Texas gas supply plummeted during last weekend's cold snap. That spells trouble for the grid.
After last winter's big blackout, Texas state officials vowed to keep natural gas flowing during the next freeze. Failures along the gas supply chain were one of the main causes of the blackout: After all, if fuel can’t get to power plants, power can’t get to Texans.
Almost a year after that historic power failure, the state’s natural gas system has been tested by a far milder cold spell. Some energy experts say it did not pass the test.
According to estimates from Bloomberg and other industry analysis, Texas gas production dropped by around 20% as the cold front arrived last weekend. It was the largest decrease in supply since February’s winter storm. The reason, according to documents filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, includes equipment breaking down in the freezing temperatures.
Unlike in February, the supply disruption did not translate into problems for the state’s electric grid. But, energy experts say, it shows that Texas has more work to do to safeguard its energy infrastructure against weather-related blackouts.
“The energy system is not ready yet,” said Michael Webber, a professor of energy resources and mechanical engineering at UT Austin. “If it can't handle the cold we had last week, then it's not ready for another Winter Storm Uri event, that's for sure.”
After last year’s storm, Texas lawmakers passed laws to require certain parts of the state’s energy system to “winterize.” Texas power plants had new mandates to prepare for the cold this winter. Gas producers and suppliers did not.
State oil and gas regulators at the Railroad Commission of Texas will announce their gas winterization standards sometime around the middle of the year. They may not become law until months later.
Critics have said that lag leaves the grid vulnerable.
Beyond cutting gas supply, problems last weekend at gas-processing plants, compressor stations and other facilities led to an increase in air pollution.
Filings with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality show toxins like sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and methane were released into the air. Methane, or natural gas, is a powerful greenhouse gas.
Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Sierra Club, said sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide “can damage lungs of workers and residents nearby.”
“If every time it gets a little chilly in Texas people are being exposed to more pollution that’s not a good thing,” he said.
The cold snap came as state regulators at the Public Utility Commission of Texas were working to incentivize investment in more “dispatchable” energy generators that can be turned off or on as electricity demand requires.
The natural gas industry has long advertised itself as a provider of just such a reliable source of energy. But, UT’s Webber says production declines like the ones last weekend and in February call that claim into question.
“These failures of the gas system ... are really an indicator that that sales pitch isn't true,” he said. “The gas system is not living up to its own sales pitch.”