'He has total veto power': Greg Abbott takes control over who will lead Texas’ troubled power grid, sources say

By Mitchell Ferman, The Texas Tribune

When Brad Jones was tapped as interim CEO of the nonprofit that runs the state’s power grid following the deadly February 2021 winter storm that left most of Texas without power for days, he said he would help stabilize the grid and get it through the summer. Jones was clear that he wasn’t interested in keeping the job long term.

Now, 15 months after Jones became interim CEO — and more than a month after the June target date when Jones had told colleagues and conference crowds that he wanted to step down — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’ new board of directors still has not selected his successor.

Eight sources from across the power industry who spoke to The Texas Tribune say Gov. Greg Abbott — who has no formal role in the process — has put a stranglehold on the CEO search.

The board of directors, installed by a group of three people who are appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker, and a contracted search firm have presented CEO candidates to Abbott for final say, according to three sources who spoke to the Tribune on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issues.

The governor has already vetoed Steve Berberich, a Texan who was vice president of Irving-based TXU Energy and later became CEO of California’s power grid operator and who appeared to have strong support from both the power industry and ERCOT’s board of directors, two people familiar with the matter said.

“The only explanation we got was because he came from California,” said a power industry source familiar with the discussions about Berberich. “Obviously California has its share of problems, but you can’t argue with his qualifications.”

Berberich declined to comment for this story.

This level of involvement by the governor in ERCOT’s hiring process — and in its public communications — is extraordinary in the nonprofit’s 52-year history, numerous sources told the Tribune.

“He has total veto power,” one of the sources familiar with the process said of Abbott.

Abbott’s office controls ERCOT’s public statements

By the time Jones took over ERCOT two months after the catastrophe, Abbott’s office had begun dictating what — and whether — information about the power grid was released to the public by ERCOT, an unprecedented move by a Texas governor, according to current and former energy company directors, power grid employees, longtime energy analysts and consultants who spoke to The Texas Tribune.

After the storm, ERCOT’s public messaging quickly dwindled even as public anxiety about the grid’s reliability soared: Jones has held few press conferences — and when he has, they have almost always been alongside his boss, Public Utility Commission Chair Peter Lake, whom Abbott appointed to replace another leader who left in the post-winter-storm purge.

“The governor is not just reviewing and editing [ERCOT’s public statements]. He’s telling ERCOT whether or not they can release grid information at all,” said a former senior ERCOT employee who spoke candidly about the matter on the condition of anonymity. The source said “it means information is potentially not getting where it needs to go, and that means Texans aren’t hearing what they need to hear.”

At times since the winter freeze, the governor’s office examined press releases and other communications ERCOT had prepared to put out to the public and made changes “if they were uncomfortable with the language,” the former employee said. Before the freeze, the governor’s office was barely involved at all in ERCOT’s public communications, four people familiar with the process said.

ERCOT’s social media posts have also dwindled: In the four months before February 2021, ERCOT posted 41 times on Facebook, a mix of regular grid updates, job postings and statements from its executives about the grid. In the 17 months after, ERCOT has posted only 31 times on Facebook; the same trend has played out on ERCOT’s Twitter account.

“The National Weather Service is on Twitter every day or in the newspaper or on Facebook — there are a thousand ways to reach people where they are,” said Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which regulates ERCOT. “The point is to provide so much information that people stop thinking you’re hiding stuff and they stop looking behind every lamp post and stop being suspicious about what you’re not telling them.”

Silverstein, who also used to work for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, said grid operators routinely give U.S. governors’ offices a heads up before they release grid information to the public. But governors don’t usually dictate what information is released, Silverstein and other former Texas grid officials said.

Before the winter freeze, that was the case with ERCOT, too, according to numerous sources familiar with the process: The grid operator typically sent press releases and grid update announcements to the PUC, which typically shared them with the governor’s office, a day or two before release as a heads up, and they were rarely questioned or told to substantially change the content.

Abbott, who is up for reelection in November, has almost entirely avoided discussing the grid publicly this summer, even as Texans have been repeatedly asked to conserve electricity and many have seen their home electric bills skyrocket. Abbott’s opponent, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, has made the grid’s problems a big part of his campaign and has criticized Abbott over his handling of the grid during and after last year’s tragedy.

A spokesperson for Abbott did not answer detailed questions about the governor’s involvement in the grid, but said Texas has taken “unprecedented steps” to protect the state’s power system following the 2021 winter storm — including mandating that power generators and natural gas producers better prepare their facilities for extreme weather.

“Governor Abbott continues working to ensure the substantial bipartisan reforms passed by the House and Senate last year are properly implemented, including greater transparency and accountability at the PUC and ERCOT, so that the grid remains stable and reliable,” the spokesperson said in a written statement. “Under the Governor’s leadership, Texans have seen more communication and proactive responses by the PUC and ERCOT to keep the public better informed of current grid conditions, such as voluntary conservation appeals this summer during record-setting temperatures and demand."

In response to detailed questions for this story, a spokesperson for ERCOT used the same written statement repeatedly: “ERCOT does not speak for Gov. Abbott on what, if any involvement he’s had.”

The spokesperson added that ERCOT’s public communications are reviewed and approved by the PUC, the state agency that oversees ERCOT.

Abbott appoints the PUC’s board, which was expanded from three to five members after the winter storm, when millions of people were plunged into darkness after extended freezing temperatures shut down natural gas facilities and power plants. Those two major parts of the grid rely on each other to keep electricity flowing. Hundreds of people died during the freeze. All three of Abbott’s appointees resigned from the board shortly after the freeze. The previous ERCOT CEO was fired, and many of its board members resigned.

Beth Garza, who has worked in the Texas energy industry for decades, including as the independent watchdog of ERCOT from 2014-19, said any direct involvement by the governor in ERCOT’s day-to-day operations is concerning because he and his staff are not trained power professionals.

“I don’t think he knows anything about running [a grid operator]. He certainly couldn’t figure out who to pick as [PUC] commissioners the first time around,” Garza said. “Let’s remember: The three in charge [of the PUC] during the catastrophe were all his appointees.”

Who wants to be ERCOT’s next CEO?

The last week of July, ERCOT’s board of directors held an urgent virtual meeting to consider a “sensitive matter,” which they discussed in a private executive session. When the board returned to open session, they said they deliberated on a personnel matter and didn’t vote on anything.

Behind closed doors, the board narrowed its search for a permanent CEO, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Numerous sources said the governor has consistently pushed for Phil Wilson, former secretary of state under Gov. Rick Perry and current chief executive of the Lower Colorado River Authority, a nonprofit public utility based in Austin that provides water and electricity to more than 1 million Texans.

Abbott has turned to Wilson as a crisis manager before. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbott named Wilson the acting head of Texas’ massive health and human services agency, which he ran for four months while continuing to lead the river authority.

Last fall, Abbott also appointed Wilson as chair of the State Energy Plan Advisory Committee, a group of mostly energy executives who are expected to lay out a long-term energy plan for the state, which state lawmakers could use to help them draft legislative proposals.

But Wilson doesn’t want the ERCOT CEO job and has privately turned it down multiple times, according to four people familiar with the matter.

When reached by a Tribune reporter seeking comment about his candidacy for the ERCOT job, Wilson said he was in a meeting and couldn’t talk.

Wilson’s apparent reluctance to take the job underscores the biggest challenge for Abbott and the ERCOT board: finding qualified candidates who actually want the job. Garza said the ERCOT job pays well and could be appealing for somebody in the power sector who wants to run an organization that’s critical to the lives of most Texans.

But ERCOT is not a state agency — it’s a nonprofit entity that operates like an air traffic controller and a financial exchange, coordinating with dozens of transmission companies, power providers and generators to manage both the state’s sprawling power supply and the money transferred among different segments of the power system.

The private power sector generally pays top executives more than what ERCOT could offer, and the ERCOT CEO is under a much brighter spotlight than any power company CEO after last year’s disaster sowed widespread public distrust in the state power grid. Jones earns $500,000 annually as interim CEO, according to his contract, obtained by the Tribune through an open records request. That’s $300,000 less than his predecessor, Bill Magness, revealed that he earned during legislative hearings after the 2021 winter storm.

Garza and other sources in the energy industry said candidates also have to weigh whether they’re willing to step into such a politicized position.

“The concern is that once you have an organization that’s sort of kowtowed into believing it needs approval from whoever it needs to come from, that organization is stymied and will wait to take action,” Garza said. “You risk losing some initiative. That’s not what you want from ERCOT. You want ERCOT to be smart, capable folks who take necessary actions when they’re necessary to take.”

Disclosure: Facebook and the Lower Colorado River Authority have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/10/texas-power-grid-ercot-ceo-greg-abbott/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texans face skyrocketing home energy bills as the state exports more natural gas than ever

By Mitchell Ferman, The Texas Tribune

Texans are seeing skyrocketing home electric bills this spring and summer, with many customers paying at least 50% more than they did for electric bills at this time last year.

And nobody seems to know when costs will go down.

“I am worried people are going to be shocked,” said John Ballenger, vice president at Texas retail electric provider Champion Energy. “Realizing this is 50 or 60 or 70% higher than what they had paid before, I’m just not sure it’s real to people yet. If it’s not, it will be very, very soon when the bills hit this summer.”

Here’s what Texans need to know about why utility bills are getting more expensive:

What’s driving electricity and gas bills higher?

The elevated utility bills have primarily been driven by the price of natural gas, which has shot up more than 200% since late February when Russia, a top gas-producing country, invaded Ukraine and upended the world’s energy market.

Since then, Texas, the leading natural gas-producing state in the U.S., has not been able to keep offering its own residents cheap energy.

Since the war in Ukraine began, Texas has been exporting more natural gas than ever before, sending much of it to Europe as many countries try to wean themselves off Russian gas. Congress lifted a longtime ban on exporting U.S. oil and gas in 2015, which opened world markets to Texas oil and gas producers.

