Texans get sky-high power bills; frozen boy’s family sues – National & International News – MON 22Feb2021

The family of 11-year-old Cristian Pineda is suing for $100 million after he froze to death during Houston blackout. Other Texans getting huge power bills after disaster.

Texans hit with sky-high power bills. Frozen boy’s family sues ERCOT. Israel uses vaccines as bargaining chips. Iran moves to halt nuke checks.

NATIONAL NEWS

Texans hit with astronomic energy bills after disaster

The toll of wintry weather and widespread power failures in Texas last week is still mounting. Questions are now arising about who is responsible for the failures and who will pay for their fallout.

Many Texans are reporting sky-high electric bills from the disaster. Some Texans subscribe to wholesale electric utility plans, which normally have very low rates compared to fixed-rate providers. The rate they pay is based on current supply and demand. As many energy producers failed and Texans cranked up their heaters, supply dipped as demand soared. As a result, Texans whose wholesale providers managed to keep their grids up are now getting hit with enormous bills.

US Army veteran Scott Willoughby, 63, was billed nearly $17,000 for power use last week. This is 70 times what he usually pays for all his utilities combined. “My savings is gone,” said Willoughby. “There’s nothing I can do about it, but it’s broken me.”

Meanwhile, some providers made out like bandits. Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is also majority shareholder of Comstock Resources. Comstock’s Chief Financial Officer Roland Burns told shareholders last week that, “Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot”. 

Who will pay?

It’s uncertain at the moment whether residents will receive any state or federal help for these bills. It may be a tough sell since these customers chose to pay wholesale rates and usually have much smaller bills than most customers. Still, Texas mayors are calling on the state to foot the bill, saying it’s not customers’ fault the grid failed. Meanwhile, Texas Republicans are looking for help from the federal government.

Many have noted the irony of this appeal for a federal bailout, given the Texas GOP’s reputation for shunning federal oversight. Speaking with CNN’s Dana Bash, prominent Texas Republican Michael McCaul alluded to federal help to pay the bills. Bash replied, “I’m hearing you say that the federal government is going to help to bail out, and to pay bills in a state which is in part in this mess because it wants to be separate from the federal government. That’s kind of rich, don’t you think?”

Who’s to blame?

In 2011 when Texas again suffered freezing temperatures, a bipartisan state commission issued recommendations to providers to weather-proof the state’s power grid. Those recommendations were not followed.

A certain amount of the blame rests with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT),which is largely responsible for overseeing the state’s power grid. The parts of the grid managed by ERCOT suffered the greatest and longest lasting outages.

But the fragmentary nature of Texas’ grid and its oversight also contributed. As McCaul admitted, “Power sharing would have been helpful if we could have shared with other power grids.” However, this was not possible, he said, because the Texas grid “was set up … to be independent of federal oversight and regulations. That’s very good with things like cybersecurity, not so good when it comes to an arctic blast like this one.”

Frozen Houston boy’s family sues ERCOT

The family of an 11-year-old who apparently froze to death is suing ERCOT for $100 million. Christian Pineda’s family believes he died of hypothermia as he huddled under blankets with his little brother during a days-long power outage in their mobile home in a Houston suburb.

The suit condemns ERCOT for putting “profits over the welfare of people” by ignoring the 2011 recommendations. The family also blames ERCOT for their management of “rolling blackouts”. ERCOT initiated the rolling blackouts to prevent a complete grid collapse. However, largely-empty high-rises in downtown Houston had power throughout, while people in poor suburbs were left in the dark for days. ERCOT also misled residents about how long the blackouts in their areas would last. Pineda’s family believes accurate information could have saved their son’s life.

 

INTERNATIONAL NEWS

Israel uses vaccines as bargaining chips

Last week, it came to light that Israel was withholding vaccines from the Palestinian territories it controls. While Israel leads the world in vaccination, immunization campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza have barely begun. Following an international outcry, Israel gave 5000 of its Moderna vaccines for health workers in the West Bank and allowed 2000 Russian Sputnik V vaccines into Gaza after initially blocking their entry. Officials revealed last week that Tel Aviv was indeed playing politics with the vaccines, withholding them from Gaza to recover the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held in the enclave.

Now a new row has broken out over a secret deal struck with the Assad regime in Syria to sweeten a prisoner swap. Under the deal, Israel paid Russia $1.2 million to send Sputnik V jabs to Syria. In return, Syria released a young Israeli woman who crossed into Syria for unknown reasons.

For international critics, Israel’s willingness to quietly secure hundreds of thousands of doses for an enemy state makes its unwillingness to vaccinate Palestinians living within its own borders even more odious. Domestic political challengers hoping to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in elections next month took more issue with the secrecy of the Syria deal than its content.

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Iran moves to halt nuclear checks

This weekend, Iranian officials announced that they would stop allowing international observers into its nuclear facilities if the US had not lifted sanctions by Feb. 23. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi held emergency talks with Iran following the announcement to buy time. As a result, the IAEA will be able to maintain the “necessary degree of monitoring and verification work”. However, the IAEA’s access will be more restricted and they won’t be able to carry out snap inspections.

The deal extends access for three more months, allowing Washington and Tehran more time to work out a deal. After the Trump administration withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal in 2015, the US unilaterally reinstated sanctions. Iranian officials estimate this inflicted $1 trillion worth of damage on their economy. In response, Tehran has gradually stepped up its nuclear activity beyond the proscribed limits of the 2015 deal. The US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and the Israeli assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh nearly a year later, have only increased tensions.

The Iranian side has expressed disappointment with the White House’s pace and enthusiasm in reviving the 2015 deal. The window to renegotiate the deal is shrinking, as Iranian hardliners are poised to take full control of the country and its nuclear program in June.

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