By Jack Fink

AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – The Executive Director of the Texas Railroad Commission found himself on the hot seat Tuesday, Sept. 28,  after state lawmakers heard about a potential loophole that some worry will place Texans at risk this winter.

Senators on the Business and Commerce Committee expressed their concerns during a hearing that provided a status update on the level of progress being made by the Railroad Commission and other state agencies that are responsible for preventing February’s widespread power outages responsible for the deaths of 210 Texans.

The Railroad Commission oversees the natural gas industry that plays a key role in making sure residents and businesses can turn their lights on.

Officials have said that 40% of the electricity produced relies on natural gas.

Senator Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, told Commission Executive Director Wei Wang, “This is the achilles heel right now, right now. What we talked about with the Railroad Commission, it stops right here.”

After the power outages, state lawmakers passed bills that would require state agencies to put together a critical infrastructure list so that they wouldn’t lose electricity during a winter or any other storm.

That’s because one of the big problems that caused some of the power outages in February was that the power plants run by natural gas couldn’t get it, in part because natural gas wellheads lost power.

They weren’t on a list of critical infrastructure.

But the Railroad Commission’s proposed rule would allow natural gas producers to essentially opt-out of being considered critical infrastructure by filling out a form and paying a $150 fee.

That didn’t sit well with lawmakers.

Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston said, “Your rule-making proposal sucks and we need a different direction.”

Wang responded, “Appreciate your guidance on that particular issue and if we need to change the language, we will.”

Whitmire didn’t let up. “Your job ought to be at stake on whether you can undo a provision.”

Senator Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio said, “Unfortunately, that incentive puts our constituents at risk, and this body is not going to put up with that.”

Menendez directed Wang to ask the Railroad Commission’s lawyers to discuss whether lawmakers need to tweek the state law during the current special session that ends October 19.

Senator Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, told Wang that the Commission needs to step up or face losing some of its authority. “I think this gives the Railroad Commission an opportunity to prove up its worth. You don’t prove up your worth, it could just be moved to the PUC.”

Earlier in the hearing, the Chair of the Public Utility Commission, PUC, Peter Lake, told lawmakers that his agency, which oversees ERCOT, that they’ve made two key changes to be more prepared for stormy weather.

Lake said they are buying more reserves and increasing the margin of safety.

“We’ve got to get it right,” he said.

Lake said while the grid has reliability challenges, even in the temperate summer we had, that the grid is more resilient going into this winter than the last one.

ERCOT’s interim President and CEO, Brad Jones, told lawmakers they are following up on the state’s new requirements that power plants and others in the electric sector weatherize their facilities for both cold and hot weather.
The natural gas sector also must weatherize its facilities as well.

State lawmakers gave the PUC $2 million to ensure that power generators are weatherizing their facilities and the Railroad Commission about $20 million to make inspect natural gas producers do the same.