Federal report points finger at natural gas sector in February power outages

Failures by the natural gas sector — from producers at wellheads all the way up the supply chain to gas-fired generation plants — are to blame for the bulk of the power outages that left much of Texas without electricity for extended periods during February’s deadly winter freeze, according to federal energy officials.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its final report this week on the disaster that triggered a near collapse of the state's electricity grid, making clear that inadequate weatherization plagued power generators and infrastructure of all types during the event but singling out the interconnected natural gas industry in particular.

According to the report, about 60% of the generators that went offline at various points amid the winter storms that swept Texas and the south-central United States from Feb. 8 through Feb. 20 were fueled by natural gas.

In addition, the freezing temperatures and bad weather were responsible for about 43% of a steep decline in natural gas production, a downturn that resulted in fuel shortages for gas-fired generators during the emergency, according to the report.

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Natural gas producers in Texas have deflected blame in the wake of the disaster, seeking to stave off winterization mandates. They have contended that power generators largely failed first and then triggered a wave of outages across the state's power grid — including at natural gas production facilities that need electricity to operate.

But according to the report by the federal energy commission — known as FERC — only about 22% of the declines in natural gas production could be attributed to rolling blackouts or issues such as downed power lines, and the production downturn started before the widespread outages.

"This report really points to the fact that this was overwhelmingly a natural gas-related problem," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University's Baker Institute. "There are many causes (of February's calamity), but the principal cause was the lack of weatherization of our natural gas facilities."

Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, said his organization is still reviewing the report and comparing it to data collected earlier by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas indicating fuel shortages of all types were responsible for a significantly smaller percentage of generator outages than FERC found. The electric reliability council, or ERCOT, oversees the state's power grid.

"Many (natural gas) operators proactively implemented winterization measures and reported that loss of power was the predominant reason for lack of production during this historic storm," Staples said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas producers in the state, said the agency provided information to federal officials and is reviewing the final report, but didn't comment further.

The FERC report, which is more than 300 pages, reiterates preliminary findings and recommendations that it made public two months ago, but with additional details. It also echoes previous FERC reports — largely ignored by Texas officials — issued in the wake of other widespread power outages on the state's grid, such as a 2011 document that included calls for increased weatherization.

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"I've read this report before," said Michael Webber, a University of Texas mechanical engineering professor and energy expert. "There is so much repetition here — the question is, are we going to take it seriously this time?"

Webber credited the latest report for documenting "which domino was the first to fall" during the February disaster.

“This is an authoritative report saying the natural gas system froze," with gas-related production and transport facilities succumbing first, Webber said. "Really nailing that down is really important."

The "domino" that triggered the calamity on the Texas grid has been a point of contention. While natural gas producers and generators have pointed fingers at each other, some politicians — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have blamed the increasing proportion of power generators that rely on renewable energy, such as wind turbines.

According to the FERC report, 27% of the generators that went off line at various points during the emergency were fueled by wind, while 2% were fueled by solar power.

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Regardless, federal officials said regulators must do everything they can to ensure there won't be a repeat of the disaster.

“The devastating effects of extreme cold on our bulk power system’s ability to operate in 2011 and now, 2021, must not be allowed to happen again," FERC Chairman Rich Glick said in a written statement. "We have a duty to protect the bulk power system and public safety and we will do just that.”

At least 210 Texans died for reasons related to the severe winter freeze in February, when the power grid faltered just when needed most. More than 4.5 million lost power for extended periods, with some going days without electricity.

There are some indications that Texas officials have gotten the message.

The state's Public Utility Commission, which regulates power generators, approved new rules last month requiring them to implement some of the decade-old weatherization recommendations outlined in the 2011 FERC report — although the generators won't be penalized for suffering weather-related failures anyway.

Still, power generators must document by Dec. 1 that they have taken the measures and will be subject to inspection by ERCOT to make sure. In addition, the utility commission is in the midst of a wide-ranging effort to devise changes to the state's deregulated electricity market that are aimed at increasing its reliability.

But there still might be a weak link in the effort to prevent another February-style calamity. That's because the railroad commission, which oversees natural gas producers, has yet to put in place any new winterization mandates for wellheads and pipelines.

"As long as the gas system remains unreliable, we are at risk," Webber said. "I don't think we're ready (for another severe freeze). But it probably will be a mild winter — we can hope for that."

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Feds point finger at natural gas sector in February power outages