“People are lining up around the world to get our product,” said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

But demand for natural gas has also been growing at home as more people and businesses continue to flock to Texas. A hotter-than-normal spring and early summer also have driven demand for power to record-high levels. Most Texas power plants run on natural gas.

“We’ve seen Texas gas go over to Europe, which has then created a supply issue locally in the state of Texas,” said Cory Kuchinsky, chief financial officer and treasurer for CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal utility that provides energy to more than 1 million customers. “Our customers feel the real-time impact of changing fuel costs.”

The hike in utility bills comes during difficult financial times for many Texans, who have also been facing high prices at grocery stores and the fuel pump due to growing inflation.

How long will Texans see higher utility bills?

With the war in Ukraine dragging on and upending the world energy market, Texas electricity providers are cautioning customers that the high rates could linger for months or longer.

The higher prices will, however, benefit some Texans. As a major gas producer, the state typically benefits from high oil and gas prices in the form of jobs and state taxes on oil and gas production. Cities located in the state’s oil fields usually benefit even more.

“I grew up in Odessa in the middle of oil and gas, and there’s always been this inverse relationship,” said Carrie Collier-Brown, lawyer for the Alliance for Retail Markets, a trade group for Texas electric providers. “For folks out there, it’s better for their economy when gas prices are high.”

But despite the spike in demand, the oil and gas industry isn’t seeing major production growth because of a backlog of orders for vital equipment due to supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic, said Garrett Golding, energy economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“There’s also a shortage of labor across most of the oilfield services,” Golding said, noting that companies are trying to hire aggressively. “But we’ve seen it for several quarters now: It is a struggle to get qualified people into the positions (companies) want right now.”

Is the price of natural gas the only cause?

While they agree the price of natural gas is the primary driver behind Texas utility bills, energy experts say there are other factors at play.

The state’s main power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, has been managing the grid more cautiously since last February, when millions of people were without power for days in subfreezing temperatures after a combination of cold weather across the state and skyrocketing demand for energy shut down power plants as well as the natural gas facilities that supply them with fuel. Hundreds of people died.

Public Utility Commission chair Peter Lake, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after the winter storm to lead the agency in charge of ERCOT, has said the grid operator is no longer prioritizing providing Texans cheap power. Instead, Lake said, its main focus is the grid’s reliability, especially during extreme hot or cold weather. But that has a price.

“Conservative operations add costs,” said Cathy Webking, a longtime Texas energy lawyer.

ERCOT’s new approach to operating the grid means asking power plants to be online and available in case they’re needed, and that means paying generators a prescribed price to operate no matter what happens. Before the 2021 winter storm, power plants ramped up or went offline based on market demand.

Golding, with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said Texans are paying for last year’s grid disaster — and will for years. Texas lawmakers last year approved roughly $7 billion in ratepayer-backed bonds to deal with the financial fallout from the storm. Some electricity utilities were strapped with billions in new debt after paying exorbitant prices for electricity set by ERCOT during the storm — the high prices were an incentive for power plants to provide more electricity — and the debt drove some utilities into bankruptcy.

“On everybody’s bill, there are also these surcharges for paying for what happened in 2021,” Golding said.

Disclosure: CPS Energy has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/07/05/texas-energy-bills-natural-gas-export/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas' grid operator told a power plant to delay repairs ahead of a May heat wave -- it was among six that crashed

On Thursday, Texas’ power grid operator told at least one power plant to delay its scheduled repairs and keep operating to help meet demand during hotter-than-expected May weather.

The next day, the plant went offline anyway when some of its equipment stopped working properly, according to energy giant Calpine, which owns the plant. Calpine declined to identify the plant.

By just after 5 p.m. Friday, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas announced that six power plants had gone down unexpectedly and asked Texans to turn up their thermostats to 78 degrees for the weekend and avoid using large appliances during the hottest hours of the day to reduce strain on the power grid.

“We had a scheduled major maintenance outage beginning Friday, May 13, but it was cancelled by ERCOT on May 12,” a Calpine spokesperson said in a statement, adding that May is a “shoulder month” during which power generators historically take power plants offline to do repairs and maintenance during cooler weather.

But this month has been warmer than most Mays of the past decade, leading to higher electricity demand and causing ERCOT to scramble to keep as many plants operating as possible.

Several other power plants broke down Friday and couldn’t produce electricity after agreeing — at ERCOT’s request — to postpone planned maintenance shutdowns, said Michele Richmond, who represents power plants across the state as executive director of the Texas Competitive Power Advocates.

That contradicts what the grid operator said Friday, when an ERCOT spokesperson told The Texas Tribune that maintenance delays did not cause any of the six power plant failures. On Tuesday, an ERCOT spokesperson said he was checking on whether power plant repair delays requested by ERCOT led to Friday’s plant outages.

ERCOT’s public statement said that “six power generation facilities tripped offline resulting in the loss of approximately 2,900 MW of electricity” — enough to power more than 580,000 homes. “At this time, all reserve generation resources available are operating.”

The brief statement raised more questions than it answered and didn’t address the plants’ locations, whether they were all offline at the same time and why they unexpectedly failed. The weekend passed without major power disruptions, as several of the downed plants returned online by Saturday.

Richmond said ERCOT is “taking a top-down approach” in determining when to tell companies to delay needed repairs and “doesn’t take into account what these complex machines need to make sure they get maintenance done.”

“When you start to tell generators during the season they’re supposed to be doing maintenance that they can’t, then you’re trying to squeeze more out of plants than what is safe and reliable,” she added.

ERCOT approves planned maintenance requests from energy companies months and even years in advance because of the complexity of the work and the need to maintain a minimum level of generation capacity at all times.

Over recent weeks, portable toilets, tents and large cargo containers have been assembled at power plants across Texas for repair crews that allow the facilities to run at full strength during the hot Texas summer.

Dozens of contract workers at many sites erect scaffolding — some even bring in cranes to move heavier equipment — and take apart the plants’ turbines and fix rotating blades. Depending on the scope of the work, a plant can be down for days or weeks.

“Our companies want to be on in the heat of summer, our companies want to be on when customers need us to provide power,” Richmond said. “We also want to do it reliably and safely. Part of reliability of a power plant is taking scheduled maintenance to not only run safely but run at max performance, just like you don’t want to do maintenance on your car when you’re on a cross-country road trip.”

Daniel Cohan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, questioned how the power plants that have been forced to delay maintenance will perform when the worst of the Texas heat arrives this summer.

“I’m concerned with how hard those plants have been run and that maintenance has been deferred to run the grid conservatively,” Cohan said, describing ERCOT’s approach since last year’s freeze of having a larger cushion of power reserve available. “It remains to be seen how much more vulnerable that leaves us to summer outages.”

ERCOT on Monday released its forecast for summer electricity demand. The agency expects record-breaking electricity demand of 77,317 megawatts. ERCOT said it has beefed up the amount of reserve power available to the grid and it “is expected to have sufficient installed generating capacity to serve peak demands in the upcoming summer season.”

The Public Utility Commission of Texas, which is in charge of ERCOT, is considering a new rule that could shorten the maintenance season when plants can go offline for repairs. The new rule is based on a provision in Senate Bill 3, the state Legislature’s response to last year’s freeze, when millions of people were without power for days in subfreezing temperatures and hundreds died after a combination of cold weather and skyrocketing energy demand shut down power plants as well as the natural gas facilities that supply them with fuel.

Richmond said the new rule is flawed because it doesn’t outline specific metrics to tell ERCOT when a plant needs maintenance, which she said could be a problem with a shorter maintenance season.

Officials from multiple power companies contacted by the Tribune this week questioned whether the rule would give them enough time to make necessary repairs during maintenance season because there are a limited number of qualified repair crews and they travel the country repairing power plants during the milder months of the year. The companies asked not to be identified because power plant outage details have not yet been publicly disclosed by ERCOT.

Cohan said Texans can expect to see hotter temperatures in the coming decades because of climate change, which will put more pressure on the state’s aging power plants.

“You need to do maintenance sometime, and we’ve seen our vulnerability to winter freezes and we know our peaks most often happen in summer heat waves,” Cohan said. “That really leaves it to the fall and spring as the seasons when you need to do maintenance.”

Texans asked to limit electricity use after six power plants go down ahead of a hot weekend

After six power plants went down unexpectedly Friday — and with hot weather expected across Texas this weekend — the Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Friday evening is asking consumers to conserve electricity through Sunday.

Texans are asked to set their thermostats to 78 degrees or above between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. this weekend and to avoid using large appliances at home during those same times.

A spokesperson for ERCOT, which operates the state’s main power grid, told The Texas Tribune he does not expect there to be electricity blackouts this weekend.

ERCOT did not say why the plants unexpectedly tripped offline. All reserve power was operating to support the grid, the agency said.

The power plant failures led to a loss of about 2,900 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power more than 580,000 homes.

Power grids must keep supply and demand in balance at all times. When Texas’ grid falls below its safety margin of excess supply, the grid operator starts taking additional precautions to avoid blackouts. The first precaution is to ask the public to cut back electricity usage.

April and May are referred to as “shoulder months” in the energy world. That’s the time of year when power plants go offline in order to conduct necessary maintenance and other repairs before the hot summer months.

ERCOT, however, has recently told multiple power generation companies to delay maintenance on their equipment so the grid could keep up with the hotter-than-usual temperatures recently, which in turn leads to elevated demand for power when Texans crank their air conditioners.

Friday’s power plant outages were unrelated to the recent maintenance delays, an ERCOT spokesperson said.

While it’s not uncommon for power grid operators to ask consumers to cut back on electricity use as a precautionary measure, many Texans vividly remember February 2021, when millions of people were without power for days in subfreezing temperatures after a combination of cold weather across the state and skyrocketing demand for energy shut down power plants as well as the natural gas facilities that supply them with fuel. Hundreds of people died.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/13/texas-power-conservation-heat/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

With Roe v. Wade on the line, some Texans look south of the border for abortion drugs

By Eleanor Klibanoff, Mitchell Ferman and Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

NUEVO PROGRESO, Mexico — Maria laid the pregnancy test facedown on the counter in her boyfriend’s bathroom in McAllen and set a timer for the longest three minutes of her life.

