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Oil & gas companies made billions off the Feb. '21 freeze, contributed millions to politicians and avoided regulation. Could the lights go out again?

Experts say yes -- because natural gas, which fuels almost half the state’s power plants, still isn't required to winterize its systems.

TEXAS, USA — As millions of Texans plunged into darkness last February, it became immediately clear just how much the state's power grid relies on natural gas. 

Turns out, nearly half the state's electric power plants run on it. 

Not surprisingly, a lack of fuel -- mainly, natural gas -- was the second-leading cause for power plant outages in last year's storm after equipment freeze-ups, according to federal regulators. 

"Your power plant could be prepared and ready to run, but if you don't have any fuel coming in, that's still a problem," said Beth Garza, a power grid expert at the R Street Institute. 

Credit: WFAA
Beth Garza

Despite lawmakers enacting stricter regulations for electric power plants after the 2021 winter storm, the natural gas industry was given a pass on winterization -- and it won’t have to do it until next year, either. 

At the same time, the oil and gas industry made substantial donations to the campaigns of state politicians, including a $1 million gift from a single gas pipeline CEO to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Credit: WFAA
Gov. Greg Abbott's $1 million contribution from Energy Transfer CEO Kelcy Warren

Some of that donated money also went to the elected officials at the Texas Railroad Commission. 

The Commission oversees oil and gas in Texas, and they’ have been recently touting how their new inspection program is making sure oil and gas producers are ready for winter. 

"Inspectors have visited more than 4,000 facilities so far, [and] about 98 percent of those facilities visited have been winterized," Commissioner Jim Wright said during a press conference earlier this month with Gov. Abbott. "The remaining two percent or so were in the process of winterizing at the time inspections were occurring."

Questionable inspections 

A WFAA analysis, however, found that the Commission's own records don’t support such sweeping claims.

Part of the Commission’s new inspection program included asking oil and gas facilities a series of questions to determine whether the operators think they have done enough to get their own equipment ready for cold temperatures. 

Ninety-one percent of 2,635 oil and gas facilities surveyed claimed that their weatherization was in “good workable condition.”  

But WFAA found that more than a thousand facilities that were surveyed weren’t even asked that question. 

What’s more, when asked if they’d tested "weather preparedness procedures," 32 percent of the facilities said, "No." Another 18 percent of facility operators didn’t know if they had tested their facility, answering simply "unknown."

“This is just a clear case where they need to articulate a very clear standard, they need to adopt it into rule and they need to enforce it,” said Doug Lewin, an energy consultant.

Credit: WFAA
Doug Lewin

Added Lewin: "If the operator doesn’t know before the inspector comes out, 'I have to do these things,' and if the operator doesn’t know, 'If I don’t do these things, I’m going to get fined,' then what’s the point of the inspection? Just to feel good about it?"

The Commission survey records also showed that some of the state’s own inspectors questioned the process. 

Wrote one inspector while surveying a South Texas natural gas facility that supplies fuel to a power plant: "The operator has a cold weather plan, but do not have winterization equipment installed on the pipeline system."

Asked if their facility’s "weatherization equipment on this location in good workable condition," several operators answered, "Yes." However, the inspectors noted that "no field visit" had been performed at these facilities, bringing into question the inspectors’ ability to verify if operator claims were true. 

When asked about this by WFAA, Commission officials discounted criticisms of their inspections and said their survey was merely a “snapshot in time” when inspectors visited oil and gas facilities. 

"Depending on the location, the type and the specific site of the facilities, winter prep techniques are different," Commission spokesman Andrew Keese wrote in response to WFAA questions. "The list of weather preparedness procedures in the survey were not an inclusive list to see if operators had all and every method that was listed for every type of facility in every location."

Added Kreese: "In the fall, some of the sites had yet to finish winterizing or test winterization because they were coming off summer. Many of the weatherization processes, such as insulation for example, could only be tested in sub-freezing temperatures. Another example – you don’t want to inject methanol into a gas stream until it is needed in a freeze."

In addition to the survey visits, Keese said the Commission has talked with executives of "large oil and gas companies and pipeline operations about winter preparations, which field staff may not have been able to answer."

Critical infrastructure 

There was one big industry change following last year’s storm. 

Last February, many natural gas facilities lost power because they weren’t aware of a two-page critical infrastructure form that, if filled out, could have protected their facilities from seeing their power turned off during the 2021 rolling outages. 

Those controlled outages were initiated across the state to conserve dwindling electricity at the peak of the winter storm. Locations like hospitals and 911 call centers, however, were exempt because they were deemed “critical infrastructure.” 

Last February, fewer than 100 natural gas facilities were on the critical infrastructure list. Now, officials say, more than 2,900 facilities are on there. 

The oil and gas industry has long resisted mandatory winterization of its facilities. 

Credit: WFAA
Todd Staples

"Keeping the power on is the best winterization tool," said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association. "We know that, of all the other techniques, if you maintain the power, you're going to maintain the flow of the product in most instances."

But other experts say there is no substitute for ensuring that fossil fuel producers winterize.

Credit: WFAA
Arvind Ravikumar

"Operators in colder areas of our country in North Dakota in Colorado and Wyoming in Pennsylvania have winterized because it is part of the routine operations," said Arvind Ravikumar, a natural gas expert at the University of Texas. "That can be done in Texas."

And Texas has been warned before.  

2011: Lessons not learned 

In 2011, after a big ice storm caused widespread power outages and sharp declines in natural gas production, federal regulators urged Texas to consider adopting "minimum, uniform standards for winterization of natural gas."

That did not happen. 

Then, as now, natural gas producers resisted mandatory winterization because of the perceived high costs that would cut into profits. 

Some experts say all this may culminate in worrisome trends. 

Gas production dropped in February 2021 -- before widespread power outages. That happened again, although not as significantly, during two recent cold snaps this year. Several experts blame poor winterization of natural gas facilities for that.

"It is a sign of things to come," Ravikumar said. "It's a warning for us. It tells us that we are still not prepared."

Got a news tip? Email investigates@wfaa.com.