Texas: TWitter @zanexdaniel

Texas: TWitter @zanexdaniel

Winter storm knocks out power for days, kills 9 in Texas

More than 4 million people at one point were enduring outages in subfreezing temperatures.

By Paul J. Weber And Nomaan Merchant

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

As frozen Texas reels under one of the worst electricity outages in U.S. history, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has blamed grid operators and iced-over wind turbines but gone easier on another culprit: an oil and gas industry that is the state’s dominant business and his biggest political contributor.

And as the toll deepened Thursday from a week of historic winter storms, which have killed at least nine people in Texas, the dogpiling on a power grid that is proudly isolated from the rest of the country ignores warnings known by the state’s GOP leaders for years.

“It’s almost like a murder suspect blaming their right hand for committing the crime,” said Democratic state Rep. James Talarico. His suburban Austin home lost power for 40 hours and had no working faucets Thursday, when roughly 1 in 4 people in Texas woke up under instructions to boil water.

Like most of the state’s 30 million residents, Talarico’s power is controlled by grid managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which Abbott again laid into Thursday after more than 4 million people at one point were enduring outages in subfreezing temperatures.

But that is not where the responsibility ends, as power plants that feed the grid were knocked offline by the extreme cold, and natural gas producers didn’t protect wellheads from freezing. “ERCOT is a convenient whipping boy,” Talarico said.

The crisis has put the fossil fuel industry that lavishes the Texas Capitol with money in the crosshairs in ways that Abbott has not had to navigate when steering America’s second-largest state through other disasters, including hurricanes and the ongoing pandemic. For the first time Thursday, Abbott called on Texas to mandate that power plants be winterized.

Oil and gas built and enriched Texas, and with that its politicians, including those who became president. But none has reaped campaign contributions on the scale of Abbott, who in six years in office has raised more than $150 million from donors, more than any governor in U.S. history.

READ MORE: Grand jury rejects charges against officer in Atlanta teen’s death

Texas’ energy interests are the biggest backers of his political rise, and he has not ruled out a White House run in 2024. More than $26 million of his contributions have come from the oil and gas industry, more than any other economic sector, according to an analysis by the National Institute on Money in Politics.

As Texas’ grid first began buckling early Monday, Abbott drew overnight backlash after going on Fox News and laying fault on solar and wind producers, at a time when natural gas, coal and nuclear energy systems were responsible for nearly twice as many outages.

Pressed on those comments later, Abbott took a softer tone and acknowledged every source of power had been compromised. But he accused ERCOT of misleading the public with messages that the grid was ready for the storm.

“It’s especially unacceptable when you realize what ERCOT told the state of Texas,” Abbott said.

ERCOT is overseen by the Texas Public Utility Commission, whose three members are appointed by Abbott. While ERCOT manages most of Texas’ power grid, the commission and the Texas Legislature make key policy decisions that have factored into the ongoing crisis.

After the state’s last major freeze, during the 2011 Super Bowl held in Arlington, Texas, a federal analysis found that energy producers’ procedures for winterizing their equipment “were either inadequate or were not adequately followed” in many cases. The report repeatedly cites another Texas freeze, in 1989, as a clear warning.

Girding power generators against fierce winter weather is essential in colder climates. In Iowa, where wind farms supply 40% of the state’s electricity, windmills have been turning all week despite temperatures that dropped to minus 17 degrees in Des Moines. In Texas, grid officials say they can’t speak for why power generators here don’t do the same.

A decade ago, the report on the last Texas failure lists a number of ways to winterize an oil well or a natural gas device and the estimated costs: installing a cold-weather production unit ($23,000), collecting gas vented from an injection pump to supply a heater ($675), or building a fiberglass hut to enclose the production equipment ($1,500).

Winterizing 50,000 wells — just under a third of the number of total natural gas wells active in Texas — was estimated in 2011 to cost as much as $1.75 billion, a figure that would almost certainly be higher today due to inflation. By comparison, the Texas oil and natural gas industry paid $13.9 billion in taxes and royalties last year alone, according to figures from the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

Republican Ryan Sitton, the former commissioner of the peculiarly named Texas Railroad Commission that regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, said an issue with bolstering power plants is the cost passed on to electric customers. Of Abbott’s focus on ERCOT, Sitton said, “Calling for an investigation is easy. Actually performing a good investigation and taking ownership of the results is where the rubber meets the road.”

He said oil and gas interests, which generously funded his own political campaigns, don’t hold the sway the public imagines.

“They make donations, sure. But unless the entire energy is speaking with a unified voice, which almost never happens, there’s not that much influence,” Sitton said.

READ MORE: U.S. lawyer accused of smuggling guns across Osoyoos border goes to trial this fall

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Snow

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An officer collects forensic evidence from a police SUV following the July 18, 2015 incident that ended in the police-shooting death of Hudson Brooks in South Surrey. (File photo)
Experts discuss toxicology, use-of-force at inquest into fatal 2015 police shooting in South Surrey

Proceedings could lead to recommendations for preventing similar deaths

Longtime Earl Marriott Secondary rugby coach Adam Roberts said he’s concerned that young athletes are losing motivation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has cancelled high-school sports seasons since last spring. (Janice Croze photo)
COVID-19: Stress, lack of activity a consequence of pandemic

‘There’s nothing really driving’ students right now, says South Surrey rugby coach

Photo: Surrey RCMP
Surrey RCMP arrests two boys, age 16, during dial-a-dope investigation in Whalley

Sergeant Elenore Sturko said one boy is ‘alleged to have been in possession of a loaded handgun at the time of his arrest’

(Photo: junioreinsteinsacademy.ca)
Nearly 300 new child-care spaces coming to Surrey

Provincial funding to benefit five centres

A reminder to students at Surrey’s Strawberry Hill Elementary to physically distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
7 Surrey schools reporting possible COVID-19 exposures; no variants reported overnight

INTERACTIVE TABLE: Search for schools, organize by exposure dates

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon speaks in the B.C. legislature, describing work underway to make a small business and tourism aid package less restrictive, Dec. 10, 2020. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends deadline for tourism, small business COVID-19 grants

Business owners expect months more of lost revenues

Anti-pipeline protests continue in Greater Vancouver, with the latest happening Thursday, March 4 at a Trans Mountain construction site in Burnaby. (Facebook/Laurel Dykstra)
A dozen faith-based protestors blockade Burnaby Trans Mountain site in prayer

The group arrived early Thursday, planning to ‘block any further work’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Mid day at the Vancouver Port Intersection blockade on March 3, organized by the Braided Warriors. (Zoë Ducklow photo)
Anti-pipeline blockade at Vancouver intersection broken up by police

Demonstraters were demanding the release of a fellow anti-TMX protester

(Government of B.C.)
Backcountry skiers are dwarfed by the mountains as they make their way along a mountain ridge near McGillivray Pass Lodge located in the southern Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. Avalanche Canada has issued a special warning to people who use the backcountry in the mountains of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Avalanche Canada special warning for mountains in western Alberta, eastern B.C.

Avalanche Canada also says everyone in a backcountry party needs essential rescue gear

A recently finished $4.3-million taxiway extension at the Victoria International Airport (not pictured) is unusable because of a blind spot. (Black Press Media file photo)
Blind spot leaves Victoria airport’s new $4.3-million taxiway extension unusable

Solution has been put on hold by COVID-19 pandemic, says airport authority

The City of Vancouver estimates there are 3,500 Canada geese in the city right now, and that number is growing. (Bruce Hogarth)
Help tame Vancouver’s Canada goose population by reporting nests: park officials

The city is asking residents to be on the lookout so staff can remove nests or addle eggs

Most Read