She watched the timer tick down, mentally running through her litany of reassurances: They’d used a condom; she’d taken the Plan B pill; maybe her missed period was just an anomaly.

“I was just praying, please don’t let this be the case,” she said. “I had no idea how I’d navigate the situation. But what can I do but flip this test over?”

It was positive.

Maria, who was a 17-year-old high school junior at the time, spoke with The Texas Tribune on the condition of anonymity and is identified in this story with a pseudonym because she fears repercussions from her family for sharing her experience.

Maria came from generations of teenage mothers, and while her Catholic parents didn’t talk with her much about sex, they were clear they had different expectations for her. They wanted her to leave the area for college to pursue her dreams of studying law.

She couldn’t have the baby, she decided.

It was October 2020, a year before Texas would implement the most restrictive abortion law in the country, and 18 months before a draft opinion obtained by Politico revealed that the U.S. Supreme Court plans to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established constitutional protections for abortion.

But even before all that, Maria had few options to access legal abortion care. There is only one clinic in the Rio Grande Valley, and she would need to get parental consent or a judicial bypass granted by a court. Even finding the money to pay for a legal abortion seemed impossible.

But living along the border presented another option.

Cheap regulated and unregulated medication is available over the counter at Mexican pharmacies, just a short walk away on the other side of the border. Rio Grande Valley residents and people from all corners of the state often cross into Mexico to get dental work or stock up on anything from daily vitamins and epinephrine to Valium and Xanax.

And then there’s misoprostol, a medication taken orally to prevent stomach ulcers — or terminate pregnancies.

Texas regulates abortion-inducing drugs like misoprostol more strictly than federal regulations require; they can be prescribed and dispensed only in-person by a doctor through the first seven weeks of pregnancy.

Just over the border, though, it’s a different story.

With the constitutional protection for abortion on the line in the U.S., reproductive rights advocates expect to see more Texans traveling to Mexico to get abortion-inducing drugs they can’t obtain legally at home.

But despite the ease of access, abortion is still highly stigmatized in heavily Catholic communities on both sides of the border, representing a risk for patients who may need to seek medical care after a self-managed abortion.

Maria first learned about self-managed abortions online. She knew she could get the pills from a pharmacy over the border much more easily than she could access a legal abortion in Texas.

“I was definitely concerned about the legality of it,” Maria said. “But I also knew, chances are, it will be fine and I had to do it.”

Across the border

Jesus, Pope John Paul II and the Virgin of Guadalupe look down on customers buying abortion-inducing medication at Uncle Sam Pharmacy in Nuevo Progreso, a Mexican border town along the banks of the Rio Grande about 25 miles away from McAllen.

The portraits hang over the shelves of medication inside the pharmacy, just one reminder of how intertwined religion and everyday life is in the region. But Victor Olvera, the pharmacy’s manager, knows that no matter the religious views of many in the border area, there will always be customers looking to terminate their pregnancies.

Victor Olvera puts two pharmaceutical drugs meant to be taken for ulcers back on the shelf at the Uncle Sam Pharmacy in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico on May 4, 2022.

Victor Olvera puts two pharmaceutical drugs meant to be taken for ulcers back on the shelf. Uncle Sam Pharmacy. Nuevo Progreso, MX. May 4, 2022. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

Victor Olvera holds two pharmaceutical drugs meant to be taken for ulcers. Uncle Sam Pharmacy. Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. May 4, 2022.

Victor Olvera holds two pharmaceutical drugs meant to be taken for ulcers. Uncle Sam Pharmacy. Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. May 4, 2022. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

First: Pharmacy manager Victor Olvera puts boxes of drugs back on the shelf at the Uncle Sam Pharmacy in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, on Wednesday. Last: Olvera holds two pharmaceutical drugs taken to prevent stomach ulcers. The medication is also commonly used to terminate pregnancies. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

Olvera expects that changes to abortion access in the U.S. will mean more business at Uncle Sam Pharmacy.

“The law is going to change and there will be more people coming,” Olvera said.

He doesn’t plan to stock up on more misoprostol just yet — he said he will wait and see. The medication is cheap to buy: Some pharmacies in Nuevo Progreso sell generic misoprostol for as low as $20, while name brands such as Pfizer tend to go for more than $140. Pharmacists at seven different locations said this week they have not received complaints over the years about complications from the medication.

Misoprostol is 80% to 95% effective at terminating early pregnancies by itself. In the United States, it’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration to be used alongside mifepristone to terminate pregnancies up to 10 weeks along.

While U.S. regulators have approved only the two-drug regimen, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Health Organization both endorse the use of misoprostol alone if a patient can’t access mifepristone. Studies have found misoprostol to be generally safe and effective for terminating early pregnancies.

But that doesn’t mean all pharmacies in Mexico like to stock the drug on their shelves.

“I don’t want to sell this,” said Miguel Hernandez, a pharmacist at Pharmacy Rivera who noted that several customers come to his shop looking for the pills each week. “But if a customer asks if we have the medication, we have to sell it.”

Even before Texas banned abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy last year, people have turned to Mexican pharmacies for years to quietly and discreetly terminate their pregnancies.

Maria and her boyfriend convinced a family member to buy the medication for them at a pharmacy over the border. A few days later, she had it in hand.

Following instructions she found online, she took the medication alone in her bathroom. She experienced terrible cramping, she said, and what felt like a very heavy period for several days. The online guide told her what to do if she had to seek medical care, but she ultimately was able to manage the side effects at home.

“I immediately felt such a sense of relief,” she said. “Being a mother, that wasn’t something I was ready for and it wasn’t something I was willing to do. It was just not an option for me.”

Religion in the region

On Wednesday morning, Valerio García, a 69-year-old car mechanic, stood in front of Whole Woman’s Health, McAllen’s only abortion clinic. He wore black slacks, a beige button-down shirt with a rosary hanging from his neck and a cowboy hat with a Virgin of Guadalupe pin on it.

Amelio García, 69, who is a mechanic, in front of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. García shares that his daughter was told that her son was going to be born without certain organs and that they recommended that she had an abortion. They both prayed and the baby was born healthy. He also says that later on they found out that his grandson has mild autism. For around seven years he has been going to the Whole Woman’s Health clinic to pray. “It is rare, but there have been woman that get out of this place crying not wanting to have an abortion. Our job is to bear witness, to be present.”

Valerio García, 69, prays in front of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen on Wednesday. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

The clinic, a one-story building with security cameras near the entrance in the city’s downtown, is also the only abortion provider in the U.S. along the 1,200-mile long Texas-Mexico border.

For the past seven years, García said he has joined a group of religious men who show up every Saturday morning near the entrance of the clinic to pray for the women looking to get an abortion. He said the men pray that God can intervene and change the women’s minds about their plans to abort.

“I think there are people who go through this process because it’s been normalized and they lack information,” he said. “But they don’t realize there are repercussions both physically and mentally.”

If the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn the constitutional protection for abortion rights, he said he would welcome it.

García, who is Catholic, said he opposes the procedure because his first grandson was at risk of being aborted. If his daughter had heeded the doctor’s option to abort, García would have missed out on the love of his grandchild, he said.

Amelio García, 69, who is a mechanic, shows a photo of his first grandson, in McAllen, Texas on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. García shares that his daughter was told that her son was going to be born without certain organs and that they recommended that she had an abortion. They both prayed and the baby was born healthy. He also says that later on they found out that his grandson has mild autism. For around seven years he has been going to the Whole Woman’s Health clinic to pray. “It is rare, but there have been woman that get out of this place crying not wanting to have an abortion. Our job is to bear witness, to be present.”</p data-verified=

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Amelio García, 69, who is a mechanic, poses for a photo in front of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, Texas on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Amelio García, 69, who is a mechanic, poses for a photo in front of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, Texas on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. García shares that his daughter was told that her son was going to be born without certain organs and that they recommended that she had an abortion. They both prayed and the baby was born healthy. He also says that later on they found out that his grandson has mild autism. For around seven years he has been going to the Whole Woman’s Health clinic to pray. “It is rare, but there have been woman that get out of this place crying not wanting to have an abortion. Our job is to bear witness, to be present.”</p data-verified=

Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune" src="https://thumbnails.texastribune.org/GflIbwzHvSlSI_eY4PGpDWLH58I=/375x251/smart/filters:quality(75)/https://static.texastribune.org/media/files/423fb7732dc62513426232eb6cd66900/RGV%20Abortion%20Access%20VGC%20TT%2002.jpg">

Amelio García, 69, who is a mechanic, poses for a photo in front of the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in McAllen, Texas on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

First: Valerio García shows a photo of his first grandson. Last: García’s rosary hangs from his neck. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

He said his daughter was three months pregnant with her first child when a doctor told her the baby’s organs were not developing properly. The doctor presented abortion as an option. García said she turned to him for advice. He prayed for her and she decided to go through with the pregnancy.

The boy is now 13 years old and healthy, he said.

“For me, this story tells me that babies have life in the mother’s womb,” he said, holding his phone up to show a picture of his grandson sitting in front of a piano.

The population in Hidalgo County, where McAllen is located, is mostly Hispanic, and many of its residents identify as Catholic. The Catholic Church has opposed abortion because its doctrine teaches that life starts at the moment of conception.

But south of the border and across Latin America — a region known historically for its Catholic faith and social conservatism — feminist movements have spurred monumental changes for reproductive rights. In recent years, three of the region’s four most populous countries have shifted on the issue: Argentina legalized abortion in 2020, Mexico decriminalized abortion in 2021 and Colombia decriminalized it in February.

Nancy Cárdenas Peña, the Texas director for policy and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, said that regardless of religious influence, reproductive rights advocates have made great strides in helping Valley residents understand that the right to an abortion is a women’s health issue and not a religious and moral issue.

She pointed to Edinburg, a city just north of McAllen where last July advocates stopped the city from adopting an ordinance that would have made it illegal to perform or help someone get an abortion.

