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Texans demand answers as they battle the storm’s lingering anger

HOUSTON – Texas Governor Greg Abbott has called for an overhaul of the agency that oversees the flow of electricity through much of the state. Prosecutors have opened criminal investigations into the power outages that affected millions of Texans. And several lawmakers have called for the Texas Utilities Board chairperson to resign, as energy officials summoned to Austin for marathon hearings on what went wrong during the winter storm. destructive last week.

Over the past week, Texas has been gripped by a wave of accusations and blame after the powerful storm nearly collapsed the state’s electricity grid, leaving millions of people in dark, unheated homes for some of the freezing temperatures in state history.

The outrage displayed by state officials reflected the anger and anguish of residents, who continued to boil over feeling stranded with no power during the storm, burst pipes destroying their homes and electricity bills. surprisingly high that some consider depleting retirement accounts to pay them off.

“I want someone to be held to account,” said Toni Anderson, whose husband, Carrol, died in his truck outside their home in 19 degrees.

In the days that followed as the storm blanketed much of the state in snow and ice, resignations were proposed and lawsuits were filed. The future of the electricity grid has been listed as a top priority by the state legislature, and policy and energy analysts have said there is political will to pursue at least modest changes. in the management of the energy industry.

But many wondered how far state officials would be willing to go, beyond questioning and blaming.

“We’re going to be hearing a lot of cheap talk over the next few months,” said Mark P. Jones, professor of political science at Rice University. “But I would look for concrete legislation that would change the rules of the game.”

There have been calls for tighter oversight, and some have questioned the wisdom of the stand-alone, resilient approach to energy regulation that Texas has long taken. Researchers said the blackouts, which came as the storm pushed the power grid to the brink of collapse, showed the state did not have sufficient reserves and facilities had not been beefed up enough to withstand the conditions. winter.

“The colossal failure of our power grid was not an unforeseeable event – it was the result of unsustainable and reckless negligence on the part of the leaders,” said the political arm of Deeds Not Words, an advocacy group progressive women, in a statement.

Governor Abbott quickly turned to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the power grid, when assigning blame. He said the council had “repeatedly assured” officials that it was prepared for the winter conditions. “These assurances have turned out to be false,” he said.

The board, known as ERCOT, was also criticized for having a board of directors made up of several members who did not live in Texas. Five of those board members, including the president, resigned this week.

“A lot of you are angry,” Abbott said in a televised address Wednesday. “You have every right to be. I too am angry. At a time when essential services were most needed, the system collapsed. You deserve answers. You will get these answers.

In some ways, the timing of the disaster was fortuitous, coming just as the state legislature, which meets every two years, began its session. This week, a line of officials from ERCOT, the Texas Utilities Commission, energy officials, electricity providers and others faced a barrage of questions about the outages.

“Who turned off my device?” Todd Hunter, a nine-term Republican lawmaker from Corpus Christi, asked energy officials during a hearing this week.

“Gentlemen, we have a lot of people watching,” he said, adding, “This is the question I think most people want to ask you.” His voice rose. “Who is at fault? I want the public to know who fucked up, ”Hunter said. “I want names and details.”

Many lawmakers have been unfazed in their criticism. “This is the biggest train wreck in the history of electricity deregulation,” Senator Brandon Creighton, a Republican, told Bill Magness, CEO and Chairman of ERCOT.

Mr. Magness acknowledged the devastation caused by the power outages, but in his testimony said that even in hindsight, ERCOT would not have acted differently. He said the network was heading for a collapse – it was at four minutes, 37 seconds, to be exact, as demand rose and supply fell. The consequences of that, he said, would have been even more devastating.

“Now it didn’t work for people’s lives, but it worked to preserve the integrity of the system,” Magness said of the decisions made by network operators, adding that if the system had failed completely, “We would always be talking about how we would turn on the power. “

Disaster is no stranger to Texas, where hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, powerful tornadoes scratch begging, and wildfires burn ranch lands in the Hill Country. Even winter storms delivering snow and ice are nothing new.

But the level of consternation the recent winter storm sparked in Texas reflected the scale of devastation that swept through much of the state.

In the days that followed, much of Texas returned to the kind of winter that locals experience. The snow and ice melted. In Houston, the highs reached 80 degrees. Yet the aftermath of the storm remains in the piles of lumber and drywall left in front of the houses with shattered pipes. They are seen in the plumbing-hungry trades on social media and, in a community, at a local bar, with such items not found in stores.

