Federal officials are rushing emergency relief to Texas for its power crisis, though longer-term efforts to shore up the electric grid are likely to run into political obstacles and challenges to Washington’s authority.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has deployed to hard-hit areas, providing generators and fuel, and delivering water, blankets and meals. Residents can access emergency aid funds for temporary housing, home repairs and uninsured property damage.
But political and legal issues loom over Washington’s response. Federal emergency funds can’t legally be used for utility bills that soared for some people, local governments and businesses in Texas’ open-market system. And lobbyists and congressional aides expect Texas to keep defending a system that it has worked for years to shield from federal jurisdiction.
A cold snap unusually powerful for the state crippled Texas’ electrical grid this month. It left more than four million Texans without electricity and heat, many for days in subfreezing temperatures, and resulted in 80 deaths.
President Biden met in Houston on Friday with state and local officials. He said he would help Texans “recover and rebuild.” A disaster declaration that he signed Saturday now applies to more than 100 counties, opening up grants and low-cost loans for residents and business owners. The federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program may also help some subject to large utility bills.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised in a statewide address Wednesday to find answers to what went wrong. He said he would ensure state lawmakers enact fixes.
Beyond immediate needs, congressional committees and federal regulators are beginning to investigate how Texas’ grid failed and what it suggests about future threats to reliability nationwide. They are also looking into commodity trading during the event, to examine whether market manipulation played any role in soaring prices.
Texas has few and often no requirements for buildings and power plants to weatherize, instead relying on free-market established prices to provide the incentive for businesses to do so on their own. In a state more used to hot summers, those businesses largely ignored past federal warnings to prepare for Arctic winter chills.
Nearly 185 generating units, mostly gas and coal-fired capacity, tripped offline. The resulting shortages and unexpectedly high demand led to soaring electricity prices. Wholesale power prices were more than 400 times last year’s average.
The Senate Energy Committee is preparing a hearing on grid reliability. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees interstate gas pipelines and wholesale electricity markets, has launched three hearings, examining what happened during the cold snap, the threat of climate change to grid reliability and potential market manipulation during the disaster
FERC’s authority is limited because the grid serving most of Texas has limited links crossing state lines. The agency does have power to set new requirements for reliability.
The White House and allies in Congress are also pushing for infrastructure spending that they say could address climate change and some of the risks exposed by the Texas crisis, a push bolstered by the event, analysts said.
“Clearly these types of weather events are going to be happening and more frequently,” said Gina McCarthy, head of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy in an interview. “We need to make changes, and rethink, from the bottom up, how we deliver energy and keep it reliable.”
Lawmakers aren’t expected to take up emergency legislation focused on the Texas disaster. While Congress has passed stand-alone aid for some large disasters, it often ties additional emergency funding into other pieces of legislation.
As part of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan, Democrats are seeking to provide FEMA with $50 billion in disaster-relief funds.
Beyond infrastructure spending, new federal policy and regulation to improve the grid nationwide is seen as more difficult because it is highly…