“I think at the end of the day, the simple values-based messaging stance is that everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion,” Cárdenas Peña said. “That’s very true and very simple.”

Reproductive rights advocates in the Rio Grande Valley also have different religious values, she said, but they ultimately believe in bodily autonomy.

Barriers to access

The Rio Grande Valley has long struggled with unique challenges to accessing reproductive health care. While some Texans may consider traveling out of state to access legal abortions, that’s not an option for the region’s many undocumented immigrants, Cárdenas Peña said.

There are immigration checkpoints driving out of the Valley to go elsewhere in the state, and it’s common for immigration officers to be at the airport asking for people’s documentation. While some Valley residents can travel to Mexico for misoprostol, undocumented people won’t be able to return legally to the U.S. if they were to go south for the pill.

“Do people attend their abortion appointments? Or do they risk being placed in deportation proceedings?” Cárdenas Peña said.

Nancy Cárdenas, 31, state director for policy and advocacy for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, in McAllen on Wednesday, May 4, 2022. “The State does not have the infrastructure to support family planning the way that they would like to talk about. Instead they are giving millions of dollars to the alternatives to abortion program which is crisis pregnancy centers that actually don’t offer medical services, don’t have medical providers, or staff. It’s basically just centers to steer you away from getting access to abortion care.”

Nancy Cárdenas Peña, 31, state director for policy and advocacy for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, in McAllen on Wednesday. “I think at the end of the day, the simple values-based messaging stance is that everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion,” Cárdenas Peña said. Credit: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Texas Tribune

Noemi Pratt, a board member with South Texans for Reproductive Justice, said the recent case of a 26-year-old woman who was charged with murder after what authorities described as a self-induced abortion in the neighboring Starr County had a chilling effect on the Valley.

Her charge was dropped, but with new limits on abortion seemingly on the horizon, “people can get the wrong idea about what they can and can’t do,” Pratt said.

“We’ve gotten a lot of calls from people asking if they should be going to their abortion appointments,” Pratt said.

Maria, the South Texas woman who terminated her pregnancy a year and a half ago, says she has no regrets. After her abortion, she was accepted to college out of state and though she and her boyfriend broke up, it was on good terms.

She’s never told her parents or any of her friends that she’s had an abortion. She doesn’t think she ever will.

Now, with the Supreme Court’s draft opinion making it clear that abortion access is likely to be eviscerated in Texas and large swaths of the nation, Maria finds herself thinking more and more about how lucky she was to live near the border.

“There’s so many people in the same state that live five hours away from Mexico … and it’s going to be a lot harder” to access abortion care, she said. “They’re probably going to face more detrimental consequences.”

Disclosure: Politico has been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/06/south-texas-mexico-abortion-drugs/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Chaos grows at Texas-Mexico border after GOP governor forces new inspection policy on truckers

Joel Estebane’s commercial truck had already been inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers after crossing the bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez and El Paso on Tuesday afternoon — then he had to wait another hour in another line where Texas state troopers were questioning commercial drivers.

Estebane, who was on his way to pick up office and paper supplies from El Paso to haul to Juárez, said it took six hours to get his truck through El Paso’s port of entry. Troopers had set up a state inspection site next to a condominium complex and the local zoo where they stopped and questioned truck drivers about their cargo.

When it was Estebane’s turn, he said the troopers had already left, but the long line had added hours to his trip. He said it usually takes him between half an hour to an hour to get across the bridge.

“This disrupted my day,” Estebane said as he waited outside a warehouse while his truck was being loaded. “This is affecting firms on both Mexico and the U.S. side.”

Near the other end of Texas’ roughly 1,200-mile border with Mexico, in the Rio Grande Valley, no commercial vehicles crossed the busiest bridge in the region at all on Tuesday because for the second straight day, truckers on the Mexico side of the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge blocked all north- and southbound lanes in protest of Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to have state troopers inspect northbound commercial vehicles after they have already been searched by federal officers.

Normally, 3,000 commercial trucks cross the Pharr bridge each day, hauling about $60 million to $70 million worth of daily goods and services through the busiest land crossing for produce entering the U.S. from Mexico.

The ripple effects of Abbott’s decision last week to order the Texas Department of Public Safety to increase its inspections of commercial vehicles have been swift up and down the Texas-Mexico border. Abbott’s decision was a response to the Biden administration’s recent announcement that it plans to end Title 42 — a pandemic-era emergency health order that lets federal officials turn away migrants at the border without the chance to request asylum.

Increasing inspections of commercial vehicles, Abbott said, would disrupt drug cartels’ use of commercial trucks to smuggle humans and drugs into the U.S.

But six days into the new Texas initiative, it’s unclear how thoroughly the DPS is inspecting commercial vehicles — and whether state troopers are even opening up trucks’ cargo areas to look inside. It is also unclear whether the DPS has seized any drugs or encountered any undocumented migrants through the new program. The agency did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Typically when a commercial truck crosses from Mexico into the U.S., Mexican authorities first clear the driver’s paperwork before U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers inspect the vehicle on the other side of the international bridge — using an array of tools designed to spot hidden people and illegal drugs.

Gil Kerlikowske, former commissioner of CBP from 2014 to 2017, said the controlled areas where U.S. agents work at the bridges are “a Constitution-free zone, as the ACLU used to tell me. CBP has this complete right to completely search vehicles, including taking them apart.

“The number of K-9 [dogs] they have to look for drugs, the X-ray machines, they got really good at this — you’ll see them be able to tap the sides of cars, panels of vehicles and locate whether there’s a false panel or something’s been concealed,” Kerlikowske added.

At the larger commercial ports of entry, there are usually other federal agencies on hand to do specialized inspections, such as the Department of Transportation or Food and Drug Administration to help make sure vehicles and products meet U.S. standards. Then, some trucks are stopped at a state-owned facility to make sure their vehicle is safe to drive in Texas — or an “audit,” as some people in the cross-border trade industry have called the DPS checks.

“Normally, DPS inspection has to do with safety of the trucks, making sure they have proper equipment, the right tires, following the rules here,” said Ernesto Gaytán, chair of the Texas Trucking Association.

But never before has DPS checked every commercial vehicle entering Texas from Mexico, according to interviews with veterans of the cross-border trade industry.

“In my 25 years in the trucking industry, DPS has never done audits of 100% of the trucks. That's unheard of,” said Leopoldo Chow, who owns trucking carriers in the U.S. and Mexico and is an adviser to CANACAR, Mexico’s national trucking association. “If you were going to do the same audit of trucks between Austin and Dallas on I-35, you would have trucks sitting from Austin to Dallas. It's just not feasible.”

The delays at the bridges triggered by the DPS inspections have led to a 60% drop in commercial traffic at the Texas-Mexico border in just a matter of days since Abbott’s initiative started, according to CBP.

“The longer than average wait times – and the subsequent supply chain disruptions – are unrelated to CBP screening activities and are due to additional and unnecessary inspections being conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) at the order of the Governor of Texas,” CBP said in a written statement.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who was sworn into office in 2019 at the Pharr bridge to help ring in that year’s produce season, piled on criticism of Abbott’s new policy.

Miller said Abbott should “cease his truck inspection project,” and that the “inspection program is turning a crisis into a catastrophe.”

Mexico’s Department of Foreign Affairs condemned Abbott’s order for additional inspections in a statement released Tuesday. The statement also said Mexican government officials have begun conversations with the U.S. government and Abbott’s office “to fully restore trade and identify alternatives that guarantee security on our shared border without harming binational trade.”

“The Department of Foreign Affairs rejects this state measure that significantly harms the flow of trade between our two countries,” the statement said. “As an inevitable consequence of this provision, businesses in Mexico and the United States are losing competitiveness and significant revenues.”

Truckers typically cross multiple truck loads per day, driving goods from Mexican border towns into U.S. border towns, where they can be picked up by a different truck that hauls the load to its final destination. The Mexican truckers then usually turn around and return to Mexico to pick up another load of goods.

In Ciudad Juárez, Antonio Ramos, who has transported gasoline across the border for two and half years, said Tuesday afternoon that he had been waiting to cross another El Paso-Juárez bridge for 36 hours. The average wait time at that port of entry is 23 minutes, according to CBP’s website.

Truckers blocking the Mexico side of the bridge in protest of Abbott’s new program have prevented Ramos and hundreds of other commercial vehicles from crossing.

Pedro Avendaño said he had been in the same long line since 2 p.m. Monday to cross into El Paso to pick up medical products and supplies. He said he understands the governor has to be on top of security issues, but the new inspections are affecting people’s livelihoods.

“They just need to let us [the truckers] work,” Avendaño said as he leaned against his 18-wheeler Tuesday afternoon in Juárez. “We have nothing to do with whatever the state is trying to do. And this is affecting not just our economy but their economy, too.”

Oscar Gutierrez, who got his 18-wheeler in line at 9 a.m. Tuesday to haul ladders to El Paso, said the truckers’ protest is inconvenient but it’s needed because Mexican truckers don’t get paid enough to go through additional inspections. The truckers need to send a message, he said.

“They need to stop being even stricter,” he said. “[CBP] were already doing inspections before all this and there were no issues.”

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Uncounted mail-in ballots discovered in Texas add uncertainty to two Democratic races

HOUSTON — Two notable Democratic primary races have gained a new level of uncertainty after Texas’ largest county said it “identified approximately 10,000 mail-in ballots (6,000 Democratic and 4,000 Republican) that were not added into the original Election Night count.”

Harris County said the weekend after Tuesday’s primary election that the ballots were scanned into its tabulation computer but “were not transferred and counted as a part of the unofficial final results as they should have been.” The results from those ballots will be added to the vote count on Tuesday, the county said.

In the Democratic race for the seat to represent parts of downtown and northeast Houston in the statehouse, incumbent state Rep. Harold V. Dutton Jr. leads challenger Candis Houston by 136 votes, 50.8% to 49.2%.