Valerie Williams was spared damage to her home, but she and her family faced an electric bill of $ 8,100. She was among the customers using services like Griddy, where the cost of electricity is tied to the fluctuation in the wholesale price. She had written to Mr. Abbott and had received no response.

“I was just suggesting to the governor that we get some answers,” said Ms Williams, who lives in Burleson, a suburb of Fort Worth, saying she hoped for relief as the storm presented a situation she did not have. never anticipated and left her. beware of state leaders.

“Honestly, I feel like we’ve lost faith in the people responsible for making sure we have what we need to be healthy and safe in our own homes,” she said. “This is the hardest part. I never thought that in Texas we couldn’t have what we needed, and unfortunately it is.

District attorneys statewide have said they have opened investigations to determine whether anyone – including state officials, agencies and power companies – could be held criminally responsible for any part of the consequences of the storm.

“We will not forget the horror our community went through,” said José Garza, the Travis County District Attorney, who includes Austin, in a statement. “We will do everything in our power to empower powerful actors, whose action or inaction may have led to this suffering.”

Lawyers also expect an avalanche of lawsuits that will rival those that always arise after major hurricanes. “I think you’re going to see more litigation from this event, definitely more than Harvey and even more than Ike,” said Tony Buzbee, a lawyer in Houston.

For Ms. Anderson, the storm has not passed.

In his kitchen in Crosby, just outside Houston, the drywall was soggy and the floors warped from the downpour from a burst pipe in the attic. Still, that was nothing compared to the gaping absence of her husband, who likely went to his truck for a spare oxygen tank. Its main tank was electrically powered and the power had been cut the night before.

Ms Anderson filed a lawsuit against CenterPoint Energy, her electricity supplier, arguing that the outages the company described as rotating instead lasted for hours, leading to her husband’s decline. (CenterPoint said the company is not commenting on the disputes.)

Mr. Anderson had attempted to plug a vacuum into a generator to clean up the damage caused by the burst hose. He became exhausted and had difficulty breathing. As he went out for the spare oxygen tank, his wife continued to clean. She later found him slumped over the console of his truck.

Mr. Anderson, 75, was a Vietnam veteran who had held the same job for decades with the Port Terminal Railroad Association. He might be a little gruff, said Anderson. But when she called her old colleagues on the railroad, they told her stories about his kindness, how he had helped them in their work.

“I’ve seen him every day for 30 years, and now all of a sudden I’m alone in a house,” Ms. Anderson, 75, said, her words punctuated with tears. “He should be here today.

David Montgomery contributed reporting from Austin, Texas.

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After the Russian cyberattack, search for answers and debate on retaliation

These options, according to officials familiar with the discussions, include variations of measures President Barack Obama envisioned and rejected after the hack into state electoral systems in 2016. They have included the use of cyber tools to reveal or freeze assets secretly held by Russian President Vladimir V.

At a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Jen Psaki, the press secretary, said an American response would come in “weeks, not months.” But first, the United States will have to make a definitive statement that one of the Russian intelligence agencies was responsible.

“There’s not a lot of suspense right now about what we’re talking about,” said Smith, who added that while Microsoft had not identified the intruders, nothing contradicted the intelligence services’ tentative conclusion. Americans that Russia was “likely to be the culprit.

Mr. Biden will then have to overcome another problem: to differentiate what the Russians have done from the kind of spying the United States is doing, including against its allies. Officials are already preparing the ground for this argument. Last week, Biden called the malware intrusion “reckless” because it affected more than 18,000 businesses, mostly in the United States. Privately, US officials are already testing the argument that Russia should be punished for “indiscriminate” hacking, while the US uses similar tools for only targeted purposes. It is not certain that this argument will convince others to join in the measures to make Russia pay.

Mr Biden’s upcoming actions appear likely to include executive orders on improving the resilience of government agencies and businesses to attacks and proposals for mandatory hacking disclosure. Many companies that have lost data to the Russians have not admitted it, either out of embarrassment or because there is no legal obligation to disclose even a major breach.

But the subtext of most of the testimony was that Russian intelligence might have linked American networks with “backdoor” access. And that possibility – just fear – could limit the type of punishment Mr. Biden inflicts. While he had promised during the presidential transition to impose “substantial costs”, previous promises to hold Russia accountable did not create enough deterrence to worry them about punishment if they were caught in the hack. most sophisticated supply chain in history.

“The reality is they’re going to come back, and they’re going to be a pervasive offense,” said Kevin Mandia, chief executive of FireEye, the cybersecurity firm that discovered the intrusion after the Russians stole its fighting tools. the Pirates. Mr Mandia, a former air force intelligence officer, noted that “since the front door was locked” hackers have turned to known but poorly addressed vulnerabilities. In this case, they entered the network management software update system created by a company called SolarWinds. When the SolarWinds Orion software users downloaded the updated versions of the code, the Russians were there.

