By the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board
January 9, 2023
When a polar vortex descended toward Texas days before Christmas, Christine DeLisle was on edge. As mayor of Leander, a hilly city of 67,000 just north of Austin, DeLisle knew that her constituents’ warmth through several days of freezing temperatures would be largely dependent on the sketchy reliability of Atmos Energy, the city’s natural gas provider.
Two years prior, when Winter Storm Uri knocked out power for millions of Texans, Atmos cut off the gas supply for an entire subdivision in Leander, leaving more than 1,600 homes without heat for nearly a week. At a City Council meeting immediately afterwards, Atmos representatives apologized and gave the typical mea culpas, assuring such an outage would never happen again.
Then, three weeks ago, it happened again.
Despite Atmos having trucks stationed in Leander to deliver compressed gas if needed, residents began complaining to DeLisle about low gas pressure and outages on the first day of the freeze. Local reporters told her that Atmos’ customer service phone line was shut off for the holiday break. DeLisle and a skeleton staff scrambled to set up a temporary warming center at a local church.
“It became clear that we weren’t even in the coldest part of the freeze yet and Atmos wasn’t able to deliver,” DeLisle told the editorial board. Fed up with the lack of accountability, she acknowledged that, while Texans tend to bristle at the idea of regulation over our energy sector, the result of the status quo is that companies such as Atmos get off scot-free despite putting customers at risk.
“I think maybe it’s time that we embrace a little more regulation than what we previously had,” DeLisle said.
Even Gov. Greg Abbott, a staunch defender of the oil and gas industry, agrees. Abbott, who insisted days before the winter storm hit that “trust will be earned,” from the state’s emergency management response, called for a state investigation into Atmos Energy for the outages in Leander and other North Texas cities.
In a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton, Abbott claimed “at no time” during the storm did Atmos request assistance, nor did it “properly communicate the extent of its failure.” Of course, that the state relies on companies such as Atmos to self-report any issues with natural gas supply is part of the problem.
The Texas Railroad Commission, the agency charged with regulating the state’s natural gas industry, does not collect any real-time data on gas production or gas flows. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s power grid – nearly half of which is generated by natural gas – also has no way of knowing whether natural gas equipment has broken down or when maintenance is occurring that can lead to outages.
Instead, during emergencies, we are forced to trust that opaque, quasi-legislative agencies such as the Texas Energy Reliability Council – made up of government appointees, many of whom were handpicked by the oil and gas industry – have our best interests in mind. This council, formalized by the Legislature in the aftermath of Uri, was set up to be confidential. None of its meetings are open to the public, nor are its reports to state lawmakers. And yet allowing this council to operate in the shadows doesn’t even guarantee that companies such as Atmos will be forthcoming about their problems. In fact, Abbott’s call for an investigation into Atmos was prompted in part by the company’s lack of communication about the extent of its failures during the council’s “coordination calls.”
While we certainly support Abbott’s call for an investigation, we have little faith that it will result in more than a slap on the wrist. That’s because the Railroad Commission has shown minimal interest in its role as a watchdog for the gas industry. Quite the contrary. More than two-thirds of the campaign donations to the sitting commissioners have come from oil and gas companies. All three commissioners are permitted to trade oil and gas stocks and own mineral interests. In one ruling involving a company in which Commissioner Christi Craddick held stock, a staff-recommended fine of $529,000 was dismissed without explanation, according to a report from Commission Shift, a nonprofit watchdog.
It’s no surprise, then, that Craddick would scoff at bare-minimum measures to add much-needed transparency to the gas industry.
When Brad Jones, the former interim CEO of ERCOT, testified during a joint meeting of the House’s State Affairs and Energy Resources committees in September, he floated the idea of establishing a “gas desk” that would allow the grid manager to monitor how much gas is being generated, consumed, and at what cost to consumers.
“We should be able to gather … purely operational information — is a line operating, is a compressor station out, is there maintenance being done — those types of simple things,” Jones told lawmakers.
Craddick, when asked her thoughts on the gas desk proposal during the hearing, said she didn’t “understand what a gas desk is … because we are in a free market in the state.”
And what has that blind devotion to the free market gotten us? A shaky electric grid and a natural gas sector that can’t reliably keep us warm when the temperatures plunge.
All that a gas monitor within ERCOT would do is inform the public of any disruption in the gas market that could hamper availability. Treating such basic information like it’s a state secret means that companies such as Atmos Energy can continue to skirt accountability when they don’t do their job.
In a perfect world, the Railroad Commission would do its job and ensure that Atmos won’t cut service again with impunity. We won’t hold our breath for that. But as long as ERCOT is considering overhauling its power market, shedding a little sunlight on the actions of natural gas providers so that the grid manager can prepare for future weather emergencies seems like a no-brainer.