No, Biden did not prohibit Texas power plants from operating at maximum capacity before winter disaster

Trust Index: Claims that Biden’s Acting Secretary of Energy did not waive environmental restrictions false

In the wake of last week’s winter storm, many people are looking for someone to blame for the power outages that left millions of Texans in the dark for days. One claim making the rounds on social media alleged the Biden administration played a role in throttling power production in the name of protecting the environment.

We found similar claims being made in numerous social media posts alleging Acting Secretary of Energy, David Huizenga, did not waive environmental restrictions to allow for maximum energy output during the worst arctic blast to hit Texas in decades.

But is that really what happened? After digging into the evidence behind these claims, KSAT’s Trust Index team has determined those social media posts are not true.

Not True

After reviewing this topic, we've found some issues - It's not true.

As snow was falling in San Antonio on Valentine’s Day, ERCOT President and CEO Bill Magness sent a letter to Huizenga requesting an emergency order from the Department of Energy “authorizing all electric generating units located within the ERCOT interconnection to operate up to their maximum generation output levels ... notwithstanding air quality or other permit limitations.”

Magness acknowledged doing so would mean many of the units would exceed federal emissions and other environmental permit limits which he requested be allowed from Feb. 14 through Feb. 19.

Magness stated, “ERCOT has been notified by three major generation owners that their generating units will, or are likely to, encounter operating restrictions during the next several days due to various emissions and other limits established in federal permits.”

He added, “Because the output from all of the generators subject to these restrictions would help mitigate the impact of rotating outages on Texas consumers during this extreme cold weather event, ERCOT seeks an immediate order from DOE authorizing the provision of additional energy from all generating units subject to emissions and other permit limitations.”

Magness spelled out that using the units was a last resort and necessary to protect the grid and outweighed any potential harm to the environment.

“ERCOT does not lightly request this authorization. It understands the importance of the environmental permit limits that are at issue,” Magness wrote. “However, in ERCOT’s judgment, the loss of power to homes and local businesses in the areas affected by curtailments presents a far greater risk to public health and safety than the temporary exceedances of those permit limits that would be allowed under the requested order.”

Acting Secretary Huizenga quickly responded, issuing an emergency order granting the request from ERCOT.

In the DOE order, Huizenga stated, “Given the emergency nature of the expected load stress, the responsibility of ERCOT to ensure maximum reliability on its system, and the ability of ERCOT to identify and dispatch generation necessary to meet the additional load, I have determined that additional dispatch of the Specified Resources is necessary to best meet the emergency and serve the public interest ... because the additional generation may result in a conflict with environmental standards and requirements, I am authorizing only the necessary additional generation.”

Huizenga then spelled out reporting requirements that ERCOT would need to follow while the emergency order was in effect and limited the additional power generation to the time period requested by ERCOT.

“It looks like the Biden administration pretty much gave ERCOT what it asked for,” said Dr. Daniel Cohan, Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering for Rice University. “There was nothing in what the Biden administration did that would have contributed to the blackouts we had that were really a Texas-grown problem.”

The Cohan Research Group studies how energy use impacts the atmosphere and in turn how air pollution impacts humans. While it’s not ideal to have power generators exceed environmental limits, Cohan said it was necessary during this emergency.

“You wouldn’t want that to happen very often. But you have a rare arctic blast coming through and they realized they might be in a pinch,” Cohan said. “And so the Biden administration gave them everything they asked for to be able to keep those power plants running.”

Cohan thinks the social media claims suggesting the Biden administration somehow throttled power production are off-base.

”I mean, this is preposterous because from everything that I’ve seen, Department of Energy gave ERCOT everything it wanted and being able to have the flexibility to let power plants run if they really needed, even if that meant more emissions, because we know keeping the lights on is most important of all,” Cohan said.

The social media posts also allege the Biden administration forced ERCOT to increase its rates when in reality the order only specified that ERCOT could use those power generators if market prices went above $1,500 per megawatt hour.

”ERCOT wasn’t asking to be able to pollute away or emit as much as possible, ERCOT saw this as last resort,” Cohan said. “It looked like a pretty reasonable request and in response, they set a target saying that we won’t do this unless the prices hit $1,500 a megawatt hour. And as we saw, prices actually hit their cap of $9,000. So there was quite a range between the point at which you start calling on these polluting sources and what we ended up hitting.”

While there were many failures on the part of ERCOT, in this case, they did the right thing with the help of the Department of Energy.

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About the Authors:

Dale Keller is senior news photographer at KSAT-12.