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Congress seeks answers on Alaska mine project

Democrats in the House of Representatives have opened an investigation into Project Pebble in Alaska, seeking records to determine whether the proponents of the proposed gold and copper mine misled Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers about their plans .

In letters to developers and officials of the corps, leaders of the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee expressed concerns that recently released secret video recordings showed the developers had downplayed the size and duration of the mine in public, while privately planning a much larger and longer project.

“It appears that Pebble was dealing with two sets of facts: one to attract potential investors to the Pebble project and the other to alleviate the fears of Alaskan natives, the US Congress and federal agencies regarding negative environmental impacts. potentials of mine, ”committee chairman Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon, and subcommittee chairwoman Grace F. Napolitano, Democrat of California, wrote in one of the letters sent to John Shively, Acting Managing Director of Pebble Limited Partnership.

The letters, sent Thursday, asked the partnership and the corps to hand over documents, emails and other documents related to the project starting in 2017 and set a deadline of December 10.

Project Pebble press officers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In a statement issued on Friday, representative DeFazio said the committee asked that the minutes “get a fuller and more accurate account of Pebble’s intent.”

“I’ve always said Pebble Mine is a bad project that was made even worse by a dummy process,” he said.

The Pebble mine, which is said to be located in a remote part of southwestern Alaska and is said to be one of the largest surface mines in the world, has been the subject of battle for years. Alaska’s mining industry and many officials are promoting it for its potential economic benefits, while environmentalists and Indigenous groups are opposed, concerned about the environmental damage caused by the multibillion-dollar project, including the effects potential on wild salmon fishing in nearby Bristol Bay.

The body, having said after an environmental review that the mine will not cause long-term harm to fish populations, is preparing to decide whether or not to grant a permit under the federal Clean Water Act . This would allow the project to move forward, although it would take several more years, at least, before construction can begin.

Separately this week, as part of the clearance process, the Pebble Partnership’s parent company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, announced that the partnership has submitted a new plan to the corps to mitigate environmental damage from the mine. The corps said in August that the partnership’s initial plan was insufficient and requested a new one by November 18 that would set aside land near the mine for permanent protection.

The company, which submitted its new plan on Nov. 16, said it would not provide any details about the plan until it was accepted and displayed by the body.

The body has not offered a timeline for doing so, so for now the plan remains private, which immediately drew criticism from environmental and conservation groups.

“It is remarkable that the Corps said in August that this mitigation plan is essential to the ability of this project to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, then today, with this turnkey element, refuses to let those who would be most affected see it. Brian Litmans, general counsel of trustees for Alaska, a nonprofit environmental law firm, said in a statement.

Once the plan is completed, a permit decision could come relatively soon. Body spokesperson in Alaska, John Budnik, said he did not have “a timeline to share as to when that will be the case.”

Like another project being considered by the Trump administration that has raised environmental concerns – a plan to sell oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – if the mine is to go ahead, it most likely needs to be approved before that the new administration take over. in January.

The House inquiry stems from the publication in September of video tapes of remote meetings between two executives behind the project and representatives of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a private advocacy group, who impersonated for potential investors.

During these meetings, the two executives – Tom Collier, then managing director of the partnership, and Ronald W. Thiessen, managing director of Northern Dynasty Minerals – described a project that would ultimately be much larger than the one proposed to the corps. .

The proposal calls for a mine that would produce 160,000 metric tonnes of gold and other mineral concentrates per day and operate for 20 years. During testimony before the House committee in 2019, Mr Collier described the project in the same terms and said there were no current plans “in this application or in any other way” for expansion.

But in the videos, the pair said the mine could operate for 180 years, and after the first two decades, production could double. “Once you have something like this in production, why would you want to stop?” Mr Thiessen said in one of the tapes.

“It is impossible to conclude that the two sets of statements were correct, as they were so completely contradictory,” Rep. DeFazio and Rep. Napolitano wrote to Mr. Shively.

Mr Collier, who also commented negatively on Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and other Alaskan politicians, resigned shortly after the tapes were released.

In the letters, representatives pointed out that there could be legal consequences if it were determined that the company had concealed facts or made false statements in its request to the body, or if Mr. Collier did the same in its testimony.

The findings of the investigation may also prove useful in future efforts to block the mine if the permit is approved.

