Texas lawmakers probe deadly winter storm during day-long hearings

Report: Donors linked to ERCOT board gave Texas House members $700,000 the past two years

Committees from both the Texas Senate and Texas House on Thursday questioned energy executives and the head of the state’s power grid operator during hearings exploring last week’s deadly winter storm and power outages.

AUSTIN – Committees from both the Texas Senate and Texas House on Thursday questioned energy executives and the head of the state’s power grid operator during hearings exploring last week’s deadly winter storm and power outages.

Lawmakers, including state Sen. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, questioned why alerts sent out to the public ahead of a hurricane were not used prior to the storm.

“I think we should have made some sort of public announcement, sort of like we do with hurricanes,” said Menendez.

The upper chamber’s hearing, organized by the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, included lengthy testimony from a meteorologist and Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) President and CEO Bill Magness.

“It’s very hard to maintain civilization for very long in the modern way that we live without electricity service,” said Magness, whose entity, a non-profit in charge of operating the state’s electric grid, has shouldered much of the blame for widespread, prolonged outages.

Magness went through a presentation, similar to one he delivered to ERCOT’s board Wednesday, showing how much load had to be shed from the grid Feb. 15.

A chart included in the presentation showed that the generating capacity of wind energy and to an even greater extent natural gas were greatly impacted that day and that the capacity issues continued for several more days.

Curtis Morgan, CEO of Vistra Corp., an Irving-based energy company, told House members during a joint hearing that energy plants in Texas are built to withstand hot weather and hurricanes, but not frigid temperatures.

“They’re not built, let’s be honest, they’re not built for the winter,” said Morgan, who said energy plants on the east coast are currently constructed the opposite way: they withstand winter weather but do not hold up well to hurricanes.

“This was certainly, to some extent, the performance of generators. But the big story here, again in my opinion, was the failure of the gas system to perform,” said Morgan.

He then described some of the failures, which included well heads freezing, energy processing plants losing electricity and pipes to deliver natural gas freezing.

Political contributions come into focus

A Defenders investigation Wednesday revealed that three current ERCOT board members have donated more than $18,000 to Governor Greg Abbott’s campaigns since 2009, with some of the funds dating back to his days as Texas Attorney General.

Lori Cobos and DeAnn Walker, two Abbott appointees who sit on ERCOT’s board due to their respective positions with the state, are listed among the governor’s lengthy list of political donors.

Cobos was appointed chief executive and public counsel of the Office of Public Utility Counsel (OPUC) by Abbott in March 2019, three months after donating $1,050 to Abbott’s campaign, state contribution records show. Cobos’ salary is $143,000.

Walker, the chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas and a former senior policy advisor to Abbott, contributed $7,620 to Texans for Greg Abbott from 2009 to 2015, state campaign records show. In 2017, Abbott appointed her to lead the PUC, where she makes a $200,000 salary.

Board member Mark Carpenter, a senior vice president with Dallas-based Oncor Electric Delivery, has contributed $10,000 to Texans for Greg Abbott, Abbott’s campaign war chest, since October 2018. He is not an Abbott appointee.

Texas Ethics Commission records also show that three of the 13 representatives on the House Committee on State Affairs, one of the committees that hosted Thursdays hearings, have accepted contributions from ERCOT board member Clifton Karnei.

Among the state lawmakers Karnei has contributed to are representatives Shelby Slawson, Phil King and Matt Shaheen, all Republican members of the state affairs committee now investigating ERCOT.

Of the trio, King received the most contributions from Karnei by far: five between 2004 and 2016 totaling $475, according to TEC records.

Slawson and Shaheen each received $150 last year, records show.

A report released Thursday by Texans for Public Justice, an Austin non-profit that tracks money in Texas politics, shows that political donors tied to ERCOT’s board gave Texas House members more than $700,000 the past two years.

The political action committee of Oncor Electric Delivery, the state’s largest electric utility, and its executives have given well over $420,000 during the time span, according to the report.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.