Updated 8:20 p.m. throughout.
AUSTIN — Lawmakers are calling for the resignation of the chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission after two days of hearings into the failures that left millions of Texans without power in freezing cold temperatures last week.
Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, was among the loudest voices calling for DeAnn Walker’s resignation, saying she had failed to exert regulatory authority within the Public Utility Commission to avoid last week’s power outages.
“After two days of testimony, it is clear to me that there was a dereliction of duty and that the people of Texas deserve nothing less than for Commissioner Walker to resign immediately,” Anchía said in a statement Friday. “Her inability to even muster an apology to Texans who endured freezing temperatures without heat or power and resulted in loss of life is inexcusable.”
Several other lawmakers have called for Walker’s resignation. Late Friday, Anchía and seven other lawmakers joint-authored a letter to Walker asking for her resignation.
Those lawmakers included: Republican Lyle Larson of San Antonio and Democrats Eddie Lucio III of Brownsville, Ana Hernandez of Houston, Abel Herrero of Corpus Christi, Donna Howard of Austin, Oscar Longoria of Mission, and Ron Reynolds of Missouri City. All except Larson sit on the committees that heard Walker’s testimony Thursday night.
Before that letter, GOP Reps. Jared Patterson of Frisco and Jeff Leach of Plano along with Democrats Chris Turner of Grand Prairie and Armando Walle of Houston had already called for Walker’s resignation.
Walker, who was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott and makes $201,000 a year, was grilled for hours Thursday by House and Senate lawmakers about the failures in the state’s energy system last week.
Lawmakers were irked that Walker said her commission had no authority to regulate the energy system — when in fact the Legislature had given it explicit power to do so following a previous winter storm in 2011 that also led to rolling blackouts.
Anchía had one of the key moments of Thursday’s hearings when he took Walker to task for denying that the commission had that power. He pointed to state laws that gave the PUC regulatory authority over the state’s energy market structure, previously passed laws that clarified that authority, and the commission’s own mission statement.
Walker — who advised Abbott on regulated industry matters before he named her to the PUC — agreed with Anchía that the documents he pointed to gave the commission regulatory authority. She said she had made errors in handling last week’s power outages.
“Do you think the public deserves an apology from the PUC?” Anchía asked.
When Walker did not immediately respond, Anchía interjected, “The fact you’re hesitating is astonishing.”
By that night, Frisco’s Patterson had seen enough.
“PUC Chair (at least) must resign,” he said on Twitter. “I have zero confidence after today’s hearings; and by the line of questioning of my colleagues, I believe most if not all agree with me.”
Leach said the hearings had reinforced his beliefs about oversight failure and said ERCOT CEO Bill Magness and the other two PUC commissioners should resign. ERCOT, short for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, is a nonprofit corporation that manages the state’s power grid.
“A necessary step so we and our constituents can be confident the right leadership is in place to ensure this never happens again in Texas,” Leach said.
PUC Commissioners Arthur C. D’Andrea and Shelly Botkin also make $201,000 a year. Magness, who was also questioned by lawmakers for hours Thursday, makes $803,000 a year.
ERCOT has been at the center of criticism from the public and state officials since last week’s outages, and six of its board members have resigned. But the PUC, which oversees it, largely had escaped criticism until Thursday’s hearings.
On Friday, the commission announced it was starting to make rules to respond to the failures that caused last week’s power outages. One would create standards for power plants and energy providers to withstand extreme weather events; the other would deal with emergency operations for electric services.
But Anchía called it “too little, too late.”
“Because PUC failed to act, the Legislature is now going to take over this process,” he said.
On Friday, spokesmen and regulators of the Texas oil and gas industry said natural gas producers, processors and transporters were the star performers of the crisis.
“We did our job better than anybody else in the state,” said Railroad Commission Chairwoman Christi Craddick, speaking of natural gas companies her agency regulates. “There was heat going to homes of people that had gas at home.”
Right before the winter storm, natural gas accounted for 19% of the electricity being produced for Texas’ grid, said former Sen. Todd Staples, a Palestine Republican who heads the Texas Oil and Gas Association. At the height of the arctic blast, gas provided “more than two-thirds of the energy mix,” he said.
“Natural gas carried the load during this energy crisis, without doubt,” he said.
From the pipeline side, an executive of Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners — whose chief Kelcy Warren is a major GOP donor — said that it took all recommended steps after a 2011 blizzard to ready its pipelines.
Pipelines are naturally insulated as they rest in the ground and never freeze, but products passing through them can be affected by extremely cold temperatures, explained Grant Rueckle, Energy Transfer’s vice president for government affairs. Companies use special equipment and techniques to warm what’s flowing, Staples and Rueckle said.
“Our pipelines never stopped operating during the winter storm as of last week,” Rueckle noted.
He acknowledged he couldn’t speak for the rest of his industry.
The testimony continued a pattern that developed Thursday in which the power industry blamed natural gas for the energy system’s failure, and vice versa.
Several lawmakers noted a lack of coordination among the agencies that regulate different parts of the energy market. The PUC oversees ERCOT and the electric utility industry. The Railroad Commission oversees natural gas and oil.
Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, pitched a state energy agency that could oversee all energy players and coordinate them during catastrophic events. But his idea was greeted with skepticism from industry witnesses and lawmakers wary of overregulation.
“I would defer the decision to this body,” said John Paris, president of Dallas-based Atmos Energy’s MidTex division.
House members sparred over whether the Legislature should require weatherization of not just electricity generating plants, but associated systems that bring natural gas to the generators.
Former Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican who is Christi Craddick’s father and has strong personal and political ties to the oil industry, suggested that Democratic colleague Donna Howard of Austin was off base in suggesting a requirement.
Staples also noted his industry likely would oppose a weatherization mandate and would want to decide themselves how best to prepare.
Regulation was a difficult and often frustrating subject for lawmakers.
Beaumont Democratic Rep. Joe Deshotel asked Christi Craddick if her agency could mandate backup power systems for natural gas providers. She replied: “‘We don’t think we have the authority to mandate what kind of compressor stations they have.”
House members also questioned why scores of natural gas companies had failed to have their facilities deemed “critical infrastructure,” which would make them less likely to lose power in an emergency, along with hospitals and the like.
They were polite with Christi Craddick, whose father was sitting with them on the dais.
Noting that more than 100 companies hadn’t registered before the blackouts started early on Feb. 15, Fort Worth GOP Rep. Charlie Geren pleaded with Christi Craddick to “get the word out to your members.”
As the hearings wound down late Friday, lawmakers seemed nervous about the potential high costs of last week’s winter storms and whether Texas residents would be stuck paying the bill.
Asked by Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, how much the winter storm would cost Atmos, Paris said he expected similar costs to CenterPoint Energy, which estimated costs around $2.5 billion.
When Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, asked if residential customers would foot that bill, Paris responded that they would not see $1,000 bills but the cost would be spread out over time.
Also Friday, the city of Denton filed a lawsuit against ERCOT to prevent what the city called an “unconstitutional use of public funds.” The city owns and runs an electric provider called Denton Municipal Electric and fears that, given the recent spike in wholesale energy prices, it will be on the hook for bills that some other utilities – including private ones — have said they can’t pay.
Staff writer Holly Hacker contributed to this report.
CORRECTION, 10:19 a.m., Feb. 26, 2021: An earlier version of this story misspelled DeAnn Walker’s first name.