It was the people in Texas government who had the duty to secure Texas’ power grid and refused. The people who had the power to protect millions of Texans from an accident waiting to happen and opted to just let it happen. The people who chose not to require that companies delivering life-sustaining energy do so responsibly, opting instead to make basic emergency planning optional.
It is elected officials, political appointees, and well-compensated executives who, more than a month after the catastrophic failure of Texas’ power grid, refuse to take true responsibility or move with urgency to fix the problems.
The shameful show of finger-pointing and shallow concern hit the national stage Wednesday as several Texas officials testified before Congress on the impact and causes of February’s storm.
One moment served as a glaring allegory of Texas deflection: Railroad Commission Chairman Christi Craddick was asked whether she, as the state’s top oil and gas regulator, would start requiring operators to fill out a short form that keeps their power from being shut off during outages.
The question by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey should have been a no-brainer. Craddick herself had testified that in the middle of the blackouts, crews returning to gas fields found they couldn’t restart production because they’d lost power for their equipment.
“Frozen roadways prevented crews from going out, but the No. 1 problem was a lack of power at the production sites,” she said.
That problem, as Houston Chronicle reporters Jay Root, Eric Dexheimer and Jeremy Blackman reported this month, was the result of gas production plant owners not filling out simple paperwork to become designated as “critical facilities,” making them exempt as hospitals are from having their power cut so they can keep supplying fuel to power plants.
Even so, Craddick wouldn’t commit to requiring the form, only saying that her agency had sent letters to all operators “suggesting” that they file it. She also insisted that she hadn’t “realized this form existed” before the winter storm and that power grid operator ERCOT should have done a better job getting the word out about the exemptions. Never mind that her name was on the letterhead of a 2013 Railroad Commission memo explaining the exemptions and urging natural gas facilities to apply.
“But do you don’t think it should be required?” Veasey pushed back.
Craddick continued to dodge the question, pivoting again to her favorite punching bag. She blamed ERCOT for not prioritizing oil fields for such exemptions, and tried to claim they only were available to processing plants anyway. While the 2013 letter uses the term “facilities,” it also states clearly that “high volume gas wells are examples of such facilities.”
Letting industry police itself is a basic tenant in Texas’ laissez-faire approach to oversight. But while expense may be behind Craddick’s previous refusal to require winterization of natural gas wellheads, it’s unclear what kind of burden she thinks filling out a free form that takes about two minutes to complete would impose on companies.
Veasey wasn’t having Craddick’s excuses.
“Republicans just want this problem to go away,” he said. “They don’t want to deal with this, they don’t want to require anybody to do anything, which means we’re going to be sitting in the cold again and that is the problem. They are running out the clock.”
Coming from a Democrat, that may sound like partisan rhetoric — except for the fact that the complacency and political cowardice he describes has all happened before. It set the stage for February’s disaster. And it will lead to another tragedy unless lawmakers resolve to finally act this session.
Just as Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers knew Texas’ grid was vulnerable in winter without proper weatherization, Texas oil and gas regulators knew that gas suppliers had their power cut during the state’s last major freeze in 2011. A federal after-incident report had warned that communication gaps between gas and electric companies should be fixed to prevent it from happening again.
A state report in 2012 said the same thing, with regulators at the Texas Public Utility Commission and Railroad Commission concluding that “cascading” grid failures could happen if companies that provide fuel for power generation lost power themselves. That’s exactly what happened in February.
The former PUC regulator who oversaw that 2012 report, Jennifer Hubbs, told Chronicle reporters she was shocked to realize during the storm that her simple recommendations hadn’t been followed.
“I’m on Twitter and I see a photo of downtown Houston lit up like a freakin’ Christmas tree and all the houses around it dark. It hit me like a physical blow,” she told the Chronicle. “You know, we might have avoided rotating outages entirely if we had just approached it with some sense.”
Sense. It’s something as scarce in Austin these days as toilet-flushing water during last month’s storm.
It is not government overreach or far-left sabotage to require energy companies to engage in basic emergency planning. It’s the least a government can do to protect its residents from a harsh winter storm or even an attack on our power grid from a foreign adversary such as Russia or China.
Abbott needs to lean on lawmakers to require safeguards, lawmakers need to pass them, and elected leaders such as Craddick need to stop leaving Texans’ health and safety to chance and voluntary compliance.
Why should Texans put up with leaders whose loose regulations leave us vulnerable to everything from random chemical explosions to prolonged blackouts that put our homes, our businesses and our loved ones in harm’s way?
Leaders, do your jobs, not industry’s bidding. Texans don’t deserve to live this way — or die this way, either.
My Recommendation: The Legislature should make sure that the form is easily accessible. Right now, once an entity submits it, they are permanently registered. If their status changes, or if they are new to the system, they need to submit an updated form. I recommend that the Legislature set an annual fall deadline to submit the form. Failure to do so should be greeted with a stiff fine. Here’s what’s so crazy – It’s in a company’s best interest to submit the form. They’ll sell more gas during the power outage (!) If the right hand is unable to help the left hand, perhaps either Alexa or Siri could help with a friendly reminder..
Get Your Wooden Nickels Ready – Here Comes the Jukebox!
1. “All Right, I’ll Sign the Papers” – Mel Tillis
2. “I’ve Always Been Crazy” – Waylon Jennings
3. “Still Crazy After All These Years” – Paul Simon
4. “No Place But Texas” – Willie Nelson
5. “Texas In My Rear View Mirror” – Mac Davis