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Texas Railroad Commission takes a step toward safeguarding some energy infrastructure

Insulation is used to keep pipes warm and protected as part of winter weather preparations at a natural gas-powered electric plant in Midlothian.
Gabriel C. Pérez
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Insulation is used to keep pipes warm and protected as part of winter weather preparations at a natural gas-powered electric plant in Midlothian.

On Tuesday, one day before a state-mandated deadline, regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas approved a rule outlining which Texas natural gas suppliers need to be ready to operate during energy emergencies. The vote begins to address a weak point in the state’s energy system that contributed to February's deadly blackouts, though experts say it will not help protect the grid in the coming winter.

During February's days-long energy crisis, many Texas power plants could not produce electricity because natural gas stopped flowing to them. The main reason was weather-related failures along the state’s natural gas supply chain. A secondary reason was that gas suppliers themselves had their power cut as the state’s grid operator scrambled to conserve electricity.

RELATED | How are you preparing for this coming winter in Texas?

The rule approved Tuesday creates a process to designate certain parts of that supply chain as “critical infrastructure.” The designation means the gas wells, compressor stations, pipelines and other components that produce and move gas to power plants should not have their power cut by utilities in an effort to conserve. Crucially, infrastructure deemed “critical” must also weatherize to be able to run even in extreme conditions.

An earlier version of the rule proposed by the Railroad Commission allowed natural gas suppliers to easily opt out of the critical infrastructure designation. That prompted a storm of criticism and calls for the resignation of the commissioners, elected officials who many say are too cozy with the industry they regulate.

The rule was stricter than the commission's initial proposal. Among other things, it includes a process by which the commission would approve exemptions from regulation and guidelines for what types of gas suppliers might seek them.

Before voting, the commissioners downplayed the role natural gas failures played in the blackout and railed against critics.

The winter storm has been used as a weapon by the media and the far left to attack fossil fuels,” Railroad Commission Chair Wayne Christian said.

But despite that tough talk, critics of the commission counted changes to the rule as a win.

I think what we're seeing is that the Railroad Commission responded to public pressure to do better on these standards,” said Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a group pushing to reform the state agency. “I think that if the public had not been watching the commission so closely and participating so much in this rule-making, we wouldn't have seen the changes that we saw.”

Still, Palacios and others say the rule will do nothing to guard the state’s grid against cold weather this winter.

For one thing, the rule itself does not set standards to which natural gas infrastructure must weatherize. That will come sometime by mid-2022, up to six months after a group called the the Electricity Supply Chain Security and Mapping Committee issues its own report on the state’s energy infrastructure.

After weatherization standards are determined, it’s unclear what deadline the Railroad Commission will set for compliance, and whether penalties they create will be enough to get companies to comply.

“It's frustrating that there's not a weatherization standard in place before this winter,” said Doug Lewin, president of the consulting firm Stoic Energy. “But we all need to make sure that there's one in place before next winter.”

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.