When the power went out, Texas oil and gas regulators rushed to defend the industry’s image

When the power went out, Texas oil and gas regulators rushed to defend the industry’s image
When the power went out, Texas oil and gas regulators rushed to defend the industry’s image

Standing at right, Carmen Pena, 75, waits for a ride at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center on Feb. 17, 2021.

Carmen Pena, right, waited for a ride Feb. 17 at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, an independent living center in Austin that lost power during the storm.

Credit: Montinique Monroe for The Texas Tribune

When the power went out for Marsha Hendler on Feb. 15, she rushed to her downtown San Antonio office to ride out the winter storm. Thankful to find the electricity and heat still on, she typed out an email to the elected officials who regulate her small, independent oil and gas company.

“I strongly urge you to make public statements, to develop a PR program around our current energy conditions,” Hendler wrote at 2 p.m. that day to the three members of the Texas Railroad Commission, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica. “Assure citizens that blending oil and gas production with green [energy] will keep Texas energy strong.”

It’s a sentiment that many in the oil and gas industry echoed during a crisis that forced millions to endure freezing weather for days without electricity and eventually led to the deaths of more than 100 people. And even as Hendler typed, Railroad Commissioners Christi Craddick, Wayne Christian and Jim Wright, all Republicans, had already begun to do what she had requested.

Emails, tweets and public statements from the state commissioners during the Texas power crisis show that the elected regulators expressed immediate worry about the storm’s impact on the image of the agency and the industry it regulates — the industry that funds much of their political campaigns. At times, commissioners retweeted or emphasized the same talking points published by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, one of the state’s largest trade associations. They testified at public hearings and made public statements pushing back against criticisms of the natural gas industry’s role in the February power outages. And in some cases, they attempted to redirect blame from the fossil fuel industry to wind power — a narrative that quickly gained traction among Texas Republicans on social media.

All sources of energy struggled to produce power during the storm, and the Texas power grid is particularly vulnerable to winter outages if natural gas-fired power plants don’t produce enough. But suddenly, fossil fuel-powered electricity had been labeled “reliables” by Texas politicians.

“Many including myself have warned for years about the dangers of relying too heavily on unreliable, intermittent forms of electric generation like wind and solar to meet the energy needs for 30 million Texans,” Christian wrote in his newsletter to supporters Feb. 17. “The issue isn’t the existence of renewable energy, but that it has displaced reliable generation.”

Defending natural gas

Energy experts during and after the power outages have pointed to how the state’s reliance on natural gas-powered electric generation created a perfect storm: Natural gas and other “thermal” sources of power, like nuclear energy and coal, make up more than 80% of the state’s projected power generation during the winter months, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’s seasonal assessment of power resources.

While the raw amount of power generated by natural gas increased during the storm as plants tried to match the rising demand, it was nowhere close to the amount of generation that should have been possible had the plants not experienced freezing components or natural gas fuel shortages.

Power plants initially tripped offline due to freezing conditions that plants were not built to withstand. Then some began to face fuel shortages. In many cases, there wasn’t enough natural gas flowing through the pipes during the storm to power plants, even if they could run. A decadeslong trend of electrifying natural gas fuel facilities meant that when ERCOT implemented power outages to prevent the complete collapse of the grid, the outages inadvertently choked off fuel for plants that could have returned power to homes.

The scramble to restore the fuel supply was one of the major problems during the February crisis, and it caused some energy experts to call for reforms. James Robb, president and CEO of the North American Electric Reliability Corp., which has some authority to regulate power generators in the U.S., warned lawmakers in March that the natural gas system “was not built or operated with electric reliability first in mind.”

But in their defense of natural gas, many Texas politicians cast blame elsewhere. Their most common target: wind-generated power, which also suffered serious failures due to frozen turbines but made up a significantly smaller share of the projected power for winter. Christian was among the loudest pushing that narrative: During a meeting Feb. 17, while the lights were still off across large parts of the state, he said that the storm showed the “dangers of subsidizing intermittent, unreliable energy” — an apparent reference to renewable energy like wind power.

