Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office knew of looming natural gas shortages on February 10, days before a deep freeze plunged much of the state into blackouts, according to documents obtained by E&E News and reviewed by Ars.
Abbott’s office first learned of the likely shortfall in a phone call from then-chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas DeAnne Walker. In the days leading up to the power outages that began on February 15, Walker and the governor’s office spoke 31 more times.
Walker also spoke with regulators, politicians, and utilities dozens of times about the gas curtailments that threatened the state’s electrical grid. The PUC chair’s diary for the days before the outage shows her schedule dominated by concerns over gas curtailments and the impact they would have on electricity generation. Before and during the disaster, she was on more than 100 phone calls with various agencies and utilities regarding gas shortages.
After the blackouts began, Abbott appeared on Fox News to falsely assert that wind turbines were the driving force behind the outages.
Wind turbines were a factor, but only a small one. Wind in Texas doesn’t produce as much power in the winter, and regulators don’t typically rely on wind turbines to provide significant amounts of power. Instead, regulators anticipated that natural gas and coal power plants would meet demand.
In public, Bill Magness, then-CEO of ERCOT, the state’s electric grid regulator, didn’t seem concerned about the approaching weather. In a virtual meeting on February 9, Magness said, “As those of you in Texas know, we do have a cold front coming this way… Operations has issued an operating condition notice just to make sure everyone is up to speed with their winterization and we’re ready for the several days of pretty frigid temperatures to come our way.” During the two-and-a-half-hour public portion of the meeting, Magness devoted just 40 seconds to the unusual weather.
The first sign of trouble came the next day, when Magness, concerned that supply wouldn’t match demand, asked customers to conserve energy. Later that day, Walker took a call from officials at energy provider Vistra Corporation, which told her that several of its power plants had received notices that natural gas supplies would be curtailed.
Curtailing the flow of gas usually happens when cold weather increases demand or damages infrastructure. In Texas, both happened. The higher demand could be anticipated, but the problems with the natural gas infrastructure, detailed in a US Department of Energy situation report, were particularly troubling. Wellheads were “freezing off,” and gas processing facilities were dropping offline due to the cold weather, sharply reducing production that would feed the region’s pipelines.
Walker noted her call with Vistra in her diary and phone log for February 10-19, which she produced at the behest of the State Senate Committee on Business and Commerce. The document provides a striking blow-by-blow account of what was happening behind the scenes as bitter winter weather brought down Texas’ grid. “I received information from Vistra Corporation that they had received notices of gas curtailments at several power plants. I notified the Governor’s office and Chairman Hancock about the information from Vistra,” she wrote, referring to State Senator Kelly Hancock, chair of the committee.
Also on February 10, Walker followed up with the chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, the regulator that oversees gas pipelines, and the leadership of the Texas House and Senate to inform them of the impending problem. She also spoke with utilities and power companies, as well as their major customers. “I began discussions with representatives of the Texas Industrial Electric Consumers, in an attempt to resolve concerns that the gas curtailment issues could raise with electric generators. I spoke with representative of generators about the impact the gas curtailment would have on generation and began discussions with the various parties to resolve those concerns,” she wrote.
Gas curtailments dominated Walker’s schedule for the next three days.
On February 12, the Railroad Commission issued an emergency order dictating which customers should be prioritized for natural gas deliveries, and late on February 14, Texas’ grid finally began collapsing. In two text messages sent around midnight, ERCOT chief Magness told Walker that some wind turbines had frozen and several fossil fuel generators had tripped offline. Blackouts began just before 2 am, February 15. Walker promptly notified the governor’s office.
That was the only time Walker’s diary or logs mention wind power. After the two late-night text messages from Magness, Walker’s report does not mention wind power again. But it does reference gas curtailments more than 70 times over the next four days, a possible reflection of the scope, severity, and impact of the shortages.
The power outages soon found their way back to natural gas suppliers. “The concerns related to natural gas moved from concerns about curtailment to concerns about electric outages for gas producers,” Walker wrote on February 15. Power plants, short on gas, couldn’t generate enough electricity to power the infrastructure that kept gas flowing from suppliers to users, including the power plants themselves. It created a feedback loop that compounded the problem further. “I met with and informed the office of the Governor about the situation,” Walker wrote. “I interacted throughout the day with ERCOT and the Governor’s office related to the ongoing issues.”
Between when the outages began and when Abbott appeared on Fox host Sean Hannity’s show on February 16, Walker had spoken with the governor’s office more than 50 times. By this time, natural gas production in the South Central US, which includes Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas, was down 30 percent, representing a loss of 7 percent of all US production.
Over the next three days, blackouts plagued the state. According to Walker’s logs, Samsung’s fab outside of Austin shut down on the morning of February 16. The facility lost 71,000 wafers to the disruption, costing the company at least $268 million. It took Samsung more than a month to bring it back online. Power was cut to NXP’s fab the next day. The company also lost a month of production, and it estimated that the outage cost it $100 million.
The same day that NXP’s fab was shut down, Abbott ordered natural gas producers to halt exports and sell to power plants in an effort to get them running again.
As the cold weather continued, millions remained without power, some for days. Pipes burst, flooding customers’ homes and forcing them to look elsewhere for fresh water. Chemical plants and fuel refineries spewed tons of toxic pollutants into the air as they executed emergency shutdowns. The effects of the gas shortage were felt as far north as Minnesota. According to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, 151 people died of causes related to the disaster.