Editorial: Why the shock? GOP knew perfectly well industry would use loophole to avoid weatherization

The word of the day in the Lone Star State is “obsequious.” Its dictionary meaning is “servile obedience” or “excessive eagerness to please.” Here’s how to use it in a couple of sentences:

“In a state that prides itself on rugged independence and individualism, Gov. Greg Abbott was embarrassingly obsequious last week in response to a former president’s absurd demand for a Texas ‘audit’ of the 2020 election.”

“The Texas Railroad Commission, the state’s overseer of the powerful oil and gas industry, was as obsequious as the governor when natural gas suppliers sought to weasel out of requirements to weatherize their facilities to avoid a repeat of February’s disastrous winter storm.”

Of course, the Railroad Commission has always been a tool of the industry. Nothing has changed, even in the wake of a winter storm resulting in natural gas production plummeting by nearly half when Texans needed it most. The industry’s failure was a major cause of widespread blackouts that left millions without power, caused billions of dollars in property damage and led to the deaths of 700 people, according to a BuzzFeed analysis.

However, according to a new report prepared by a gas industry trade group, oil and gas companies have no reason to spend what it will take to get ready for a winter-storm repeat.

Don’t look at us, look at the Legislature, the trade group responds. In a way, the group is right. Abbott made weatherizing the state’s electricity generation infrastructure an emergency priority for the regular legislative session. In June, he signed bills lawmakers had crafted to ensure that the weatherization process happened. At the time, Abbott said, “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”

He was wrong, as energy experts noted at the time. They warned that the new rules didn’t go far enough and left too much discretion to the industry. Fines would be minimal, plus the industry would be under the, shall we say, gentle oversight of the Railroad Commission. These elected members, as Chronicle reporter Jeremy Blackman observed last week, “receive funding from the industry and have long opposed weather requirements.”

But when the Railroad Commission acted predictably, letting industry slither through a giant loophole lawmakers had created, Republican lawmakers protested.

State Sen. Robert Nichols, a Republican oil and gas industry ally who keeps a fearsome stuffed hyena in the lobby of his Jacksonville office, bared hyenic teeth, so to speak, in a Senate committee hearing Tuesday with Wei Wang, the Railroad Commission’s executive director.

“I’m very disappointed,” Nichols said, taking issue with a provision in the new law that lets gas companies easily skirt weatherization requirements as long as they don’t declare themselves to be “critical infrastructure” with the state.

“It’s not that hard to come up with the rule on something that’s that critical. ‘Please don’t turn my electricity off, because we’re pumping gas to the power plant,’” Nichols told Wang.

State Sen. Donna Campbell, a New Braunfels Republican, warned that lawmakers would target the Railroad Commission if the agency doesn’t reconsider its ruling.

“You don’t prove up your worth, it could just be moved to the [Public Utility Commission],” she said.

Wang insisted that his agency was merely following the language enacted by the Legislature.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was direct, if typically inelegant. “Your rulemaking process sucks,” he told Wang.

Whitmire knows House Republicans rejected amendments from Democrats during the regular session that would have increased penalties for gas suppliers that failed to make progress on winterization within six months of the measure becoming law.

Wang assured lawmakers his agency is still implementing the new law and is hiring and training inspectors to focus specifically on weather preparations.

“You have had a good seven months,” Campbell said. “…Don’t you think that’s a little late since we sure don’t have seven months before our next winter starts?”

We’re pleased to see Campbell and her GOP colleagues stand up for regular Texans, but where were they last spring?

Actually, we know the answer to that question. She and her fellow Republicans were focused on banning abortion in Texas, making it more difficult to vote, snuffing out elusive “critical race theory” in the public schools and trying to persecute transgender youth. Easier to be obsequious to the governor, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton and their self-serving political ambitions than to protect their fellow Texans.

A report released last June entitled “Never Again: How to Prevent Another Major Texas Electricity Failure,” suggested what could have been done (and still could be). The authors, including five former PUC commissioners, offered 20 recommendations to protect the state’s power system. They called on the state to require backup power at critical facilities, including natural gas facilities; raise energy-efficiency standards in buildings and homes; retrofit existing systems; increase PUC funding and staffing; and improve planning and forecasting at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the agency that operates the electric grid that covers most of the state.

“Natural gas will remain an essential fuel for Texas power generation for years to come,” the authors pointed out. “Thus, natural gas supplies must be more reliable in the future, with formal performance standards for the natural gas production and delivery systems.”

That’s called governance. Unfortunately, it’s sadly lacking on the part of the current officials or serving members of the Legislature. Those folks, just like the for-profit energy companies, failed us, as they have so often after previous storms provoked similar crises and promise to do better.

Our lawmakers are busy redrawing legislative districts, cementing in as best they can their donor-friendly approach to governing.

Their response to the rest of us, regardless of their belated concern in last week’s meeting? Keep those coats and blankets handy. It’s gonna get cold again, and you’re pretty much on your own.

The Houston Chronicle Editorial Board published the aforementioned editorial on October 4, 2021.

The referred to report released in June 2021, “Never Again: How to Prevent Another Major Texas Electricity Failure,” was funded by the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation and Energy Foundation. 

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