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How A Bill To Prevent Natural Gas Bans In Texas Homes Could Lead To Another Blackout

Icicles hang from the roof of an apartment complex without power in the Windsor Park neighborhood of Austin on Feb. 17.
Julia Reihs
Icicles hang from the roof of an apartment complex without power in the Windsor Park neighborhood of Austin on Feb. 17.

The Texas House will vote Tuesday on a handful of bills related to February’s deadly blackouts. The package of legislation has been fast-tracked by lawmakers who say it will safeguard Texas against future blackouts. But among the bills is a proposal that some analysts say would actually make another blackout more likely.

House Bill 17 by Beaumont Democratic state Rep. Joe Deshotel would stop Texas cities and towns from banning natural gas hookups in new construction.

The law was initially written in response to California cities banning natural gas use in buildings to fight climate change. With the support of the natural gas industry, other states have already preemptively passed laws to “ban” local natural gas “bans.”

Deshotel’s legislation got a rebranding when it was included on the list of bills prioritized in response to the blackout. Earlier this month, Deshotel said "gas played an important part in helping a lot of people” during the blackout.

“I know in my own home, I was able to keep things going because we had a generator that kicked on and ran on natural gas,” he said in a hearing of the House State Affairs Committee.

About one-third of Texas homes use natural gas for heat, so it’s understandable to think increasing that number would keep more people warm when blackouts hit.

But the opposite could be true.

“This bill absolutely, unequivocally, would make the problem worse,” said Doug Lewin, energy efficiency advocate and president of the consulting firm Stoic Climate and Energy.

He said that's because of the interconnectedness of electricity and natural gas in Texas.

One of the causes of February’s blackout was the failure of natural gas to get to gas-fired power plants. Plant owners have testified that that lack of supply forced them to shut down their generators, adding to the power crunch.

At the same time, state regulators prioritized gas delivery to residential customers. That helped people with natural gas in their homes, but took fuel away from the plants.

Lewin said HB 17 would mean "locking in additional fossil fuel infrastructure [in homes] which will need fossil fuels in the next winter storm.”

“Every molecule of gas going to a home is a molecule not going to a power plant,” he said, which could lead to another blackout.

In state affairs hearing, Deshotel dismissed much criticism of HB 17 as “misinformation.”

But many experts in industry and government agree competition over natural gas supplies exacerbated the blackout.

"The understandable decision of prioritizing residential customers may ... have made it more difficult for gas power plants to access fuel,” Dustin Meyer, the American Petroleum Institute's vice president of Natural Gas Markets said in an explanation of the blackout posted on the API’s website.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5

Mose Buchele is the Austin-based broadcast reporter for KUT's NPR partnership StateImpact Texas . He has been on staff at KUT 90.5 since 2009, covering local and state issues. Mose has also worked as a blogger on politics and an education reporter at his hometown paper in Western Massachusetts. He holds masters degrees in Latin American Studies and Journalism from UT Austin.