Texans cry foul after officials approve higher utility bills stemming from 2021 winter storm power crisis

Texans cry foul after officials approve higher utility bills stemming from 2021 winter storm power crisis
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2016, Wikimedia Commons

Texas residents still have painful memories of the cold snap that pummeled their state in February, when millions of Texans found themselves without heat or electricity during freezing winter temperatures that felt more like New England or the Midwest than the Lone Star State. To make matters worse, Texans who had signed up for variable-rate energy plans were socked with utility bills in the thousands. Now, according to Austin's NPR affiliate, KUT-FM, Texas regulators have approved higher bills for energy customers.

KUT's Mose Buchele reports, "Oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas cleared the way on Wednesday for $3.4 billion to be paid to natural gas companies by raising bills for ratepayers. The $3.4 billion is part of the debt that gas utilities unexpectedly owed suppliers after gas prices skyrocketed during February's winter storm and blackout. The cost may be included on Texans' gas bills for up to the next 30 years."

Buchele adds, "The move, approved unanimously by the three Railroad Commission members, was the most recent step in a process state legislatures approved last spring known as 'securitization.' It essentially turned blackout-related debt owed to natural gas companies and others into low-interest bonds guaranteed by the state. Those bonds are then paid back over decades by charging higher bills to consumers. The Railroad Commission vote today approved the issuance of those bonds by another state group, the Texas Public Finance Authority."

During Texas' cold snap back in February, far-right Republicans ranging from Gov. Greg Abbott to Fox News' Tucker Carlson wrongly blamed green energy for the state's energy woes — which, as Democratic former Rep. Beto O'Rourke pointed out, was total nonsense. First, most of Texas' energy comes from fossil fuels, not green energy. Second, the widespread blackout occurred because Texas' systems had not been properly winterized; it had nothing to do with green energy versus fossil fuels. Third, Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden use green energy extensively during their cold, snowy winters and do so without any problem because they know how to winterize.

Officials in places known for frigid winters — whether it's Providence, Rhode Island or Oslo, Norway — winterize their energy systems in anticipation of snow and icy temperatures. Texas Republicans didn't winterize, and the state paid a dear price when Texans literally froze to death in their homes.

"In a legislative hearing after the storm, Texas Gas Service told lawmakers that it paid 22 times more than usual for gas during the freeze and blackout," Buchele notes. "One estimate published by the Austin Monitor in August said Texas Gas Service bills may increase by $5 a month for the next 10 years."

Buchele also reports that "critics" have "accused state lawmakers and the Railroad Commission of putting gas company profits over customer needs."

Virginia Palacios, executive director of the group Commission Shift — which is pushing for Railroad Commission reforms — said, "The legislature could have agreed to spend some amount of state money.... to just help utility customers that are struggling with their utility bills. They completely passed on that. The companies that profited the most from this (winter storm) were Energy Transfer and Enterprise Products Partners. Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick holds beneficial interests in both of those companies."

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