Take it with a grain of salt, we’re told, about information from a questionable source.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s assurance that, yessiree, he’s got that electric grid thing taken care of, might require skepticism comparable to a 50-pound bag of rock-salt crystals. Let the winter winds blow, let the ice and snow settle in like Jack London’s Alaska, like Texas in an unfortunate February. No need to worry.
The sun may be shining warm and bright during these early December days, but Texans can’t help but shiver remembering what happened nearly a year ago, during an already grim pandemic season.
Thanks to Winter Storm Uri — and power industry unpreparedness — the state’s electric grid came close to complete collapse. Millions of us lost power for days as we wrapped ourselves in coats and blankets and hunkered down without heat and water in subfreezing temperatures. Hundreds of Texans, old and young, lost their lives to hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, fires or serious illnesses.
Damages exceeded $20 billion. Texans will be paying higher electric bills for years to compensate utilities for the soaring prices they were forced to pay to the only winners of this debacle: those selling and transporting gas at sky-high prices.
A few months after the storm, Texas lawmakers passed legislation designed to make the grid less vulnerable to extreme cold. Their efforts included requiring some facilities to weatherize, establishing a statewide emergency alert system and passing provisions aimed at improving communications among the various parties responsible for keeping the lights on across the state. They also passed bills to reform the grid’s manager, Energy Reliability Council of Texas.
The governor perused the Legislature’s handiwork and declared that it was good.
“Everything that needed by done was done to fix the power grid,” he assured us during a June signing ceremony.
Pass the salt, please?
Abbott should have said that he and his legislative colleagues did everything the all-powerful natural gas industry allowed them to do.
A recent report from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found that the Railroad Commission of Texas refused to hold the industry to even minimal resiliency standards.
We know what happened 10 months ago was predictable — and indeed was predicted by regulators and industry observers who knew that Texas had done little to respond to similar winter-related blackouts that revealed our grid’s vulnerability in 2011.
After that 2011 storm knocked out nearly 200 power plants and triggered blackouts for 3.2 million Texans, a report by federal agencies and watchdog groups urged the state to require power plants to set minimum weather-preparation standards for gas producers. The industry fought the recommendations, and state lawmakers and regulatory officials caved.
Close to half of all generation outages during Uri occurred in gas-fired plants, because operators did not insulate the well equipment properly. And still haven’t.
So why is it that, despite the legislative reforms enacted earlier this year, the gas sector doesn’t have to lift a finger to winterize for this winter or next?
Answer: The oil and gas industry managed to schottische its way out of weatherization requirements by persuading lawmakers to limit upgrades to those facilities that a committee deems critical to the state’s power grid.
State regulators have until September of next year to decide which facilities are on the list. Only then do those so designated have to start weatherizing, at least a six-month process.
That means those pipes are naked to the cold until at least 2023.
Other natural gas facilities can apply to opt out of that weatherizing by paying $150 and filling out some paperwork.
Maybe the proverbial grain of salt makes us seasoned pessimists, but why should we trust the Railroad Commission to use this discretion responsibly? After all, commissioners, perennial handmaidens to the industry, are largely dependent on oil and gas firms’ largesse for political survival.
As Chronicle business columnist Chris Tomlinson noted recently, more than two-thirds of the campaign donations to the sitting commissioners have come from their friends in the industry.
Likewise, with the governor, we can’t help but wonder whether the pass given to natural gas has something to do with the fact that the industry has been Abbott’s top campaign contributor from January 2017 through 2020.
According to a report from a watchdog group called Texans for Public Justice, the industry lavished $16.5 million on the governor, 21 percent of the total raised. Abbott got about $4.6 million from oil, gas and energy interests during the post-legislative session this year, including $1 million from natural gas potentate Kelcy Warren of Dallas.
Warren was in a generous mood, no doubt because his company, Energy Transfer Partners, collected a $2.4 billion profit during the February storm, a major portion of the $11 billion profit the natural gas industry as a whole collected by selling fuel at exorbitant prices to power companies clamoring for it.
The governor is probably playing the odds that his electric-grid words of assurance won’t be tested in the coming months, despite the increasing unpredictability of climate change.
Then again, pass the salt.