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Questions and answers on bidens and a deal in China

In the final days of the campaign, President Trump and his allies are engaged in a last-ditch effort to raise questions about the ethics of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. by trying to tie Mr. Biden to relations. international trade of Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, and one of his brothers, James.

Their efforts drew on a number of sources, including emails, photographs of encrypted text messages and other material provided by Tony Bobulinski, a former business associate of Hunter and James Biden. Many of these documents relate to a joint venture project in 2017, after Mr Biden left, with a Chinese partner. The deal ultimately fell apart.

Here are some questions and answers about the situation.

There is no evidence in the records that Mr. Biden was involved in or profited from the joint venture.

Messages, emails and other encrypted documents reviewed by the New York Times do not show Hunter Biden or James Biden discussing the former vice president’s role in the project.

Mr. Biden’s tax returns, which he released, show no income from such a business. There is nothing illegal about doing business in China or with Chinese partners; Mr. Trump has long pursued deals in China, partnered with a government-controlled company, and maintained a corporate bank account there.

The Biden campaign has dismissed any claims that the former vice president had any role in the deal negotiations or an interest in it.

Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said the former vice president never had any interest in the project. “Joe Biden never even considered getting involved in business with his family, or any overseas business,” he said.

In Thursday’s second presidential debate, Mr Biden said: “I have never taken a dime from a foreign source in my life.”

The messages produced by Mr. Bobulinski appear to reflect a meeting between him, the former vice president and James Biden in May 2017 in Beverly Hills, California. The messages do not specify what was discussed.

Mr Bates did not respond to questions about Mr Bobulinski’s claim that he had met the former vice president. But Mr Bates said the Chinese deal was never discussed by Mr Biden with members of his family. “He never had any conversation on these matters,” Mr. Bates said.

An email sent on May 13, 2017 by another member of the company explains how the various partners in the deal could theoretically split the equity and refers to the question of whether “the big guy” could get 10% . The document does not specify who this person is, saying only “10 detained by H for the big one?”

Mr. Bobulinski said it was clearly the former vice-president.

Mr Bates said that Mr Biden “has never held shares in such trade deals and that no member of his family or anyone else has ever held shares for him.”

Documents produced by Mr Bobulinski show that in 2017, Hunter Biden and James Biden were involved in negotiations for a joint venture with a Chinese energy and finance company called CEFC China Energy.

Bobulinski’s archives include emails, contracts, business plan documents, and photographs of encrypted messages between the US partners. The Times could not independently authenticate all of the tapes, but the tapes referred to in this article are consistent with previous interviews and reports from The Times. The Biden campaign did not dispute that Hunter and James Biden were involved in negotiating the deal with the Chinese company.

Records make it clear that Hunter Biden viewed the last name as a valuable asset, angrily citing the “mark of his family” as the reason it was valuable to the proposed business.

The documents also show that the countries Hunter Biden, James Biden and their associates planned to target for deals overlapped with countries in which Joe Biden had previously been involved as a vice president. A 42-page plan includes a section specifically highlighting former Vice President Biden’s role in facilitating increased trade with Colombia, which is one of the targets of the joint venture, along with Luxembourg, Oman and Romania.

Hunter Biden’s role in the deal, according to one of the documents, “has been essential in building the relationship, conveying goodwill around the president,” referring to Ye Jianming, the president of CEFC.

The Times reported in 2018 that Ye met privately with Hunter Biden at a Miami hotel in May 2017, where the Chinese executive proposed a partnership to invest in U.S. infrastructure and energy deals. The planning for the Miami meeting appears to be reflected in some of the messages posted by Mr. Bobulinski.

The documents indicate that CEFC China originally announced it would send $ 10 million in early 2017 to the joint venture.

CEFC focused on trading oil futures and securing rights to overseas oil fields in conflict-torn regions like Chad, South Sudan and Iraq. He was looking to expand his global businesses, both as an energy company and as a project funder, and turned to Hunter and James Biden and their associates, including Mr. Bobulinski, for help. to find new business.

An early draft of the business plan stated that Hunter and James Biden and their American associates “had forged alliances with the highest levels of government, banks and corporations.”

As of August 2017, there were signs of problems with the deal. Mr Bobulinski wrote to CEFC to point out that the promised $ 10 million payment had not been deposited into the bank account of the US partners.

There is conflicting information that this money was never delivered by the Chinese partner. An election year probe into allegations of corruption against the Bidens by two Senate committees, which found no evidence of influence or wrongdoing on the part of the former vice president, suggested that the CEFC money could have passed, prompting Mr Bobulinski to ask James Biden. if that was the case in a recent post.