AUSTIN: Like frozen Texas suffers one of the worst power outages in US history, Republican governor Greg abbott it has blamed grid operators and frozen wind turbines, but it has been easier on another culprit: an oil and gas industry that is the state’s dominant business and its largest political contributor.
And as the death toll worsened Saturday from a week of historic winter storms, which have killed more than 20 people in Texas, the dogs piled up in a power grid which is proudly isolated from the rest of the country ignores known warnings by the state GOP leaders for years.
“It’s almost like a murder suspect blaming his right hand for committing the crime,” said Democratic State Representative James Talarico. Their suburban Austin home was without power for 40 hours and the taps were out Thursday, when about one in four people in Texas woke up to instructions to boil water.
Like most of the state’s 30 million residents, Talarico’s power is controlled by the electrical grid managers of the Texas Electrical Reliability Council, which Abbott re-established Thursday after more than 4 million people in one moment they will withstand cuts in freezing temperatures.
But that’s not where the responsibility ends, as the power plants that feed the grid were taken out of service by extreme cold and natural gas producers failed to protect wellheads or lines from freezing. “ERCOT is a convenient scapegoat,” Talarico said.
The crisis has put the fossil fuel industry lavishing the Texas Capitol with money in its sights in a way that Abbott has not had to navigate when leading America’s second-largest state through other disasters, including hurricanes and the ongoing pandemic. For the first time on Thursday, Abbott asked Texas to order that the power plants be winterized.
Oil and gas built and enriched Texas, and with it its politicians, including those who became president. But none have garnered 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 American history.
Texas Energy Interests are the largest backers of its political rise, and has not ruled out a White House it will run in 2024. More than $ 26 million of its contributions come from the oil and gas industry, more than any other economic sector, according to an analysis by the National Institute for Money in Politics.
When the Texas network began to bend early Monday, Abbott sparked a backlash overnight after continuing. Fox News and blaming solar and wind power producers, at a time when natural gas, coal and nuclear power energy systems they were responsible for almost twice as many outages.
Pressed by those comments later, Abbott took a softer tone and acknowledged that all sources of power had been compromised. Frozen natural gas lines also left millions without power in Mexico.
Abbott accused ERCOT of misleading the public with messages that the network was ready for the storm.
“It is especially unacceptable when you realize what ERCOT told the state of Texas,” Abbott said.
ERCOT is overseen by the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, whose three members are appointed by Abbott. While ERCOT manages most of the Texas power grid, the Texas commission and Legislature made key policy decisions that have influenced the current crisis.
After the state’s last major freeze, during the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington, Texas, a federal analysis found that power producers’ procedures for winterizing their equipment “were either inadequate or not properly followed” in many cases. The report repeatedly cites another Texas freeze, in 1989, as a clear warning.
In colder climates it is essential to position power generators against fierce winter weather. In Iowa, where wind farms supply 40% of the state’s electricity, windmills have been running all week despite temperatures dropping to minus 17 degrees (minus 27 degrees Celsius) in Des Moines. In Texas, grid officials say they can’t talk about why power generators here aren’t doing the same.
A decade ago, the report on the latest Texas failure listed several ways to winterize an oil well or natural gas device and the estimated costs: installing a cold-weather production unit ($ 23,000), collecting the vented gas from an injection pump to supply a heater ($ 675) or build a fiberglass hut to enclose production equipment ($ 1,500).
In 2011, 50,000 wells – just under a third of the total number of active natural gas wells in Texas – were estimated to winterize as much as $ 1.75 billion, a figure that would almost certainly be higher today due to the 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 and Gas Association.
Republican Ryan Sitton, a peculiarly named former commissioner of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, said a problem with the power plant reinforcement is the cost that is passed on to the electricity customers. On Abbott’s approach to ERCOT, Sitton said: “Asking for research is easy. Actually doing good research and taking ownership of the results is where rubber meets the road.”
He said the oil and gas interests, which generously funded their own political campaigns, do not have the influence the public imagines.
“They make donations, sure. But unless the entire energy industry speaks with a unified voice, which almost never happens, there isn’t that much influence,” Sitton said.