Power crews work in a darkened apartment complex after a second winter storm brought more snow and continued freezing temperatures, and continuing power outages, to North Texas on Feb. 16, 2021, in Richardson. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News) This op-ed is part of a series published by The […]
This op-ed is part of a series published by The Dallas Morning News Opinion section to explore ideas and policies for strengthening electric reliability. Find the full series here: Keeping the Lights On.
A bill that is supposedly about forcing Texas energy operators to weatherize their equipment and protect us from deadly winter storms like one we endured in February will soon be debated on the floor of the state House of Representatives.
Unfortunately, the legislation is all talk and no teeth.
Since 1950, parts of the Texas grid have failed 14 times due to freezing weather. Time after time, the failure of energy producers and suppliers to prepare for severe winter weather has been cited as the cause. That’s because time after time, utility company lobbyists wielding big campaign checks have persuaded legislators and regulators to look the other way. As result, they’ve ignored opportunities to beef up state law and force utilities to prepare for these dangerous storms or set penalties when they fail to get the job done.
Senate Bill 3 does require regulators to develop rules that spell out the steps energy producers must take to winterize their plants and equipment. But the legislation fails to set deadlines for action or establish penalties that exceed the cost of actually investing in adequate protections against freezing weather.
When a winter storm is looming, responsible Texans — especially those who have suffered through a previous winter deep freeze — check the antifreeze in their car radiators and wrap pipes in their homes that are vulnerable to freezing. And, indeed, responsible energy producers weatherize their plants. But the bad actors don’t.
Some energy producers have repeatedly failed to weatherize, only to see their equipment freeze and fail. Without the threat of significant penalties they will fail again when the next winter blast pummels Texas. And the state climatologist says more frequent severe winter storms are likely over the next 15 years. We should require agencies to use those projections in setting their weatherization standards.
Senate Bill 3 would impose a paltry minimum $1,000 penalty against utilities that fail to meet weatherization standards set forth in the bill. That’s much cheaper than investing in the needed protections.
After a deep winter freeze in 2011 left some Texas homes and businesses cold and in the dark for more than eight hours, the Gas Research Institute recommended “methanol injection to prevent freezing” of natural gas equipment. Injecting methanol (an antifreeze type solution) is a common practice for freeze protection of wellbores and pipelines.
The Gas Research Institute reported that methanol injection and a solar-powered pump system can be installed for approximately $2,800 per application with methanol costs totaling about $12 per day.
Penalties for failing to weatherize should be at least as much as the cost of doing so. The Texas Legislature will accomplish nothing on this front if penalties for failing to weatherize are, effectively, just a lower cost of doing business than making the needed improvements to the infrastructure.
It’s the job of legislators and regulators to protect us from the bad actors. Prudent operators support mandates that require all energy producers to weatherize. It helps assure that they aren’t undercut in price by operators that don’t prepare.
It’s time for the regulators and legislators to do their jobs. There were three blackouts in the last decade. After the 2018 freeze, federal inspectors challenged Texas lawmakers to act. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corp. said, “Statutes should ideally direct utility commissions to develop best winterization practices for its state, and make winterization plans mandatory.” The Texas Legislature has adopted laws that send a three-time felon or drunk driver to prison. Why shouldn’t we do the same for energy company executives whose negligence resulted in power outages that led to nearly 200 deaths?
My dad used to say: the first time you make a mistake you’re ignorant, the second time you make the mistake you’re stupid, the third time you’re a fool. Repeated mistakes by Texas leaders have turned deadly. It’s time they learned their lesson and start acting to protect us from the deadly failures of the past. They need to force operators to weatherize on an aggressive timeline and harshly penalize those who don’t.
I challenge Gov. Greg Abbott to keep his promise to fix this mess and make sure it doesn’t happen again. If the Legislature doesn’t get the job done by the end of the session on Memorial Day, he needs to call them back for special session after special session until they get deadlines and penalties in place. Our lives depend on it.
Tom “Smitty” Smith is the retired director of the Texas office of Public Citizen who has been through too many winter storms.