At Capitol hearings, blame for Texas outages is spread all around
By Asher Price & Bob Sechler February 25, 2021
In their first effort at getting to the bottom of an energy calamity that left millions of Texans in the dark amid subfreezing temperatures last week and potentially contributed to dozens of deaths, state lawmakers Thursday heard from utility executives, grid operators and regulators — and found fingers pointing in lots of directions.
With a dash of introspection — all the players expressed sadness at the tragedy that unfolded in Texas, and some even hinted they bore some of the blame — the exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses in simultaneous hearings by Texas House and Senate committees doled out plenty of criticism:
• An official with the state grid operator said the bulk of the outages came from the impact of the weather, and said there is currently no legal authority to force companies to winterize.
• The chief executive of a Houston-based utility said that his company had warned state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff, that the grid was vulnerable and that they had to do a better job communicating with the public.
• State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, pointed out to several power generator executives that they had failed to communicate with ratepayers as the calamity was unfolding.
In some ways, the simultaneous hearings amounted to a legislative version of a TV procedural in which suspects are grilled by police in separate interrogation rooms.
Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, told Bill Magness, CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator, that his testimony was being contradicted in another hearing taking place simultaneously in the House.
Creighton said representatives of power generation companies “have been pointing the finger at (grid) mismanagement” during the House hearing.
Magness said he hadn’t seen any of the data that the generators were using to make the assertion.
“They have not shared that with me,” he said. “I’ve only heard it from members of the Legislature.”
Magness acknowledged, however, that “we weren’t talking enough” to those affected by the outages. “We were solving problems, but we should have been talking more to people.”
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, asked Magness if he is to blame for the catastrophic outages.
“Would it be accurate to say that it’s your job to prevent us from having a catastrophe like we had in the last 10 days?” Whitmire said. “I’m looking for where does the buck stop. Is it you? Is it the (Public Utility Commission)? Certainly, is it the Legislature?”
Magness said he feels “a great deal of responsibility and remorse about the entire event,” but he did not directly answer the question.
“I believe the operators on our team did everything they could have,” he said. “As I sit here now, I don’t think I would have” done anything differently amid the crisis, although he added that more analysis of the event could change his assessment.
He noted that ERCOT was able to head off a complete meltdown on the grid. “We held it together, (but) at a lot of pain to a lot of people,” he said.