Analysis: “Nothing to see here” is good news for Texans and for incumbent politicians

Patches of snow covered the ground in Dallas last week. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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“It got cold and the lights stayed on” is weak sauce, as political slogans go. But for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the season’s first ice storm couldn’t have come out much better.

He didn’t need a win on this one — the absence of a loss is quite enough.

The Texas electric grid failed a year ago during a polar vortex, putting millions of residents in the dark without heat for almost a week, resulting in hundreds of deaths and billions of dollars of economic damage to the state.

Like political leaders have always done in jams like that, Abbott fired or ran off the regulators and operators within his reach. With the help of state legislators who were also dodging blame, he ran off the public utility commissioners he had appointed, along with the board and top executive at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid day to day.

They told electric generators to get ready for this winter, to keep their plants from shutting down because of cold temperatures and ice. They had hearings, did a lot of public relations work, tried to get everyone toeing the company line: “It won’t happen again.”

Abbott himself got over-exuberant at one point, saying he could “guarantee” nobody’s lights would go off this year. That’s bonkers: Somewhere in Texas, fair weather or foul, someone’s lights are off. Trees fall on electric lines. Winds blow. Lightning strikes. Bulldozers cut underground lines. Things happen.

So the governor reeled that pledge back in as this latest storm was forming. “No one can guarantee there won’t be a ‘load shed’ event,” he said, using the technical euphemism for a blackout caused by intentionally shutting off electric power to groups of customers to keep demand below supply. Last year’s blackouts were the result of load shedding. What the governor said, in translation, is that no one can guarantee there won’t be a blackout.

It’s better for his politics, of course, if there are no blackouts caused by grid problems. And at this writing, on Friday, the grid was doing what it was supposed to be doing, with ample supply even under the high demands of Texans in wintry conditions. There were blackouts in the state — there always are — but they weren’t caused by fundamental problems with the grid.

For one thing, this storm was nothing compared with the polar vortex a year ago. It didn’t strain or test the grid in the same way — not by a mile.

Luck also played its part, siding, this time, with the energy folks. The governor and other state officials weren’t as hard on natural gas companies as they were on electric companies after the 2021 blackouts. Many of the state’s electric plants are powered by gas, and the failures of the natural gas infrastructure left the generators without their normal capacity last year.

Austin hasn’t yet required the gas industry to winterize, and experts worry about that hole in the state’s weather defenses. A recent cold snap caused a dip in gas production and a rise in grid anxieties last month. But the system held.

Abbott is up for reelection this year. Early voting in the primary elections starts on Feb. 14, which also happens to be the anniversary of 2021’s storm. His challengers, Republican and otherwise, have spent a lot of time and money reminding voters about the blackouts and the grid failure in 2021. They didn’t say so out loud, but a bad storm for Texas would have buttressed their arguments, and put Abbott on the defensive.

What happened in the latest cold snap was what is supposed to happen during a cold snap. The electricity stays on, people stay warm, the schools shut down for a couple of snow or ice days and then things warm back up.

It’s only news when it doesn’t work, and for a politician who might get blamed when things go badly, no news is good news.