Editorial other views

The following editorial published in Houston Chronicle on Nov. 28:

Nine months ago, Wayne Christian was standing in his dark house, wearing three layers of coats to keep warm, one of millions of Texans who lost power from a ferocious winter storm. On the morning of Feb. 17, Christian, the chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s natural gas industry, phoned into the agency’s emergency Zoom meeting to test drive a statement that could spin the crisis in favor of oil and gas.

“The takeaway from this storm should not be the future of fossil fuels, but the dangers of subsidizing and mandating intermittent, unreliable forms of energy at the expense of using our resources to make the grid more resilient to extreme weather events,” Christian said.

It took less than 24 hours for the statement to become gospel — and for wind and solar, which played bit parts in the winter storm tragedy, to be cast as arch villains.

Long before public officials could take inventory of the storm’s damage — as many as 700 people dead, more than 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses, including 1.4 million in the Houston area, were without power for days — Christian’s chief goal seemed to have nothing to do with protecting Texans and everything to do with protecting industry, and his political career. In email responses, he doubled down on absolving the natural gas industry, according to the Texas Tribune, even including his statement in a newsletter to his political supporters.

Meanwhile, Christian’s fellow commissioner and the agency’s former chairwoman, Christi Craddick, declared that the industry did not need to uniformly weatherize — “one-size-fits-all is always a challenge for us,” she told the Legislature. She told a U.S. House committee in March that the oil and gas industry were not the problem, but rather “the solution.”

“Any issues of frozen (natural gas) equipment could have been avoided had the production facilities not been shut down by power outages,” Craddick said. (The RRC’s third commissioner, Jim Wright, was elected last November, and had only been in office a short time when the storm struck.)

Running interference was the last thing Texas or the natural gas industry needed from state regulators. Consumers as well as everyone involved in keeping the lights on in Texas needed one thing above all else from their government officials: the truth. And the truth of Winter Storm Uri was that a sudden cold snap brought Texas’ vaunted independent power grid to within minutes of a weeks-long collapse, not primarily because wind energy is unreliable, nor because gas companies bungled paperwork.

Texans died because our infrastructure wasn’t ready for even a three-day cold spell. It wasn’t ready because the companies that build and maintain that infrastructure hadn’t done the necessary weatherizing to prepare for extreme cold. They hadn’t done it, in part, because no one in government told them they had to.

Christian and Craddick misled Texans about the causes of the deadly blackouts. They’ve failed to insist that gas suppliers make urgent investments to winterize facilities and equipment. As such, the commissioners have left us in danger of another grid disaster.

For that, they should resign.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Agency released a 300-page report earlier this month, concluding that while all parts of the energy industry shouldered blame for the blackout, natural gas operators’ frozen equipment cut off twice as much gas supply as the utilities’ rolling blackouts and downed power lines. According to the report, the gas industry’s failure to weatherize caused nearly 60 percent of power outages to occur at natural gas-fired plants, rebuking Craddick’s testimony.

After a similar statewide blackout in 2011, the same federal agency recommended weatherizing both power plants and the natural gas supply. Those warnings were ignored and history repeated itself.

In a statement to the editorial board, Craddick stood by her testimony to lawmakers and Congress, asserting the federal report “begs more questions than answers.” Christian’s spokesman said he’s “working on a full response on this subject and will have that ready following the commission’s open meeting on Nov. 30.”

More than two-thirds of the campaign donations to the sitting commissioners have come from oil and gas allies, according to Commission Shift, an activist group campaigning for more stringent ethics rules. The group raises a good question: If all three commissioners are permitted to trade oil and gas stocks, why would they crack down on an industry that keeps them flush with cash?

We know the answer. And we know the consequences of an agency rife with conflicts of interest: Texas is as vulnerable to a potential blackout as it was a year ago. A recent analysis from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas found that the state could be in for a repeat of last winter’s storm, with widespread outages if the cold forces power plants offline at times of peak electricity demand.

ERCOT acknowledged that some power plants have improved their weatherization, but largely on their own volition. While the Legislature passed changes to shore up the power grid, its implementation is left to the Railroad Commission, which has allowed broad discretion, leniency and minimal fines. Case in point: a proposed rule, to be finalized at the Nov. 30 meeting, lets natural gas producers obtain a weatherization exemption for a mere $150.

Outraged lawmakers are demanding commissioners scrap the rule. If they had any concern for Texans’ safety, they would listen.

How many more times will Texas have to suffer through massive outages before the commission fulfills its duty? Gov. Greg Abbott installed new leadership at ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission, with officials in place who at least appear to be taking winter preparations seriously.

The governor doesn’t have the same power to clean house at the Railroad Commission. That’s why it’s up to Craddick and Christian to resign.

Craddick was always a dubious fit for the job, given her family’s financial ties to the natural gas industry. Her attempt to influence state and federal policy by peddling oil and gas fan fiction just confirmed her true loyalty is not to voters.

Christian, the Patient Zero for this infectious narrative on the culpability of renewable energy, faces re-election next year, if he doesn’t resign. We’re looking for a challenger who sees Texas’ success in developing wind energy and other renewable fuels as a complement to oil and gas sectors, rather than as the object of “clean energy fantasies” as Christian put it recently.

Here in the Lone Star State, we’ve learned not to expect much from public servants elected to police industry.

But should we settle for regulators who have ignored calls for reforms after two storms, who have prioritized industry’s bottom line — and their own political careers — over protecting Texans’ lives and businesses from blackouts, and who, as we speak, are preparing to loosen weatherization rules as winter approaches and Texas’ power grid is as vulnerable as ever?

We shouldn’t.

This is nobody’s idea of good government — or even competent government.

Not even in Texas.

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(1) comment

C Droost

“Texas is as vulnerable to a potential blackout as it was a year ago.” … “Here in the Lone Star State, we’ve learned not to expect much from public servants elected to police industry.” Pretty much says it all.

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