Improving our Environment: Natural Gas is Essential to our Recovery from Winter Storm

Winter Storm Uri’s devastation in Texas over the week of February 15-19 was a statewide disaster. The cold was deadly, and the failures of the electric grid and subsequent interruptions of some water utilities created untold misery for millions of Texans.

Governor Greg Abbott has called for the legislature to investigate ERCOT and ensure Texans never again experience power outages on the same scale. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has named his priorities for session and at the top of the list is Senate Bill 2 ERCOT Reform and Senate Bill 3 Power Grid Stability. Finally, House Speaker Dade Phelan unveiled his priorities for electricity reform with seven bills.  

Every lawmaker is committed to finding solutions to prevent the complex systematic failure of our electric system from ever happening again. Outside of failures at ERCOT to properly amplify the message of impending power shortages and curtailments, there are no simple answers to what caused the sustained blackouts. Even fewer solutions for how to prevent them. The forensic report that is coming from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will take months to be conducted (the 2011 FERC report took six months). It will be far too late to act quickly to meet the immediacy of the moment but potentially a resource for lawmakers to weigh if the state is prepared for another winter season.

Despite a few calls from environmentalists who have hoped to shutdown natural gas production in Texas before and after the storm, everyone agrees natural gas was essential to heat, power and recovery and that increasing the amount of natural gas to customers that need it should be a top priority. During the storm, natural gas surged 450% to meet the power needs of this state while the gas utilities reported they were on maximum withdrawal of their reserves to keep 99.95% of the 4.3 million gas meters in the state supplied with gas. For the more than 13 million Texans in homes behind those meters, that gas made the difference in providing life-saving heat when the electricity was shutoff. Contrary to the media narrative, natural gas met the moment, and we can do more to ensure Texas does not become overly dependent on the sun shining and the wind blowing. Those energy sources are unreliable in high heat or extreme cold. 

Some legislators have proposed costly winterization mandates designed to protect the oilfield from severe cold, but these fail to address the route problems of loss of electricity to the field. Fixed industrial equipment was interrupted, back-up fuels were not invested in, and the infrastructure to move product from the field, clean it, pack it in a line and move that gas to critical areas was shut off from power. These mandates would have the exact opposite of their intended effect to keep gas flowing by forcing many wells to become uneconomic limiting their production. Misplace accusations of freeze offs in the field do not even solve the last crisis. Dispelling these false charges is a full-time job but more important are the tangible solutions moving forward. These should be focused on critical load designations during a power emergency to make sure gas is not held in the field and some long-range planning focused on building resiliency in storage. Power regulators should also consider natural gas-fired electric generators to contract for uninterruptible gas during parts of the year of high-demand. The politics of the moment must be met with sound engineering and economic expertise. 

In Washington DC, there are similar battles. The Biden administration is hoping to seize their moment to lead the globe on climate action later this year by flying to Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nation Climate Change Conference. This charge is causing federal agencies and many of the national trade associations to mull what should be put on the table as a negotiating matter. In a return to the regulatory structure under President Obama, Biden started with the rejoining of the Paris Climate agreement requiring the United States to nominate a carbon reduction goal. It is anticipated the administration will expand the 2015 carbon pledge of reducing US emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025. Activists are pushing him to pledge 50% below 2005 levels by 2030. To meet the pledge, he has already set goals to decarbonize the electric grid and will go further by raising fuel standards on automotive manufacturers, reducing domestic energy production, and mandating new emissions standards on manufacturing and industry. None of this improves our global environment because we continue to see global coal demand at record levels despite the US cutting in half the amount of coal used for electric power in the last decade thanks to the rise of domestic natural gas production.

As in Texas, if actual solutions were being sought, they would start with recognizing the incredible role domestically-produced natural gas has had in reducing US emissions back to 1990’s levels while doubling our economy. The additional opportunities that LNG exports can play in reducing global emissions by displacing coal from being burned in hundreds of new coal-fired power plants being built each year in developing countries including China and India. Working to modernize the electric grids in the world also works to reduce the nearly 4 million who die prematurely from indoor air pollution according to the World Health Organization.

Unfortunately, their proposed solutions involve litmus test designed to end domestic production of oil and gas. This is economically and environmentally disastrous by requiring heavier mining for rare earth minerals and increases in pollution from developing countries with lower labor and environmental standards. American operators are good stewards of our environment and we should hold our global competitors to the same standard. Voluntarily sacrificing our industry doesn’t solve any problems and fail to meet the moment.

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Jason Modglin

Jason Modglin serves as the President of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. He previously worked for the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas House of Representatives. A native of Houston, he holds a Master of Public Affairs degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.