And the race to determine the Democratic candidate for attorney general of Texas could also be impacted. Rochelle Garza, a former American Civil Liberties Union lawyer from Brownsville, led a crowded primary field and is already locked into the runoff election, but her Democratic opponent could hinge on the Harris County tally.

Former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski leads civil rights attorney Lee Merritt by 1,418 votes overall.

Houston, Dutton’s opponent, conceded the race on Thursday in an email to supporters, though The Texas Tribune’s election partner Decision Desk has not called the race. Houston’s campaign did not immediately respond to questions from the Tribune about the discovery of uncounted ballots.

Dutton said he’s skeptical of the situation.

“It seems to me that somebody should’ve known that 10,000 ballots were missing,” Dutton said in an interview Sunday. “If 10,000 ballots were missing and nobody knew that, God help us.”

Dutton said he has not heard from the county and they haven’t returned his phone calls.

The county said in its statement that the error occurred in the hours after election night, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. Officials are investigating how “the missteps took place in the process.”

“While we understand the seriousness of this error, the ability to identify and correct this issue is a result of a lengthy and rigorous process and is a positive example of the process ultimately working as it should,” the statement said.

Harris County experienced a handful of issues on election day this year. The county, which is more populous than 26 states, took more than a day to report its results in part due to more than 1,600 ballots sheets being damaged. Like many counties, it also reported having a shortage of election workers. And two voting sites in the counties reported minor technical problems with machines.

Dutton’s House District 142 makes up only a portion of Harris County, so not all of the 6,000 votes found will factor into the race. It’s not immediately clear how many votes will be added into the race.

In the attorney general’s race, Jaworski declared victory in getting the second runoff spot on Friday. Merritt, however, has not conceded and Decision Desk has not declared who has secured the second spot.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/06/ballots-harris-county-democratic-primary/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas oil and gas producers to see short-term profits after Russia invades Ukraine

Energy markets responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday with soaring energy prices — the global benchmark for oil exceeded $100 a barrel for the first time since 2014 — which will bring higher profits for Texas’ oil and gas industry, at least temporarily.

Energy analysts say the conflict could slow the flow of oil and gas from Russia — one of the world’s largest producers — to Europe in the weeks ahead. The price of oil dipped back down to $99 late Thursday after President Joe Biden did not target Russian oil and gas when he announced sanctions against Russia.

Higher oil and gas prices mean more money for Texas producers — and could lead to industry growth in the near term, according to Karr Ingham, an economist with the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers.

While Texas oil and gas producers could see more demand for their products, energy consumers in Texas and worldwide will foot the bill for increased global energy costs, analysts said.

“This is bad for people who, say, have an electricity bill, a gas bill or drive a car,” economist Eric Lewis, an assistant professor at the Bush School of Government and Service at Texas A&M University who focuses on oil and gas, said in an interview.

In the meantime, Texas oil and gas producers can fill some of the void if Russia curtails or halts natural gas exports to Europe.

“This may present a set of circumstances where Texas producers can jump in and fill the gap there,” Ingham said in an interview.

Natural gas is usually shipped overseas in liquid form, and Texas accounts for a vast majority of U.S. liquified natural gas export capacity between Freeport LNG and Cheniere Energy in Corpus Christi, the two primary LNG export terminals in Texas.

Already this winter, households across Europe have experienced high energy costs due in part to low energy reserves and lower-than-normal Russian gas supplies. At the same time, a cold winter has boosted demand for energy.

For now, European utility companies will continue buying gas from Russia — via Ukrainian pipelines — because of contracts already in place, Bloomberg reported. It is unclear if that will continue as Russian military forces sweep into Ukraine.

Biden said Thursday that “this is a dangerous moment for all of Europe” and imposed a series of sanctions against Russia that would cut off the country’s largest banks and companies from Western financial markets, restrict exports of technology to Russia and freeze trillions of dollars in Russian assets.

For the Biden administration, “if you really wanted to go for the jugular, you go after Russian oil,” said Gabriel Collins, a fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

But Collins said the high price of oil makes targeting Russian oil through financial restrictions or in joint moves with allied countries a tricky proposition because that would also hurt energy consumers around the world.

“You’d be going after their economic center of gravity,” Collins said, “but also potentially simultaneously going after your own consumers’ wallets’ center of gravity.”

Disclosure: Rice University, the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Texas A&M University and the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/24/texas-energy-russia-ukraine-natural-gas/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

A semi-nude video, corruption allegations and a fatal crash roil a Texas GOP primary

One November evening in far West Texas, Sarah Stogner decided to strip down to pasties and her underwear, plus boots and a cowboy hat, and climb onto an oil pumpjack while a small film crew watched.

The crew, in town to film a documentary about an unplugged oil well spewing contaminated fluids, was sharing beers with Stogner when one of the videographers said they always wanted to do an artistic photo shoot on a pumpjack, Stogner recalled.

“And I thought, oh my God, yes, what if I got naked or almost naked on top of it?” Stogner said. “This will be hilarious. Just for our own fun. I didn’t have any grand schemes with it. But fuck it, this will be fun.”

In February, the video turned into a now-viral campaign ad for the 37-year-old oil and gas attorney from Monahans, who is running for a seat on the Railroad Commission of Texas, the regulatory agency in charge of the state’s massive oil and gas sector. Stogner released the five-second video on Super Bowl Sunday in a tweet with the caption: “They said I needed money. I have other assets.”

“I need to get people’s attention, right?” Stogner said in an interview, adding that she didn’t want to do that in a “pornographic” way.

“And here we are, it’s working,” she said, listing various news stories about her campaign since the video went public.

Stogner’s seminude stunt is only the latest twist in what has become the strangest Republican primary campaign for Railroad Commission in decades. The incumbent, Railroad Commission Chair Wayne Christian, is facing corruption allegations after he voted — against the recommendation of Railroad Commission staff — to approve a permit for an oil field waste dump facility, then days later accepted a $100,000 campaign donation from the company that received the permit.

Another candidate, Marvin “Sarge” Summers, died earlier this month on the campaign trail after crashing into a tanker truck in Midland.

Despite the agency’s power over Texas’ largest industry — including the natural gas system, a crucial element of the Texas power grid that failed last year during a powerful winter storm, leaving millions of people without power for days — elections for the three-member board that oversees it typically don’t generate much attention from voters.

“They might know about it now because of Sarah Stogner,” said Tom Slocum Jr., a 38-year-old engineering consultant from the Houston area who is one of the four surviving candidates in the Republican primary.

Christian, a 71-year-old Grammy-nominated former gospel singer and financial planner who is seeking his second six-year term, is trying to fend off challenges from Slocum, Stogner and Dawayne Tipton, a former oil field roughneck who has worked various oil sector jobs including offshore drilling.

Summers’ name will still be on the ballot, too, because he died too close to election day to change the ballots. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the March 1 election, the two candidates with the most votes will meet in a May runoff election.

The race is wide open, according to a recent University of Houston survey. Christian was the top choice of 9% of registered voters in that poll, with the other candidates receiving between 3% and 5%. The vast majority of those polled, 74%, said they weren't sure who they’d vote for.

Slocum is hoping his support of conservative priorities — top issues on his campaign website include building the border wall and protecting gun ownership, issues the Railroad Commission has no jurisdiction over — and his years of experience working in oil and gas operations and plugging abandoned oil wells will help propel him over the incumbent.

“I have real oil and gas experience in Texas, unlike Wayne,” Slocum said.

Tipton, 41, has also leaned on his oil and gas experience and is running on a platform of being a clear and competent communicator to lead the Railroad Commission. He criticized Christian’s role in last February’s deadly winter freeze, when power outages and equipment failures choked off much of the fuel to many of the state’s gas-fired power plants when they needed it most to produce electricity.

In order to keep the power grid from total collapse, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas directed transmission companies to cut off power to residents, businesses and gas producing facilities because they were not registered as critical infrastructure — part of a cascade of power failures that led to hundreds of deaths.

“If the incumbent had been more proactive when the event was actually happening and reached out to ERCOT and implored them not to shed that critical load, which compounded our power generation problems, we wouldn’t have been in nearly as bad of a situation as we were,” Tipton said.

Christian did not respond to criticism of the commission’s handling of the grid’s collapse, but in an email he did rebut allegations from some of his opponents that accepting a big campaign donation from the company that received the oil waste dump permit amounted to a payoff for his vote.

Christian said he has “never allowed a political contribution to influence my decisions in elected office” and said the agency’s general counsel advised him to approve the permit for the waste facility “with the requirement that the company use a geosynthetic clay liner to protect the environment and remain consistent with other similar permits granted by the Commission.”

“I am running a positive campaign based on my record,” Christian said in the email. “The publicity stunts and mudslinging are a sign of desperation. I am the only candidate with the endorsements, campaign infrastructure, and resources necessary to win this race.”

Like the other challengers, Stogner has criticized Christian for his lack of experience in the industries the Railroad Commission oversees.

“He has no oil and gas experience — he won on a pro-life platform because that’s what primary voters cared about in 2016,” Stogner said. “He’s a Grammy Award-winning gospel singer. Well, here’s my Grammy Award-winning video, Wayne.”

Stogner, who is not accepting campaign contributions in her first campaign for public office, said she wants to focus on helping the oil and gas industry make more progress as responsible stewards of the state’s natural resources.

“We can’t [produce oil and gas] at the cost of our groundwater,” Stogner said. “We can’t do this at the cost of safe air.”

Michael Williams, a railroad commissioner from 1999 to 2011 who went on to lead the Texas Education Agency, said in an interview that while Christian is a good friend, “I’m impressed with Stogner. I didn’t even know who she was until I saw the ad.”

Former Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who was upset in the 2020 Republican primary election after serving one term, said he thought Stogner was smart and had the technical and legal expertise required for the job, but her video “probably dismissed any legitimate shot she had at winning the race.”

