Virginia Palacios

Virginia Palacios

Over the past two years, Texans have endured multiple back-to-back crises. Between the pandemic, widespread power outages and destructive hurricanes, our local governments have had lots of practice responding to emergencies. Now is the time to ensure that city and county governments are prepared for more power outages this winter, because our state government has not prepared our energy infrastructure.

The Railroad Commission of Texas is one of the most important energy agencies in Texas. Despite its name, the RRC oversees oil and gas development in Texas, and is tasked with securing the reliability of the natural gas supply chain. Even though the majority of Texas electricity comes from natural gas-fired power plants, the RRC has not made any meaningful changes since February to prevent another deadly winter disaster. And the state climatologists office at Texas A&M says we need to be ready for more extreme weather.

Federal investigations of the winter power outages that led to over 700 deaths and up to $130 billion in economic costs show that frozen natural gas wellheads were among the main causes. Over several Texas legislative sessions and dozens of Railroad Commission meetings since February, state leaders had numerous chances to require natural gas suppliers to weatherize their facilities ahead of this winter. They failed to do so.

So if you are a city or county official in Texas, your constituents will be counting on you to have a backup plan. Gov. Abbott has claimed that the state is ready for another winter storm, but without a natural gas supply chain that is ready to operate in the winter, we will be vulnerable to widespread power outages again.

What have state leaders been doing all these months?

They passed a law that will require some natural gas companies to weatherize their gas wells and pipelines, but the penalties for not weatherizing are so weak that most companies will likely just pay the fine.

The Railroad Commission started a process to designate certain facilities as “critical infrastructure,” identifying which facilities will have to comply with those weatherization rules. But operators can opt out by paying a $150 fee and without providing a reason.

Meanwhile big campaign donors like Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren have made billions of dollars off the winter storms.

Everyone who pays a gas or electricity bill in Texas will pay a few dollars more each month for the next 30 years into these billionaires’ pockets. The Texas Legislature could have changed this, but they chose not to.

Railroad commissioners Christi Craddick, Wayne Christian and Jim Wright have so many apparent conflicts of interest with oil and gas interests that it’s hard to imagine them truly cracking down on these companies, even when Texans’ lives are at stake. According to the recent Captive Agency report series from Commission Shift, the oil and gas industry has contributed 67% of all campaign funds to the three railroad commissioners over the last six years.

Because of all this dereliction of duty at the state level, local officials will need to make their own winter preparations to save lives and livelihoods. Cities and counties will need to be ready with warming centers and plans for distributing warming supplies like blankets and coats. Nursing homes and regions with vulnerable populations will need generators and backup power supplies in place.

We’re still in a pandemic, so it’s critical to ensure local officials can keep Texans warm while maintaining social distancing and COVID protocols. This is not the time to let down our guard.

Regions that have invested in distributed generation — producing electricity in smaller amounts at different sites, rather than relying on one large power plant — should see more energy reliability this winter. If your community hasn’t explored building distributed generation like regional wind and solar with battery backup, then now is the time.

The gas supply chain is not prepared, state leaders have not acted fast enough and face enormous influence from the oil and gas industry, which is more focused on avoiding regulation than protecting the safety of Texans.

Texans are resilient, and we have learned that the inaction of state leaders means we have to be even more resilient. Let’s all hope we don’t see a repeat of February’s deadly winter storms and power outages, but we will need to be prepared.

VIRGINIA PALACIOS is executive director of Commission Shift, a nonprofit focused on reforming oil and gas oversight in Texas. She lives on and co-manages her family’s ranch in Webb County, the highest gas-producing county in the Eagle Ford Shale.