After one Texan emailed each commissioner Feb. 17 asking what regulations the agency implemented leading up to the storm to ensure natural gas supply was reliable, Christian responded by again blaming renewable sources of energy. The storm would not have been so devastating had it not been for “decades of poor policy decisions prioritizing unreliable renewable energy sources at the expense of reliable electricity — something Texans now know is essential to our everyday lives,” he wrote, according to the email provided to the Tribune.

Connie Koval, the retiree who asked the question, said in an interview with the Tribune that the response made her upset. “It made me angry that they are continuing to spread false narratives,” Koval said. “He seemed to blame wind and solar.”

But it’s clear the commissioners saw a potential public relations crisis looming. After receiving the same inquiring email from Koval, Wright, who was elected to the Railroad Commission in November, forwarded the email to agency staff, saying the concerns would be “the greatest issue we will face from this event.”

“We need to be ready to respond with a good plan of action,” Wright wrote the morning of Feb. 18, the fourth day Texans were experiencing the power crisis. “I will provide the hurdles that are beyond our control in these regards when I am in the office next week as there are many.”

Kate Zaykowski, who received that email from Wright and works for him as his director of public affairs, said in an interview with the Tribune that Wright was referring to his concern about the public image of the agency. But she said he was also worried that the public would not understand what requiring the industry to prepare for extreme weather would entail, and was worried about the industry’s image as well.

“He believes, personally, that the oil and gas industry is important to Texas, and he wants the general public to understand why,” Zaykowski said. “He also believes that it’s important to regulate the industry.”

There are signs that the campaign to blame wind power might not have worked: A poll of registered voters in Texas conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Politics Project and its Energy Institute, published Thursday, found that they cite the lack of winterization of power plants and the unprecedented nature of the storm as the top two factors in the power crisis. Only 35% of Texans surveyed pointed to an over-reliance on renewable energy as a major factor, compared with 64% of those surveyed who listed a lack of winterization of gas facilities.

Only 12% of those surveyed said they approved of the Railroad Commission’s response to the storm.

Hendler, the independent oil operator in San Antonio, acknowledged that using wind and solar energy is necessary to slow and mitigate the effects of climate change. But she said she believes the economy still depends on burning oil, gas and its derivatives for transportation, energy and other products, such as plastic. She said she’s concerned about an aggressive shift toward renewable energy that jeopardizes her industry and the larger state economy.

“Part of the job of the commission is a PR job, and I don’t think they do that well,” Hendler said. “I think that’s one of the reasons that the [oil] industry takes the hits that it does.”

Industry influence

The commissioners made their case far beyond emails and social media. In the days and weeks after the February power crisis, Christian published an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal defending the use of fossil fuels and created a website dedicated to the talking points that he emailed to Koval and others. The site, Reliable Grid Now, says it seeks to “educate the general public and lawmakers about the importance of reliable energy” and urges the public to send letters against renewable energy subsidies to lawmakers signed, “Make Texas energy reliable again!”

In a statement, Christian told the Tribune that Reliable Grid Now is a project paid for by his campaign and is unrelated to his duties as a state regulator. He said when he ran for office, he made a promise to govern conservatively, support free markets and stand up for consumers.

“I don’t see myself as a spokesman for oil and gas, but I do have a responsibility to ensure our state’s natural resources are produced responsibly for the economic benefit of the citizens I represent,” Christian said.

Little more than a week after power was restored to most Texans, Craddick went to testify at the state Capitol, where she assured lawmakers that oil and gas did not need to be further regulated and pointed to power outages for natural gas shortages during the storm. And testifying before a U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce in late March, she said the oil and gas industry helped Texas during the winter storm.

“I sit before you today to state that these operators were not the problem,” Craddick said. “The oil and gas industry was the solution.”

The industry was simultaneously making the same case. In a tweet Feb. 24, The Texas Oil and Gas Association wrote that natural gas was “essential and indispensable” in heating and powering homes during the winter storm. The Texas Alliance of Energy Producers wrote in an opinion article for World Oil that natural gas did the “heavy lifting” during the February storm, because it was needed to both heat homes and generate electricity. The group also blamed wind generation: “It wasn’t enough to meet the huge upward spike in demand, largely because electric power from wind generation was nowhere to be found.”

