by Virginia Palacios
This op-ed is part of a series published by The Dallas Morning News Opinion section to explore ideas and policies for strengthening electric reliability. Find the full series here: Keeping the Lights On.
The winter power blackouts that killed more than 100 Texans and caused millions to suffer were predictable and preventable. While most of the blame has gone to ERCOT and the Public Utility Commission, the Railroad Commission of Texas was also responsible and needs reform.
Our electricity grid has had rolling blackouts at least five times in the last 32 years. Ten years ago, National Energy Reliability Commission investigators identified poor winterization of gas wells as one reason for gas supply failures in 1989, 2003 and 2011 and recommended that the state consider uniform standards for natural gas production and processing facilities. State regulators failed to do so.
Since last month’s deadly storms, Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright said the Railroad Commission will still not require wellhead winterization. Railroad Commission Chair Christie Craddick repeatedly deflected questions about winterization from lawmakers — directing attention instead to a loss of electricity at well sites and compressor stations. The commissioners seem to keep deflecting blame away from their agency, unwilling to own up to their repeated high-consequence failures to do their job.
In testimony last month at the state capitol, Craddick said that prudent operators already have an incentive to winterize their wells, noting, “if you’re offline you’re not making any money.” But Craddick couldn’t answer a question about which operators are winterizing. A state agency with oversight of infrastructure that has failed multiple times before should know more about the progress operators are making in preventing future failures.
During her testimony, Craddick also heard from friendly legislators quick to commend her for the natural gas industry being able to provide any gas supply at all during the crisis.
When an airplane crashes halfway to its destination, we don’t applaud the airline for getting its passengers halfway there. The National Transportation Safety Board conducts an investigation, and the Federal Aviation Administration enforces or, if necessary, changes its rules.
The reaction at the Capitol to the performance of the oil and gas industry during the freeze should prompt Texans to ask if lawmakers and regulators are unable to critically analyze systemic failures in the gas supply chain.
As elected officials, railroad commissioners may have an incentive to deflect blame in the hopes of being re-elected. Oil and gas companies have funded many Railroad Commission campaigns, contributing to Craddick’s campaign, too, creating a conflict of interest for the people of Texas who rely on the commission to make sound and unbiased data-driven decisions.
What we need from lawmakers and the Railroad Commission is an adaptive management approach including a detailed analysis of what went wrong, management of system weaknesses, and predictions of where system failures may occur in the future. Then, we need the commission to implement requirements that will prevent additional failures in future extreme weather events. Now is not the time to rely solely on existing market incentives.
As we move through spring, it may be sufficient in the short term for the Railroad Commission to point fingers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and the PUC for not “keeping the oil field on,” as one lawmaker put it. But it will cost more lives and money in the future if we don’t get wellhead winterization right before the next freeze. As the Texas Legislature evaluates restructuring the agencies we rely on for electricity, leaders must include the Railroad Commission on that list.
The Railroad Commission has failed to oversee the Texas oil and gas industry, and last month those failures led to the tragic deaths. The Texas Legislature has the power right now to force more accountability and oversight at the Railroad Commission.
Virginia Palacios is executive director of Commission Shift, a nonprofit focused on reforming oil and gas oversight in Texas. She lives on and co-manages her family’s ranch in Webb County. She wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.