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

NOW WATCH: Prosecutors leading Trump probe in Manhattan abruptly resign after their grand jury stalls

Prosecutors leading Trump probe in Manhattan abruptly resign after their grand jury stalls www.youtube.com

A winter storm is heading to Texas. Here’s what that means for the power grid.

A winter storm is expected to hit Texas as soon as Wednesday night and it could give the state’s main power grid, which delivers electricity to most Texas households and businesses, its first significant test since last year’s devastating winter storm caused massive dayslong blackouts across the state.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid, issued a winter storm watch through Sunday, saying it expects high energy demand through the duration of the cold front. But even with sleet, snow and ice predicted for a large swath of the state, ERCOT says it has sufficient power generation to meet the anticipated demand.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas leaders said they don’t expect the power grid to have systemwide issues like last year, when hundreds of people died during a mid-February winter storm. But Abbott, who two months ago promised the lights would stay on this winter, hedged on Tuesday when he said nobody can guarantee there won’t be local power outages throughout Texas.

Power generator companies are closely watching whether natural gas companies will be able to continue producing enough gas to send to power plants throughout the severe weather, an issue some generators experienced over New Year’s weekend when a brief cold front led to a drop in natural gas production. The reductions didn’t lead to any power outages.

ERCOT has told entities in the power grid supply chain that gas suppliers have notified some electricity generators that some of their expected gas supply will not arrive this week during the freezing weather.

Preparing for a possible emergency, ERCOT has also discussed whether to ask residents to reduce their electricity use. Asking consumers to cut back on power is the first step the grid operator takes to reduce strain on the grid.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why would ERCOT ask for power conservation in this situation?

When the temperature falls and Texans crank up their heat at home, the resulting spike in electricity demand can result in “tight” grid conditions — when demand edges close to the maximum electricity supply at any given time. Power grids must keep supply and demand in balance at all times. When Texas’ grid falls below its safety margin of excess supply, the grid operator starts taking additional precautions to avoid blackouts. The first precaution is to ask the public to cut back electricity usage.

Could we see a repeat of last February’s disaster?

It’s too early to tell, but energy experts and executives have warned about weaknesses in the state’s natural gas system, which fuels a majority of the power generation in Texas.

If the natural gas supply is not functioning at full strength during below-freezing temperatures, the many Texas power plants that run on gas will not be able to produce the amount of electricity they’re expected to produce for the grid. A fairly typical cold front on New Year’s weekend caused natural gas production in the Permian Basin — Texas’ most productive oil and gas region — to drop by roughly 20%, but no major power disruptions were reported.

Abbott in November guaranteed the lights would stay on this winter. Political communication and energy experts said his promise was centered around his reelection campaign, not the actual readiness of the state’s power system.

On Tuesday, Abbott hedged his guarantee.

What did the Legislature do to fix the power grid, and could any of it help this week?

After the February blackouts, Texas lawmakers passed energy grid legislation aimed at preventing electricity blackouts, but it will likely take years before those changes are fully implemented.

Senate Bills 2 and 3 included a few key changes to the state’s power grid that experts said will begin to address some issues, such as requiring power companies to upgrade their plants to withstand more extreme weather and creating a statewide emergency alert system.

But the legislation said power regulators needed to ensure all power plants were weatherized, a rule the Public Utility Commission adopted this fall. Meanwhile, lawmakers approved legislation that said oil and gas companies did not need to be weatherized until 2023.

The legislation also changes ERCOT’s governing board to replace what lawmakers called “industry insiders” with appointees selected by a committee comprising selections by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan.

What about the natural gas supply?

A majority of the state’s power generation runs on natural gas. But lawmakers wrote different rules for the natural gas industry compared to the electricity industry. The gas industry is not yet required to be weatherized.

A new committee created by lawmakers in the spring has until September 2022 to identify and map the state’s natural gas infrastructure. Then, the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s massive oil and gas industry, will draft its weatherization rules for natural gas infrastructure.

The Railroad Commission recently finalized a new rule that will ensure gas producers likely won’t get their electricity cut off, which is what happened last February due to paperwork errors. Natural gas producers blamed a lack of electricity for a massive drop in natural gas production during the winter storm last February.

Should I get a portable generator for my home?

Here’s a list of things Texans can do to be ready for another extreme winter storm. But be careful with portable generators, which are among the deadliest consumer products.

Portable generators can save lives after major storms by powering medical equipment, heaters and refrigerators when the power goes out. But some desperate Texans who improperly use generators to power their homes after last year’s winter storm died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous because it is odorless, colorless and tasteless, and it can kill within minutes at high levels. Those who survive may suffer brain damage and other long-term health problems.

The best way to detect if you have unsafe levels of the poisonous gas in your home is to have a working carbon monoxide monitor, which will sound an alarm if you’re in danger.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/02/02/texas-winter-snow-storm-2022-power-grid/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas pipeline company walks back threat to cut off gas to power plants

After threatening to cut off fuel to roughly a third of the power plants owned by Texas’ biggest power generator, a major pipeline company said Thursday it will continue selling natural gas to the plants through the end of March. But the companies have still not resolved their underlying financial dispute stemming from last February’s deadly winter storm.

Energy Transfer LP subsidiaries walked back their threat after Luminant, a Vistra Corp. subsidiary, on Wednesday asked state regulators to prevent the pipeline company from cutting off fuel to five Vistra power plants, which produce enough electricity to power 400,000 Texas homes, businesses and critical infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.

The pipeline companies had told Vistra that gas would stop flowing to the power plants on Monday unless Vistra paid Energy Transfer $21.6 million that they claim Vistra owes them, according to Vistra’s complaint to the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry.

The “threat to terminate service in the middle of winter is illegal and grossly irresponsible and should be prohibited by this Commission,” Vistra said in the complaint. It called the move by Energy Transfer, run by billionaire Kelcy Warren, “a form of commercial extortion.”

Energy Transfer responded Thursday in a short filing with the Railroad Commission, saying it would continue selling natural gas to Vistra on the spot market — a one-time open market transaction for immediate delivery of gas purchased “on the spot.”

That would nullify the Monday deadline imposed by Energy Transfer. Vistra has been paying those spot market prices to Energy Transfer since Dec. 1, when its long-term contract for gas expired, and Energy Transfer said it would not negotiate another contract until Vistra paid the $21.6 million.

For Vistra, paying spot prices means buying gas from Energy Transfer at between $15 and $25 per million British Thermal Units (BTUs), compared to the average national price of $3.91 per million BTUs in 2021, according to the Energy Information Administration.

During last year’s winter storm — which caused the near-total collapse of the state’s power grid, left millions without power for days and caused hundreds of deaths — natural gas prices soared when a combination of freezing temperatures across the state and skyrocketing demand shut down natural gas facilities and power plants, which rely on each other to keep electricity flowing.

Vistra spent approximately $1.5 billion for natural gas during the dayslong crisis, “twice its planned natural gas cost to fuel its entire Texas fleet for a full year,” the filing said.

Vistra said in its filing that more than $600 million of that total was paid to Energy Transfer, “which is more than 96% of all amounts invoiced by [Energy Transfer].”

While many companies lost money during the storm, Energy Transfer made $2.4 billion.

The dispute between the energy giants had some elected officials expressing their concern publicly.

Railroad Commission Chair Wayne Christian tweeted about it on Thursday: “I am paying close attention to this. @EnergyTransfer and @VistraCorp must come together to resolve this issue so that no Texans lose gas or electric service during cold weather. Do what’s right for Texans.”

Shortly after, state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, criticized Energy Transfer: “Gas suppliers should not be able to take the grid and consumers hostage as a means to prevail in their commercial disputes.”

After Energy Transfer said Thursday that it would not cut off gas to Vistra, Christian added: "I am thankful both parties were able to quickly come together to reach a resolution that keeps Texans protected this winter."

REVEALED: Gov. Greg Abbott intervened to put a positive spin on Texas' power grid

The two most powerful people overseeing Texas’ electric grid sat next to each other in a quickly arranged Austin news conference in early December to try to assure Texans that the state’s electricity supply was prepared for winter.

“The lights are going to stay on this winter,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, echoing recent public remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Two weeks earlier, Abbott had told Austin’s Fox 7 News that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on.” The press conference that followed from Lake and the chief of the state’s independent grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, came at the governor’s request, according to two state officials and one other person familiar with the planning, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It was 150% Abbott’s idea,” said one of the people familiar with the communication from Abbott’s team. “The governor wanted a press conference to give people confidence in the grid.”

READ: Here's why Texas has its own power grid

A source close to Lake said the idea for the press conference was Lake's, and the governor supported it when Lake brought up the idea during a meeting.

Abbott has for months been heavily involved in the public messaging surrounding the power grid’s winter readiness. In addition to the press conference, he has asked a major electric industry trade group to put out a “positive” public statement about the grid and has taken control of public messaging from ERCOT, according to interviews with current and former power grid officials, energy industry trade group representatives and energy company directors and executives.

But the messaging has projected a level of confidence about the grid that isn’t reflected in data released by ERCOT or echoed by some power company executives and energy experts who say they’re worried that another massive winter storm could trigger widespread grid failures like those that left millions of Texans without power in February, when hundreds of people died.

Abbott has also met one-on-one with energy industry CEOs to ask about their winter readiness — but those meetings happened weeks after Abbott made his public guarantee about the grid.

“You’d think he would have asked to meet with us before saying that,” one person involved in the energy company meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said of Abbott’s guarantee.

READ: 'Fraud' Ted Cruz mocked for attacking California now that millions in Texas have lost power

Ten months after the power grid failures caused hundreds of deaths and became national news, an election year is approaching and Abbott’s two top primary challengers and his top Democratic challenger have already been harshly criticizing the governor over his handling of the power grid.

“It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move,” Peter Cramton, an energy markets expert and former ERCOT board member who resigned after the storm, said of Abbott’s promise. “It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now.”

For many Texas energy officials and experts, the line has blurred between Abbott’s executive leadership on the power grid and his 2022 reelection campaign. By promising the lights will stay on, Abbott has wagered that Texas doesn’t experience widespread extreme weather this winter — and that the grid will work the next time freezing weather hits the state.

