Texas leaders warn of “treacherous” driving conditions and possible local power outages as freezing weather approaches

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference regarding Texas emergency response to an unprecedented winter storm that gripped Texas in February 2021. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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With freezing weather expected to hit a large portion of Texas this week, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday tried to assure Texans that the state is better prepared this year than last, but said there could be local power outages throughout the state.

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“Either ice on power lines ... could cause a power line to go down, or it could be ice on trees that causes a tree to fall on power lines,” Abbott said.

This week’s cold front could be the first significant test of the state’s main power grid since last February’s freeze left millions of Texans without power for days in subfreezing temperatures. Hundreds of people died because of that storm.

“No one can guarantee there won’t be [power outages],” Abbott said Tuesday, just over two months after he promised the lights would stay on this winter.

Abbott and other officials at the press conference warned that the winter storm could cause “treacherous” driving conditions due to snow and ice.

Two hours before Abbott’s Tuesday news conference, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s main power grid, held a conference call with dozens of entities in the Texas power system and told them that gas suppliers have already begun notifying electricity generation companies that some of their expected gas supply will not arrive this week during the freezing weather, according to people on the call who requested anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the call publicly.

The Texas natural gas system’s ability to perform in the cold has been in question since last February, when the winter storm caused power outages and equipment failures that choked off much of the fuel supply to many electricity generators when they needed it most to produce electricity.

After last year’s storm, state lawmakers did not require natural gas companies — which fuel a majority of electricity generation in Texas — to prepare their equipment for the extreme cold before this winter. Meanwhile, lawmakers required most power generation companies to be prepared by this winter.

During the year’s first cold snap over New Year’s weekend, natural gas production in the state’s top energy-producing region dropped by about 20% as parts of Texas briefly experienced freezing weather. A couple weeks later as another cold front approached Texas, subsidiaries for a major pipeline company threatened to cut off natural gas supply to the state’s largest power generator over an ongoing financial dispute stemming from the February 2021 winter storm.

When asked about the natural gas supply Tuesday, Abbott said “there might be some reduction in the generation of natural gas. We can still maintain power grid integrity even if there is a loss of some level of production of natural gas.”

Abbott said gas producers have “taken steps to ensure that we’re going to have the natural gas that we need.”

An ERCOT spokesperson said the grid operator has “planned and prepared” for a drop in natural gas this week.

The natural gas industry has not made significant upgrades since last winter, Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, said in December. But Staples said the industry has been preparing for winter weather for years.

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry, said Tuesday that “natural gas distribution companies are ready for the cold this week.”

Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright, who joined Abbott and top officials from ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission of Texas at the press conference, said the dip in natural gas production over New Year’s weekend is “pretty standard for what we see in the natural gas industry.”

Abbott also warned Texans to avoid potential exposure to carbon monoxide, after thousands of Texans unwittingly unleashed the deadly gas in their homes and apartments during last year’s freeze. At least 11 people died from the gas.

Texas is one of just six states with no statewide requirement for carbon monoxide alarms in homes. Lawmakers have not addressed this following last year’s disaster.

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