border lands adjacent to the Rio Grande, families that had owned the land for generations objected to their property being broken in two by a barrier wall. Civil litigation has held up construction for years, and there’s no end in sight.

So the tragedy unfolding in Texas is both of natural and human making. The cold they’ve been subjected to is certainly something that would cause much suffering by itself. But it was due to the nature of the power business in Texas, where no one enforced requirements to maintain back-up capacity, or winterize their facilities, that made a natural disaster an order of magnitude worse. Keep the situation in Texas in mind as Republicans keep insisting on a steady drumbeat of deregulation. Maybe regulations are more expensive. Maybe we pay a little more each month to ensure continuity of service. I know that it is a bitter struggle each time a utility in our state tries to recover funds spent on upgrading infrastructure. But as Texas has shown, you can pay me now, or pay me later. For Texas, later has arrived.

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