“The Governor is deeply engaged with the new commissioners at the PUC and the new leadership at ERCOT as they work to improve the Texas electric grid,” Renae Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson, said in a statement. “The House and Senate passed substantial reforms this year, and Governor Abbott is working to ensure those reforms are properly implemented so that the grid provides stable and reliable power for the state.”

Lake, who was appointed by Abbott and whose agency oversees ERCOT, said he has met frequently with Abbott since the summer.

“He’s super focused on it and wants to know what’s going on,” Lake said in an interview.

A majority of power companies have spent money since February preparing their equipment for extreme winter weather, but some say the grid won’t be ready if another storm as powerful as February’s strikes this winter because lawmakers didn’t require gas companies — which supply fuel to more than half of the state’s power plants — to be weatherized immediately.

“What I'm uncertain about is the gas supply,” Cramton said. “That’s the big question.”

2022 opponents use grid failures to attack Abbott

While a warming earth has brought milder winters, Abbott’s bet could be complicated by emerging science that suggests extreme cold spells in Texas could also result from climate change messing with complex weather processes.

But even though Abbott’s promise in late November was a gamble on the weather this winter, his guarantee was more likely an effort to boost his reelection campaign in 2022, Texas political communication experts said.

“I don’t think it's a coincidence he's responding with a guarantee about the power grid almost immediately in the aftermath of Beto O'Rourke's entry into the race because that's been O'Rourke's frontline attack,” said Stephanie Martin, a scholar of political communication at Southern Methodist University.

Abbott has faced criticism over the power grid from O’Rourke and both of his best-known Republicans primary opponents, Allen West and Don Huffines.

“Greg Abbott said we did everything we needed to do to fix ERCOT,” Huffines, a former state senator, said in November. “Obviously that is not the case. Texans deserve a governor who can keep the lights on.”

“This ‘promise’ is dangerous, potentially deadly,” O’Rourke said. “Experts continue to warn that Texas could face another grid failure the next time we experience an extreme weather event. Abbott and his appointees shouldn’t be betting our lives on the weather.”

The issue has animated voters, too. In a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll of 1,200 registered voters in October, respondents expressed major disapproval for the state’s handling of the reliability of the grid after February’s catastrophe. Only 18% of voters approved of how state leaders handled the issue, while 60% of voters disapproved. Even state lawmakers have shown frustration that the new laws they passed earlier this year to prepare the grid for extreme weather haven’t led to enough preparations ahead of this winter.

When Abbott has been asked in recent months about criticism of the state’s handling of the winter storm crisis, he has responded that he “signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective” and he’s praised regulators for working to implement new rules following guidance from lawmakers and from Abbott.

“In politics, when you’re explaining, you're losing, and to try to talk about what happened last February in a way that doesn't just accept the abysmal failure of the Abbott administration means he has to try to explain something that's almost impossible to explain,” Martin said. “The only way out of that is to not acknowledge it — by promising it will never happen again.”

Dictating the message

When Brad Jones took over as ERCOT’s interim CEO in the spring — after the previous CEO and many board members resigned after the grid catastrophe — he began by promising that ERCOT would be more transparent with the public and state leaders.

“My guarantee to you is that we intend to communicate more clearly than we’ve done in the past,” Jones said during his first public hearing with lawmakers. “To remove industry jargon, to speak to you in ways that all of us can understand.”

In recent months, however, ERCOT has been nearly silent on social media and its leaders have barely spoken publicly. People familiar with ERCOT’s operations say the organization has needed to receive approval from the governor’s office for most of its public communications, a stark contrast to how the grid operator did business in the past.

Every spring and fall, ERCOT releases its report assessing potential scenarios for the grid during more extreme weather. And the organization’s technical experts typically brief reporters on the assessment to help translate complex electricity jargon into plain language that the general public can understand.

This fall, that briefing never happened. Instead, ERCOT simply posted its assessment for this winter to its website on a Friday afternoon in November. The report concluded that the Texas grid is still vulnerable to blackouts during severe winter weather, even with new preparations.

“We just made a mistake on that,” Jones said about not holding the briefing, adding that rather than big press conference calls, he’s been focusing on touring the state, listening to Texans and doing interviews with local media.

“First piece of it is, I need to listen,” Jones said. “I need to hear them tell me what they went through. That’s an important part of the healing process.”

Another biannual report, called the Capacity, Demand and Reserves report, contains a multiyear forecast of peak electricity demand and the expected generation resources available. The assessment is released every May and in early December. The report has not yet been released this month because the governor’s office is still reviewing it, according to people familiar with the delay. A recent ERCOT email said the report is now scheduled to be released on Dec. 29.

It’s not uncommon for elected officials to become much more hands-on in the aftermath of disasters, said Amy Myers Jaffe, an energy expert and advisor who worked in Texas for more than two decades: “There’s an element of ‘the buck stops here.’”

But Myers Jaffe said decision-making at ERCOT, an organization that Abbott immediately blasted after the storm in February, should be left alone by politicians who don’t have electricity expertise.

“An independent, nonprofit technical organization should be making its decisions based on fulfilling its mission, and its communications should be about the actions it’s taking to fulfill that,” said Myers Jaffe, who now runs Tufts University’s Climate Policy Lab. “It shouldn't be politicized.”

But much of the public messaging this year from the grid operator has had to be approved by a governor who’s running for reelection, according to people familiar with the matter.

“I think the challenge is now that it would be very hard for the ERCOT communications office to do something that isn't viewed as political,” Cramton said.

As November turned to December, Abbott’s team asked the Association of Electric Companies of Texas to put out a “positive” statement about the power grid’s readiness for winter, according to four people in the energy industry familiar with the request. AECT, a major industry trade group, was its public face in the aftermath of the storm, testifying before lawmakers and lobbying on behalf of major power companies.

On Dec. 8, the same day as Lake and Jones’ news conference, AECT released its statement. The message stopped short of making definitive claims about the lights staying on this winter but did go into detail about preparations power plants and transmission and distribution facilities have made. It also thanked “Texas leaders and the Legislature for their efforts during the past session to strengthen the resilience of the grid, as well as AECT’s member companies for their efforts to prepare for this winter for the benefit of Texas consumers.”

After public promise, Abbott met with energy CEOs

Nearly three weeks after promising the lights wouldn’t go out this winter — and after Lake echoed him in the December press conference — Abbott’s team arranged for several energy companies to meet with the governor in Austin. Energy companies and executives meeting with the Texas governor is not uncommon, but the timing was curious to some companies involved, as well as to power grid officials and political scientists.

The mid-December meetings included large energy companies Calpine, Kinder Morgan, NRG, Vistra and Energy Transfer Partners — whose CEO, Kelcy Warren, gave $1.1 million to Abbott immediately after this year’s regular legislative session.

The executives and others involved in the meetings told the Tribune that the opportunity to sit down with the governor was important as the energy industry and state leaders try to assure Texans wary of winter that the power will stay on this year.

Abbott asked the energy CEOs detailed questions about their expectations for the coming months, their companies’ readiness for winter and whether the CEOs feel ready for another severe winter storm, according to people in the meetings.

“It was literally, like: ‘If we have another (Winter Storm) Uri, are y’all going to be ready?’” said a person involved in one of the meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We said, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Tell me why, what is different?’”

The person added: “He was really in fact-finding mode. He didn't say: ‘You guys better be ready.’ It was: ‘I want to know if your company is ready and, if so, I want to know why.’”

Companies that spoke to the Tribune said they laid out to the governor how they had been preparing their facilities for winter.

Calpine CEO Thad Hill said in a written statement that the governor “was doing his direct due diligence ensuring the grid would be reliable this winter.” NRG CEO Mauricio Gutierrez welcomed the opportunity “to highlight our companywide winter-readiness efforts to meet the energy needs of our growing state,” NRG said in a statement.

Vistra CEO Curt Morgan, who has criticized the state’s natural gas producers for not adequately preparing for extreme winter weather, told Abbott that Vistra “has invested more than $50 million to further harden its power generation fleet in Texas, focused on learnings from Winter Storm Uri,” Vistra said in a statement.

Still, some wondered why Abbott didn’t gather information from the energy CEOs before promising the lights would stay on during the next winter storm.

“If it were truly about executive leadership and government transparency, then you wouldn't get what almost amounts to a slogan: ‘I guarantee,’” Martin said. “You’d get a meaningful articulation of what's behind the guarantee.”

Disclosure: The Association of Electric Companies of Texas (AECT), Calpine and Southern Methodist University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas bill to block COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employers failed in Legislature after business groups rallied against it

Bills intended to block any Texas entity, including hospitals and private businesses, from mandating COVID-19 vaccines for employees failed to pass the Texas Legislature before lawmakers adjourned the third special legislative session early Tuesday morning.

Signs that the legislation was in trouble came early as business groups spoke out against the proposals. Even though the issue had been added to the session agenda as a late priority by Gov. Greg Abbott, the House's version of the bill was unable to muster enough support to be voted out of committee. The Senate's proposal pushed by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, was quickly pushed out of committee but did not have the votes for approval by the whole chamber.

On Monday, hours before lawmakers ended the session, state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said he opposed the bill, which makes entities requiring the vaccines vulnerable to discrimination lawsuits. Seliger was the first lawmaker to acknowledge publicly that the bill did not have the votes to pass in the upper chamber.

"At the moment it's not too well developed," Seliger said of Senate Bill 51, which he called "anti-business."

"I've got some real reservations because I think it's another example of big government," Seliger said. "And we don't do that."

SB 51 had been on the Senate's calendar since Thursday, but the chamber had not taken action, even as it passed other priority legislation.

The offices of Hughes and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, did not respond to requests for comment.

Patrick, a Republican, is also the GOP majority's de facto leader in the upper chamber. During his two-term tenure, he's exerted power by rewarding senators who support his priorities and punishing those who don't by stripping them of powerful positions. This session, he was able to push all five of his priorities through the chamber.

