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Texas This Week: Lawmakers question energy leaders about power crisis

Texas lawmakers held marathon hearings on Thursday and Friday, grilling power generators, ERCOT, PUC officials and more.

AUSTIN, Texas — Across Texas, people are trying to recover from the winter storms that left millions without electricity and water for days. Lawmakers are now trying to figure out what caused the outages and how to prevent them in the future.

Three things to know in Texas politics

President Joe Biden traveled to Texas Friday to tour parts of Houston hit hard by the storms. He and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden met with volunteers at a food bank and the president also spoke at NRG Stadium, which is currently a mass COVID-19 vaccination site. 

RELATED: 'God's work' | President Biden praises emergency workers during Houston visit, gives vaccine update

Gov. Greg Abbott is looking at when Texas can roll back COVID-19 regulations – including mask-wearing. The governor was asked when the statewide mask mandate would end during a news conference in Corpus Christi Thursday.

Abbott said that was a great question, adding his team is evaluating when the COVID-19 mandates can end. He said an announcement will be made "pretty soon."

RELATED: Gov. Greg Abbott weighing end to mask order, other statewide coronavirus rules, says announcement coming 'pretty soon'

In a statewide address, Abbott promised to find answers to what caused this month's power crisis. He candidly admitted that he too is angry and vowed the Texas legislative session will not end until the problems that caused days-long outages are fixed. 

RELATED: 'The system broke. You deserve answers.' | Gov. Abbott promises action in statewide address over Texas energy crisis

Hearings on Texas power crisis

This week, Texas lawmakers started their work on preventing another power crisis. 

House and Senate committees held marathon hearings on Thursday and Friday, grilling power generators, the Energy Reliability Council of Texas' (ERCOT) president and CEO, the chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUC) – which oversees ERCOT and is appointed by the governor – and more. 

In this Texas This Week, KVUE wanted to bring you some of the testimony from that hearing, starting with the Texas House and a heated moment during the questioning of the CEOs of power generator companies Vistra Corp and NRG Energy

"Gentlemen, we have a lot of people watching this. I hope you haven't been lawyerized. I haven't heard much. So, here's the question: Who is at fault? I don't want to hear about systems. I want to hear who is at fault," said Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi). "So, let's start – and I'm going to ask every panel member. I want the public to know who screwed up. I think that's what people want to know. No. 1, Mr. Gutierrez, who is at fault? Not systems. I want names and details."

"I don't think you can put one thing specifically that was at fault," said Mauricio Gutierrez, the president and CEO of NRG.

"I want details ... don't want a general lawyer analysis. I want details. You have to believe, a man in your position, that you know who is probably responsible. So, tell me some specific groups," Hunter said.

Guitierrez answered that there were issues with fuel supply and winterization protocols. 

"I talked about, specifically, the issues I had on our power plants and the reasons why we had them. I think there is a conversation about what is the excess capacity in case something like this happens again," Gutierrez said.

"Not to interrupt [but] I want groups. I don't need to hear about winterization. I want to know who to look to," Hunter said.

"Power generators, ERCOT, PUC, fuel supply and transmission and distribution owners. And I think, I believe, all of them are going to be having a conversation with you today," Gutierrez said.

"Now, sir, from Irving, Texas, tell me who you think is at fault," Hunter asked, turning to Curt Morgan, the CEO of Vistra Corp.

"I definitely think we have a part of that as power generators. I don't think anybody can say we performed perfectly," Morgan said. "I know everyone wants to play 'who's at blame?' I look at this as 'who can improve?' I know we live in a society that wants to blame people all the time – that's not my game. Nobody's perfect and what I'm trying to point out is the areas of weakness in the overall systems," Morgan said. 

Hunter interrupted Morgan, saying his response "sounds like lawyer talk."

"I didn't even talk to a lawyer before I came here. I came here of my own free will to talk to you guys," Morgan said. "I think producers, gas processing plants could have been winterized. I think the gas companies increased the prices arbitrarily and took a bunch of money out of the system. You want to know who the people are, I said ERCOT. I already said this before, you can't say ERCOT without saying the PUC. The PUC has oversight. So, there's plenty of blame to go around. It doesn't do anything to solve anything."

"I've already said this: I think the thing was a colossal failure," Morgan continued. "That's the only way you get to where we got. This many people out for that many days doesn't happen with one person at fault."

The Texas Senate spent hours Thursday questioning DeAnn Walker, chair of the body that oversees ERCOT, the PUC. The chair is appointed by the governor. 

It was clear that lawmakers were unsatisfied with Walker's answers.

"Chairman Walker, you mentioned several times to the committee that you doubt the authority that you hold. I wonder have you asked the legislature for the authority that you need to carry out your obligations or do you feel that you have enough?" asked State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R-Conroe).

"I think it depends on what obligation you are referring to. If you are referring to weatherization, I think I need more," Walker said.

"That's a great example. Under the Public Utility Regulatory Act, that act gives the commissioner complete authority over ERCOT. So, you understand that, correct? You have complete authority over ERCOT. So, I'm just, I'm having trouble with you mentioning several different times that you lack the authority or this or that has been delegated to ERCOT," Creighton said. "Do you feel that when you delegate a certain issue or certain responsibly to ERCOT that you are absolved from the responsibility of that oversight?"

"Absolutely not," Walker said.

"'Absolutely not,' that's your answer. So, you feel like even if you delegate to ERCOT, you still hold the authority and responsibility to the public, to the State of Texas, to carry out your duties?" Creighton asked.

"Yes, sir," Walker said.

"And have you asked the legislature leading up to this session – anyone in the legislature, the Senate or the House – have you asked for anything different?" Creighton asked.

"No, sir," Walker said.

"Why is that?" Creighton asked.

"I don't think that anyone at the commission – or, I should speak on my behalf – I don't think I understood the situation and the underlying issues until we have lived through this," Walker said.

At a different point in the hearing, State Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) addressed Walker.

"And my concern also, when I hear the answers you have given us – we heard from ERCOT, PUC ... I don't know, I don't have an understanding of that. I'm really appreciating the knowledge it takes to be in your position. Because as commissioner of the PUC, you've got oversight and responsibility for the competitive markets, the competitive electric markets. You oversee ERCOT's budget and operations. You enforce rules and statutes for the electric industry. But yet you don't seem to demonstrate the knowledge that it takes to do that, and that's concerning," Campbell said.

"I recognize coming before a group can be intimidating and scary.  You want – I believe you want to try to answer the questions to your fullest ability. But I'm not sure you are doing that. And I don't know how much 'I don't know' I can take anymore," Campbell added.

The Last Word

In this week's The Last Word, KVUE Political Anchor Ashley Goudeau discusses the case of 11-year-old Christian Pineda, who died inside a cold home in the Houston area during the mass power outages. Goudeau addresses the "lack of leadership" many Texans reconciled with during the energy crisis – and what they can do to make a change in the future.

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