‘Blame to go around’

The Texas Capitol grounds are covered in snow on Feb. 15 in Austin, Texas. Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/TNS

AUSTIN, Texas — State lawmakers are promising to ask difficult questions at hearings Thursday that will explore why more than 4 million Texans went without power — many for days — in the middle of a paralyzing winter storm.

Lawmakers are expected to hear testimony from officials with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, which manages the flow of power to more than 26 million Texans; the Railroad Commission, which oversees gas pipelines in the state; and the Public Utility Commission, which oversees utility infrastructure.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around and, certainly, the Texas Legislature has and should have its fair share of that,” said Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, who sits on the House Energy Resource Committee that will hold a joint hearing this week.

But Darby stressed that lawmakers should refrain from casting blame until they develop a better understanding of the events that led to last week’s blackouts.

“We need to understand what happened here,” he said.

Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who heads his chamber’s Business and Commerce Committee, said he also expects to hear testimony from industry representatives, including those who manage wellheads and power generators. Hancock said he wants a “top-to-bottom” examination of the events that led to millions of Texas being left days without power.

“We want to address this professionally and dig as deep and as broad as we need to,” he said.

Hancock defended ERCOT, which in recent days has become the target of state officials including Gov. Greg Abbott, and said the power outages were the result of extreme winter weather which the state is unaccustomed to.

“Their job is just to make sure that we don’t have more energy running out the back door than we have coming in the front door,” he said. “They have managed to keep the grid up and running.”

He said his committee would discuss whether ERCOT board members should live in Texas. The council has received criticism because some of its members, including its chairwoman, live out of state. One North Texas lawmaker, Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, has said he will file a bill to require all its board members and officers to be Texas residents.

“There’s an option: We can find the best and brightest in the state that don’t have conflicts of interest with energy, or we can find the best and brightest in the world,” Hancock said. “It’s a decision to make.”

Officials with ERCOT and other agencies in charge of power supply and generation can expect a grilling.

Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, said that the power outages were dangerous and deadly, and that she would demand answers to ensure that such mass power outages never happen again.

Paxton also said that communications from utility companies and ERCOT to the public “have not been transparent or timely.”

ERCOT entered emergency conditions and started rotating outages on Monday morning. Those outages led to some Texans being left days without power in freezing temperatures.

“That becomes very challenging for families and people with elderly parents who rely on that power to survive,” said Rep. Ana Hernandez, D-Houston, vice chair of the House State Affairs Committee. “They want to know that there’s accountability and how will we prevent this from happening again.”

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said he will ask whether any action could have been taken by ERCOT or any other state agency to avoid the blackouts. Specifically, he said, he’ll ask whether more natural gas could have been available to kick-start power generators in freezing temperatures.

“As I understand it, while there were problems with generation sources themselves, there were generation sources online and available that could not run because they could not get enough gas,” Johnson said.

But Rep. Chris Paddie, who leads the House State Affairs Committee, which will hold a joint hearing on the matter, cautioned the public to manage its expectations.

“This is a first step. We’re not going to solve everything on Thursday. This is a first step to begin with to ask the question of ‘What happened?’” he said, adding that this week’s meetings will help shape the state’s response going forward.

Longtime lawmakers said they will examine whether the state has implemented the lessons it learned from 2011, when a winter storm also led to failed power plants and rolling blackouts. After those outages, the Legislature called for the Public Utility Commission to review power generators’ emergency preparedness reports, determine the power grid’s ability to withstand extreme weather and recommend improvements to emergency operation plans.

But after new mass outages in extreme weather, lawmakers are questioning whether the state’s plans to “winterize” power generation facilities and infrastructure have fallen short.

“The Legislature shares some of that blame because we probably didn’t stand on them hard enough to get them winterized,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

Lawmakers will also question the Public Utility Commission’s oversight of ERCOT and its actions leading up to last week’s power outages.

“There was clearly a discussion back in 2011 about whether or not PUC needed additional tools in their oversight of ERCOT, and the representation was made that they had enough,” Darby said. “Clearly, I’m questioning that response now. Do we need more legislative mandates in order for the PUC to have the authority to look at these plans and make sure they’re being implemented and that they’re based upon sound standards?”

In the Senate, Republican Joan Huffman of Houston, who leads the committee on jurisprudence, announced she will hold additional hearings on whether more PUC oversight could have prevented last week’s blackouts and the ongoing public utility crisis.

“The Senate Committee on Jurisprudence is committed to investigating the legal implications of ERCOT’s and the PUC’s action, or inaction, in contributing to this catastrophe across our state,” Huffman said in a statement. “If there are ambiguities, inconsistencies, or potential deficiencies in state law, they must be addressed immediately through legislative action.”

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