More than two dozen medical and business advocacy groups quickly criticized SB 51, pushing back against the legislation in the days after it was introduced last week. Hughes filed the bill after Abbott asked lawmakers last week to take up this issue to ensure Texans aren't required to get vaccinated, saying that vaccines are "safe, effective, and our best defense against the virus, but should remain voluntary and never forced."

Abbott called for the legislation as he took executive action to ban private companies from requiring employees or customers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which will be in effect statewide even if lawmakers don't act. His order came four weeks after President Joe Biden, a Democrat, announced that federal contractors must have all employees vaccinated against COVID-19 and that businesses with more than 100 employees must mandate vaccination against the virus or require regular testing.

The organizations opposing the bill, including several chambers of commerce, the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Hospital Association, the Texas Association of Manufacturers, the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association and the Texas Trucking Association, have warned lawmakers of the legislation's risks to small businesses, workplaces that rely on federal funding and immunocompromised Texans.

The warnings were notable in a state where business interests work closely with pro-business Republicans to influence legislation.

"We're getting tremendous amount of communications from the business community saying this is their job," Seliger said. "They set the rules and working conditions in their places of business."

Abbott is in several legal fights with cities, counties and school districts over local mask orders that defy his ban on such orders. Texas' ban on mask mandates in schools has drawn a federal investigation for possibly violating the rights of students with disabilities.

Advocates from medical facilities like hospitals and nursing homes say they are worried about losing Medicare and Medicaid funds if the state law goes into effect, preventing them from following pending federal rules that will mandate vaccines.

"The state shouldn't be mandating a one-size-fits-all approach to hospitals," Steve Wohleb, senior vice president and general counsel for the Texas Hospital Association, told a Senate panel Thursday. "It should leave those decisions to the hospitals, who are in the best position to know what's best for their patients."

While a prohibition on vaccine requirements has been a top issue for Abbott, the subject never rose to the top of Patrick's list.

At the beginning of this 30-day special session, Patrick announced that his top priority was to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to help Texas homeowners reduce their property tax burden for the year.

Patrick's other priorities included restoring money paid out of the state's unemployment insurance fund during the pandemic, preventing transgender student athletes from playing on sports teams based on the gender they identify with rather than the gender on their original birth certificate, drawing new political maps and legislation to protect dogs from being tethered during extreme weather.

Patrick also succeeded in getting Abbott to add tuition revenue bonds, which were approved by the Legislature, to the special session.

House Bill 155, a prohibition on vaccine mandates by state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, also stalled in the House.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of Business and the Texas Hospital Association have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Gov. Greg Abbott tells electricity regulators to encourage building more power plants, penalize renewable energy

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Two days before state lawmakers return to Austin for a special legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday gave state electricity regulators marching orders to "improve electric reliability."

In a letter to the Public Utility Commission, Abbott directed the three-person board of directors, who he appoints, to take action that would require renewable energy companies to pay for power when wind and solar aren't able to provide it to the state's main power grid, echoing a move state lawmakers rejected in May.

Abbott also told the PUC to incentivize companies to build and maintain nuclear, natural gas and coal power generation for the grid — which failed spectacularly during a February winter storm, leaving millions of Texans without power or heat for days in below freezing temperatures.

Texas energy experts were skeptical that Abbott's orders would actually improve the reliability of the state grid, which operates mostly independently of the nation's two other major grids.

"What is here is not a serious or prudent plan for improving the grid," Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, said in an interview Tuesday. "It's more of a political job favoring some [energy] sources over others. For Texans to have a more reliable power supply, we need clearer thinking that makes the best of all the sources we have."

Abbott's letter also called on the PUC to direct the state's main grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to better schedule when power plants are offline, an issue that caused tension between state regulators and power generators after some power plants unexpectedly went offline in June and led ERCOT to ask Texans to turn their thermostats up to 78 degrees for a week during a heat wave to conserve energy.

Abbott responded to the plant outages by declaring the power grid "is better today than it's ever been."

In the letter, Abbott said his directives to the PUC are aimed at ensuring "that all Texans have access to reliable, safe, and affordable power, and that this task is achieved in the quickest possible way."

The letter doesn't include many specifics about how the PUC should carry out Abbott's requests to improve the grid. A spokesperson for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

State lawmakers responded to February's deadly winter storm with a few key changes to the power grid that energy experts have said will begin to address issues exposed by the storm, such as requiring power companies to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather and creating an emergency alert system. But lawmakers did not provide direct relief for everyday Texans.

"Governor Abbott has been consistently clear on his desire for a reliable grid and the 87th Texas Legislature laid out a detailed road map to that goal," PUC spokesperson Andrew Barlow said in response to questions about Abbott's letter. "While the PUC has been working on many of the items in his directive, this additional clarity is a welcome addition to our process."

As Abbott prepares to release the agenda for a special session of the Legislature that begins Thursday, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and others have called on him to add energy-related issues to the list.

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers and leaders have criticized Abbott for turning his attention to building a state-funded border wall rather than fixing the state power grid.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Some Texas power plants unexpectedly went offline last week. The grid operator says it still doesn’t know why

Last Monday, Texas' main power grid operator asked Texans, mid-heat wave, to turn their thermostats to 78 degrees during the afternoon and evening for the week to reduce electricity demand on the grid after 12,000 megawatts of power generation unexpectedly went offline — enough to power 2.4 million homes on a hot summer day.

By the end of the week, that appeal from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas expired without a public announcement, and ERCOT officials still have not said why they asked Texans to cut back on electricity use.

Were there damages to the power grid infrastructure stemming from February's deadly winter storm? Were there nefarious actors looking to manipulate the electricity market? What does this mean for power generation during the rest of the hot Texas summer?

ERCOT hasn't said — or released data to answer any of these questions raised by industry experts. And that is exactly how the Texas power grid is supposed to work, energy experts said.

"ERCOT knows what plants fail, but not why," said Bob King, an energy consultant in Austin who has worked in the Texas energy industry for more than 30 years.

ERCOT is a quasi-governmental body that manages the state's power supply; it's overseen by the Public Utility Commission, a state agency with leaders appointed by the governor. While ERCOT oversees the grid's daily operations, the grid itself is a network of independent companies, cooperatives and some cities that aren't required to quickly give ERCOT detailed explanations when power generation goes offline.

So far, ERCOT has not revealed which power plants went down last week — or even how many were down.

"Based on preliminary information received from generation owners, the vast majority of forced outages that occurred last week are due to equipment issues," ERCOT spokesperson Leslie Sopko said. "Our Operations group is analyzing the information and will be providing a more comprehensive overview of the causes."

Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University, said ERCOT was not being "sufficiently transparent in explaining what was going on and left Texans in the dark about causes for these outages."

Calpine, one of the state's largest power generation companies, said all of its generation equipment was up and running last week.

Vistra Corp., the state's largest power generation company, had one unit down: The Comanche Peak nuclear plant outside of Fort Worth shut down one of its units when the main transformer experienced a fire, according to the company, which owns the plant. Each unit at Comanche can generate about 1,150 megawatts of energy at full capacity.

"Aside from one unit at Comanche Peak, which makes up about 6% of Vistra's generation capacity in ERCOT, the rest of our fleet performed very well throughout the week," said company spokesperson Meranda Cohn.

But that one outage between the two large companies accounts for less than 10% of the lost power generation last week. ERCOT likely will not give more information to the public for 60 days, per ERCOT and Public Utility Commission rules, officials said.

In the meantime, ERCOT's independent watchdog will investigate what happened. Beth Garza, who was director of the watchdog from 2014 to 2019, said that's standard procedure after such an event.

"They will look if there is any indication if there is any nefarious or bad acting on any particular generations' part," Garza said.

Last week's power generation outages marked the second time ERCOT has asked Texans to cut back on electricity use since February's storm. Garza and other experts also raised concerns about the winter storm's impact on "thermal" sources of energy, which in Texas are largely powered by natural gas plants.

"One thing I'd be curious about: What the effects of February's cold weather was on thermal units," Garza said. "Was some of that being worked on and fixed (last week)?"

The winter storm shut down a huge chunk of Texas' natural gas supply chain, including natural gas power plants. But in the aftermath of the storm, politically powerful natural gas companies, and their regulators, mostly avoided harsh criticism from state lawmakers. Regulators even went as far as defending the industry through a public relations campaign.

Lawmakers did, however, pass legislation requiring power plants to build protection against extreme weather, a process called weatherization. But critics said lawmakers did not require all parts of the state's electricity supply chain to weatherize.

Of the approximately 12,000 megawatts of generation offline last Monday, about 9,600 megawatts, or nearly 80% of the outages, were from thermal power sources, according to ERCOT.

Less than 500 megawatts of thermal generation offline last Monday were planned to be out for maintenance, ERCOT officials said.

That data undercuts Gov. Greg Abbott's claim last week that the power plants that went offline were undergoing repairs to prepare for the summer heat. Power plants typically undergo maintenance repairs in the spring.

In April, the last time ERCOT asked Texans to cut back electricity use, the supply of electricity to the power grid was struggling to keep up with demand because a large number of power plants were offline — some due to repairs from the February storm — combined with higher demand than ERCOT predicted.

ERCOT has not said if last week's plant outages were related to April's outages.

A more unpredictable and less relied upon power source — wind — also did not provide much power generation to the grid last week while the power plants were offline.

Power from wind turbines last Monday afternoon was between 3,500 to 6,000, according to ERCOT, which was 1,500 megawatts lower than what the grid operator typically expects during the peak time of usage in summer afternoons.

Cohan, the Rice University professor, said he's more worried about the grid's overall performance than the fact that the wind was barely blowing last week.

"This is our primetime season, power plants are supposed to be ready to go for the summer and to generate as much as possible on summer afternoons," Cohan said. "So it is concerning that so many plants weren't ready last week. And last week was really just a trial run. We're likely to have temperatures at least 10 degrees warmer and demand 10% higher on hotter days in July and August. This grid wouldn't have been ready for it."