Analysis: A power test for Texas voters

In the wake of last years winter storm, officials on the Texas Railroad Commission were more often apologists for natural gas providers than watchdogs for the millions of Texans who went without heat and light for the better part of a week. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune, Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

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Unconventional Wisdom - March 16, 2022

You remember how, after a nasty winter storm shut off the power in Texas and killed at least 246 people last year, the state’s top officials fired a bunch of regulators and others who oversee the electric grid in Texas?

Some of that was probably deserved. Some of it was finger-pointing and blame-shifting. And whatever you think about dumping the appointees and leaving the elected people at the top of the government untouched, one corner of the state’s energy oversight was left alone.

That corner: the Texas Railroad Commission, set up to regulate the oil and gas business, a pillar of the state economy for decades. The agency has been a captive of the industry for decades, with commissioners relying on political donations from the oil and gas interests they are elected to regulate. In the wake of last year’s storm, the commissioners were more often apologists for natural gas providers than watchdogs for the millions of Texans who went without heat and light for the better part of a week.

While Texas officials were sweeping out appointees who regulate and operate the state’s electric grid, while also changing laws to try to prevent a repeat of February 2021’s nearly statewide power blackouts, they were more lenient with the industry that supplies fuel to many power plants and to that industry’s regulators.

Now the brooms are in the hands of voters. The state’s three railroad commissioners are elected to staggered six-year terms, one on the ballot every two years. Voters can’t throw out more than one at a time, but they can send messages — both to someone on the ballot and to others who’ll be on the ballot soon enough.

That’s already started. Republican voters, asked in their primary to give another term to Wayne Christian, instead sent him to a May runoff with Sarah Stogner, a political newcomer. He got three times the number of votes Stogner got, while also failing to win the support of more than half of his own party’s voters. The runoff winner will face Luke Warford, a Democrat, in the November general election.

It’s Christian’s turn on the ballot, and unfortunately for him, railroad commissioners are not well-known enough for their popularity to overcome political hazards. The big hazard in this year’s race is a perennial one — the comfy relationship between the oil and gas industry in Texas and its regulators — that has been put into high relief by the role natural gas played in last year’s blackouts.

After that disaster, the governor, the lieutenant governor and others demanded the heads of those on the the state’s Public Utility Commission, which oversees the electric industry, and the board members and executive director of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the grid and keeps electricity demand and supply in balance.

The Legislature made some new laws, requiring electric plants to winterize against future storms, and to put together lists of natural gas providers — to ensure that those facilities aren’t shut down by blackouts.

Industry groups like the Texas Oil & Gas Association contend that problems at electric plants caused more problems than problems getting natural gas to gas-fueled plants. But regulatory postmortems point to natural gas availability as a major cause of the blackouts.

Natural gas providers had issues of their own with the cold weather — and haven’t yet been required to do the same kind of weatherizing required of electric plants. And the symbiosis between the providers and the generators — getting electricity to gas providers to keep them from freezing so they can provide the gas used to generate electricity — hasn’t been fully patched.

Because the Railroad Commission is elected, the governor and others couldn’t punish the commissioners like they did with the PUC and ERCOT. And because the Legislature is historically deferential to the oil and gas industry, it wasn’t hit with the same kinds of regulatory changes lawmakers directed at the state’s power generating and transmission companies.

The state has more work to do, and many legislators will admit as much, right out loud. They’re out asking voters about that and a zillion other issues as they campaign for their own reelections.

Whether or not Christian wins another term regulating oil and gas, voters have a chance to tell commissioners and other elected officials how important — or unimportant — it is to make the state’s electric grid reliable in extreme weather.

Disclosure: The Texas Oil & Gas Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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