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Texas Officials Debate Over How To Prevent Another Crisis Like The Storm Blackouts

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's been a month since the sweeping failure of the Texas energy grid. Blackouts left millions without power for days and at least 57 people dead. State officials vowed to get to the bottom of what happened, but that has proven to be a difficult process politically speaking. We wanted to get an update, so we're joined now by Mose Buchele of member station KUT in Austin.

Welcome.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Hi. So one of the biggest controversies since the whole failure of the power grid has been over the huge price spikes for electricity that happened during the blackout. Like, that pushed some companies into bankruptcy when they came up short on power and had to buy it from other companies at these inflated prices. So how has the state responded to all of that?

BUCHELE: Well, there's been a big push to go back and retroactively lower those high wholesale electricity prices. The state Senate quickly voted to do that earlier this week, but there's a deadline today for the state House to act, and it doesn't look like that's going to happen. But I've got to say that that whole debate has really created a lot of drama. The head of the state's Public Utility Commission, Arthur D'Andrea - he opposed this repricing. And this week Texas Monthly magazine released tape of a private meeting between him and Wall Street investors. Now, a lot of investors made a killing off that price spike. And in this tape, you can hear D'Andrea apologizing profusely about that push to reduce the prices. Here's some of that tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ARTHUR D'ANDREA: Yeah. Look; I want it to be resolved. I took that first step to tip the scale as hard as I could in favor of it being resolved and that being the status quo. And that's to provide some calming force.

BUCHELE: So one result of that call was Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked D'Andrea to step down. So now we're waiting for the governor to find a replacement.

CHANG: Well, what about other political fallout? Like, right after the storm, there was sort of this blame game over who was really responsible for the whole blackout disaster, right?

BUCHELE: Yeah. So D'Andrea was the last person serving on the state's Public Utility Commission. The other two had already resigned. We've also had firings and resignations at the group that operates the state grid. And there's also kind of a question of market manipulation. The Texas attorney general has opened up an investigation into whether natural gas producers maybe did something illegal to increase the price of gas.

CHANG: OK. Well, I know that lawmakers are looking more deeply into the cause of the energy system failure. So do we know any more about exactly what happened?

BUCHELE: Well, more is coming to light about the role of natural gas, whether companies have properly weatherized their equipment, whether oil and gas regulators have done enough to protect the infrastructure. It's also come to light that some gas operators and pipeline companies got their power cut in the blackouts, so that stopped them from supplying power plants. And it turns out that there was an exemption list that they could have put their names on to ask not to get their power cut. But incredibly, it seems a lot of companies just didn't bother with that paperwork.

CHANG: Wow. All right. Well, lawmakers and the governor have said that they want to make sure this doesn't happen ever again. What would they like to see change at this point?

BUCHELE: Well, there are some bills to make power plants more resilient to bad weather. There's also one to prevent those really high electricity bills that you heard about right after the blackouts. But critics say that we're not really seeing the real sweeping overhaul that's needed. They want reforms, like, starting from the natural gas wells all the way to the light switch at people's homes. And they say if you ignore even one part of that complex system, you're running the risk of another big blackout.

CHANG: That is Mose Buchele with member station KUT in Austin.

Thank you.

BUCHELE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD'S "AND THAT, TOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.