Texas lawmakers must reverse the state power grid operator’s $16 billion billing mistake during last month’s deadly winter storm, state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said Wednesday.
His comments about ERCOT came in a virtual conversation with state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith, on how the Legislature can better prepare for extreme weather.
“If there was an error made, how do you expect or believe that you should balance that error on the backs of hard-working Texans? That’s adding insult to injury,” Menéndez said, referring to the decision by the board of the Public Utility Commission not to eliminate some of the overcharges.
Several Texas lawmakers have called for the charges to be reversed, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, who on Tuesday night added the correction of electricity billing errors to his list of priority items for the legislative session.
Here are highlights from the Texas Tribune event.
The Public Utility Commission is an executive agency, with commissioners appointed by the governor. Does Gov. Abbott bear any responsibility for what happened during the storm?
Menéndez said Gov. Abbott “should have forced” the state’s power infrastructure to winterize “to a proper level,” but said all lawmakers bear some responsibility for the fallout.
“I think there's plenty of blame for everybody,” said Menéndez, vice chair of the Senate Local Government Committee.
Following marathon hearings on the crisis by House and Senate committees, PUC chair DeAnn Walker resigned, and ERCOT CEO Bill Magness was fired. On Monday, PUC board member Shelly Botkin resigned, leaving just one board member.
Goldman said PUC commissioners should remain appointed by the governor to ensure the board is composed of “complete experts in this field.”
He defended the former PUC chair, saying "I've had private conversations ... and I frankly believe the chairwoman performed her role during the storm, making sure she was calling the right people in order to shed load, or give away power, in order to try and save the grid."
For more than a decade, the Texas Legislature has repeatedly ignored, dismissed or watered down efforts to address weaknesses in the state’s electric grid, which is separate from the rest of the country. Why should anybody believe lawmakers are going to act this year?
Lawmakers have had several chances following a severe winter storm in 2011 to prepare the power grid for extreme weather. Goldman, chair of the House Energy Resources Committee, said he is committed to ongoing discussions.
“I wasn’t here last time,” Goldman said, adding that many members of the Texas House were not in office during earlier discussions.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan on Monday announced seven priority bills responding to the widespread outages. Goldman said he plans to file one of those bills, which would call for weatherizing the state’s natural gas infrastructure.
“We’re still in discussions of what that means … to those oil and gas industry corporations and businesses, because if they say, ‘We can’t afford to do this,’ … that’s not good,” Goldman said of weatherization. “We need everyone operating who can operate.”
During last month’s hearings, “every single industry … admitted they had problems they needed to fix internally,” Goldman said. “We’re going to continue to have ongoing hearings all across the state to make sure what happened several weeks ago never happens again in our state.”
It's going to be expensive to make sure the state's electricity stays on during winter storms like the one that left millions of Texans without power last month. Where is the money going to come from?
Menéndez said taxpayers should not have to foot the bill.
“We’re in Texas, the second most populous state in the nation,” Menéndez said. “Every company that produces energy wants to be here … so I don’t want to hear about how expensive or how we the taxpayers are going to subsidize this industry.”
“Either we get this right or none of us deserve to be reelected, from the governor on down,” he added, pointing to the dozens of deaths that have been tied to last month’s storm. “I don’t care what it costs, to be honest with you.”
“The technology is out there … so let’s stop with the dang excuses, and let’s just do the right thing,” Menéndez said.
This conversation is presented by Lone Star College and Texas State Technical College and supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Texas McCombs Energy Institute and Texas Construction Association. Foundation support is provided by the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation, the Energy Foundation and the Catena Foundation.
Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.