Craddick also retweeted and posted images by the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

“Natural gas stepped up to power the vast majority of electricity generation in Texas,” Craddick wrote in one tweet on Feb. 28, alongside a photo of a graph from the Texas Oil and Gas Association that showed power generation from natural gas increased during the February storm, without a comparison to the shortage of power the grid experienced.

In a statement to the Tribune, Craddick said she consumes information from a variety of sources, including TXOGA, and shares relevant and accurate information regardless of the source. She also wrote that the oil and gas industry is the most influential industry in Texas, and much of the state relies on its vitality.

“I support the industry’s continued success not only because of my role as a public servant at the Railroad Commission, but also as a Texan who appreciated the overwhelming economic vibrancy of our state,” Craddick said in a statement.

The industry supports Craddick and the other commissioners, too. Records show the commissioners’ campaigns received hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2020 from industry groups and people who work in oil and gas. Craddick alone received more than $200,000 from people specifically identified in campaign finance reports as involved in natural gas or oil and gas work.

Craddick and her father, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, have long been financially tied to the industry in Texas, a relationship recently highlighted by The Washington Post, which reported that the two own and manage land across the state that generated more than $100,000 from Texas’ largest natural gas producers in 2019, according to state Ethics Commission records. In a statement, Christi Craddick said the Texas Ethics Commission laws ensure transparency of public officials and that she takes those laws seriously.

Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a newly formed nonprofit organization in Texas focused on environmental and consumer issues at the Railroad Commission, said the outsized influence of industry on the commission is hurting its ability to regulate, causing it instead to want to deflect blame for the power crisis.

“This is resulting in these industries buying the elections of the agencies that regulate them,” Palacios said. “It would have been nice if we had a regulator who looked at the data, looked at the recommendations and made sound management decisions based on that analysis. But what we have are [commissioners] who are elected trying to look good so that they can get reelected.”

Governor changes tune

The message has resonated with other state leaders and lawmakers. Gov. Greg Abbott, early in the storm, appeared to attempt to tamp down the narrative that renewable energy was solely to blame for the crisis.

In a tweet describing the situation Feb. 15, Abbott wrote that “the ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas & coal generators.”

But he changed his tune by the time he appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show two days later. By then, a tweet by an energy author who promotes the use of fossil fuels had garnered significant attention by claiming the “root cause” of the Texas power crisis was national and state policies that prioritize wind and solar energy over other sources. Alex Epstein, the author, had emailed those same talking points to Abbott’s office, email records first reported by NBC News show.

“Our wind and solar got shut down,” Abbott said on the show. “And that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … As a result, it shows fossil fuels are necessary for the state of Texas as well as other states.”

Weeks later, an Abbott spokesperson told the Tribune that the governor is treating all power sources equally as he pushes for reform of the electricity grid that covers much of the state.

Some bills identified by lawmakers as high priorities seek to place new costs on renewable power or take preventive strikes at climate action plans by cities.

At the annual Energy Day at the Capitol on March 24, state leaders and regulators touted the state’s oil and gas production and largely ignored the February power outages. They also criticized renewable energy. Christian again reiterated his concern about the country’s investments in renewable energy, which he called “undependable.”

“We’re putting most of our tax dollars into the ‘undependables’ at the cost and risk to lives and to the ‘dependables’ — oil, gas and coal,” Christian told Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, during a discussion moderated and hosted by the industry group.

Abbott promoted a bill that would stop cities from banning natural gas as a fuel source for heating homes and other buildings. Staples claimed that the oil and gas industry would lead the U.S. to a “cleaner” future. Both Christian and Abbott hammered Democrats and the Biden administration during the event.

“With regard to the energy sector in Texas, and across the United States, it’s changed because of the new administration that’s seeking to impose these Green New Deal policies, Green New Deal policies that threaten fossil fuel production in the state of Texas like what we are accustomed to,” Abbott said.

“But something else that we are accustomed to is fighting back, and protecting the fossil fuel industry in Texas,” he said.

Lexi Churchill, a research reporter for the Texas Tribune/ProPublica investigative unit, contributed reporting.

Disclosure: The Texas Oil and Gas Association, Texas Alliance of Energy Producers and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters 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.

When the power went out, Texas oil and gas regulators rushed to defend the industry’s image
Source: Texas Tribune