This editorial first appeared in the Houston Chronicle. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
Headlines are half the battle, in the newspaper business and in the politics business. Sometimes, it’s all people read. Often, it’s all they remember.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other smart folks at the Texas Legislature know this. It’s why, when Patrick announced last week that the Senate had passed a comprehensive bill responding to last month’s deadly energy blackout, he trumpeted words such as “reform” and “revolutionize” in his press release.
To be sure, the legislation did address the vulnerabilities the winter storm revealed: It would ban “wholesale index plans” in an effort to protect consumers from the kind of erratic price spikes that stuck Griddy customers with electric bills in the thousands. It would improve coordination between the electricity and gas sectors so the right hand knows what the left is doing in the next crisis.
Of course, Republican architects of the bill also used a statewide crisis that killed 111 people to take a cheap shot at renewable energy, sticking wind and solar with a fee to seemingly punish them for any drops in generation caused by Mother Nature’s whim. That qualifies for its own editorial, but for now, we’ll call it what it is: shameless political opportunism aimed at helping the oil and gas industry profit off Texans’ misery.
Back to Patrick and weatherization. There’s a reason the very first provision he lauded in his press release was a fine of up to $1 million per day for energy companies that fail to “weatherize” for extreme conditions.
Such a fine would indeed be significant in a state that for decades has refused to even require companies to weatherize the vast network of generation, transmission and natural gas facilities and pipelines that help fuel Texas’ independent energy grid. Failure of companies to engage in basic emergency planning, and failure of lawmakers to require them to prepare their facilities for extreme cold, led to frozen wellheads and wind turbines and gas facilities, forcing nearly half the power Texas needed offline.
We credit Gov. Greg Abbott for promptly declaring weatherization an emergency this session and Patrick for making it a keystone of Senate Bill 3.
But this editorial board will save its superlatives for the day the $1 million fine actually becomes law, the day a bill passes that truly holds industry and regulators accountable and assures Texans that the kind of disaster we saw in February never happens again.
At this point, we have our doubts. For one thing, the bill by Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, is vague or silent about how weatherization requirements would be implemented and enforced and gives too much discretion to regulatory agencies who have shown unwillingness to regulate.
Just consider: the official responsible for making sure oil and gas operators comply with weatherization is Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, who, as we wrote Sunday, has opposed weatherization requirements in the past and refuses to require operators to fill out a free, simple, 2½-page form exempting them from having their power shut off during blackouts so they can keep fueling power plants.
We’re not suggesting Craddick wouldn’t follow the letter of the law. But who will make sure she and other commissioners would follow the spirit of it, vigilantly enforcing and monitoring industry to ensure expensive weatherization upgrades are completed and maintained?
Environmental advocates have long complained about the Railroad Commission’s lax enforcement, infrequent inspections and fines too small to achieve compliance. In May, the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter lamented the agency’s unambitious goal of inspecting wells once every five years, its nonexistent system for tracking complaints and its secrecy on pipeline safety, which worsened after detailed data was removed from its website.
Yet, it’s this agency, along with the Public Utility Commission, that the Senate bill relies on to set penalty guidelines on weatherization, ranging from a letter of reprimand up to $1 million per day. Operative phrase: “up to.”
Even if industry follows weatherization requirements to a T, will ratepayers get stuck with the bill or will lawmakers find a way to protect consumers? That’s the concern of many, including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who championed consumer rights as a state lawmaker.
“Requiring weatherization of those in the energy supply chain is a positive step forward,” he said in a statement to the editorial board last week. “The question is who will pay for it.”
It’s an issue House members should seriously consider when they offer amendments to the Senate bill. Another is addressing one of the core culprits of the Texas blackout: the perverse incentive our system gives energy companies to profit off crisis. In February, seemingly the only tool Texas had to prop up the failing grid was to price energy through the roof so generators had adequate motivation to jump in.
There’s got to be another way.
The only incentive for lawmakers to find it, and other solutions, is pressure from those who put them in office and have the power to remove them. Lawmakers have to know you’re paying attention, that you expect them to represent you and not industry, and that you’re reading past the beaming headlines to see if they really, truly lead to revolution.