Houston Chronicle Article on UT Report Belongs in Opinion Section, not Business

July 19, 2021

In an article last week, the Houston Chronicle writes on a recently-released report by the University of Texas (UT) titled, “The Timeline and Events of the February 2021 Texas Electric Grid Blackouts.” But rather than reporting the full nature of the report’s content, the paper instead cherry-picks only certain parts of the study, leaving the reader with an incorrect and unsubstantiated view of what the actual report conveyed about the role of natural gas and other power sources during Winter Storm Uri.

While the report repeatedly states that no single cause resulted in the failure of the electricity and natural gas systems serving Texas, the article deceptively frames the report to overstate blame on the natural gas industry. Below is a fact check and context review of statements made in the article that mislead and misinform its readers.

CLAIM: A dozen researchers from UT’s Energy Institute found that while all power sources — including coal, wind, solar and nuclear — faltered during the winter storm, failures to weatherize natural gas wells and ensure electricity to critical equipment compounded the catastrophic power failure.

  • FACT CHECK: The report does list weatherization and loss of power as leading to natural gas production decreases – as has industry itself concluded. However, generator outage data analyzed and included in the UT report – as well as two reports from ERCOT analyzing the storm – all conclude that weather related issues at power generators, existing outages at power generators, and general equipment issues at power generators played much larger roles in the power outages, with fuel limitations – such as a reduction in natural gas production – playing a much smaller role. This mirrors the Enverus analysis commissioned by TXOGA.
  • Further, the report clearly indicates that a series of failures and compounding issues across all power sources resulted in the power failures during Uri, but the article fails to detail these other failures.

CLAIM: Researchers found that frozen wells caused natural gas production to fall by 85 percent in the days leading up to Feb. 16, with up to two-thirds of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage. Researchers looked at a sample of 27 natural gas processing plants, and found that as many as 18 of them had zero output at the worst of the storm. Natural gas producers are not required to weatherize their equipment in Texas.

  • FACT CHECK: The UT report does not state that natural gas production fell by 85% – the report states that dry gas production dropped by 85%. In fact, talking about ALL natural gas production, the UT report notes: “Per a February 25, 2021 report by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), Texas natural gas production fell by almost half during Winter Storm Uri – from 21.3 billion cubic feet per day (Bcfd) during the week ending February 13, to about 11.8 Bcfd at its lowest point on February 17.” So, at its worst point all natural gas production fell by 55%, it is estimated.
  • Additionally, the article’s interpretation of the timeline is skewed. The UT report categorizes the dry gas production declines – attributable to the drop in throughput at the small sample of processing facilities analyzed – between February 8-14 as likely weather-related and not a loss of power – the Enverus report also attributes production declines during this period to weather. However, power began to go offline on February 14, with additional declines on February 15 due to ERCOT load shed. According to the UT report, dry gas throughput at the small sample of processing facilities was at its lowest point on February 16 – well after the widespread power outages began. Even the UT report states: “There are two major factors contributing to the decline of dry gas production in Texas during the storm: frozen infrastructure and electric power interruptions.”

CLAIM: UT’s report contradicts an oil and gas trade group, which has said power outages to producers and pipelines were the main reason natural gas production plummeted during the storm. Austin-based energy research firm Enverus, commissioned by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, found in April that the declines in natural gas production before rolling blackouts began were minimal compared to the declines that occurred after power was cut in the oil field. 

  • FACT CHECK: The UT report does not contradict the Enverus report commissioned by TXOGA, it in fact concurs with the Enverus report on early natural gas production declines. The UT report does not indicate a primary reason for production losses. It clearly states that “there are two major factors contributing to the decline of dry gas production in Texas during the storm: frozen infrastructure and electric power interruptions.” This is the exact same conclusion Enverus arrived at where “loss of power to the well site and wellhead and equipment freeze-offs are the most frequently cited reasons for significant production losses.”

CLAIM: UT researchers also found that the natural gas industry failed to ensure that power flowed to critical pipelines supplying fuel to power plants. There were 67 electricity customers in the natural gas industry enrolled in ERCOT’s voluntary Emergency Response Service program, which automatically cuts electricity to large industrial power users during a power shortage. At least five critical natural gas production and pipeline locations were enrolled in the program, researchers said. Dozens of natural gas facilities failed to file a two-page application that would have exempted them from power outages. TXOGA said the critical load application explicitly stated that these blackout exemptions did not apply to oil-field services.

  • FACT CHECK: Request For Information (RIF) from ERCOT showed that 67 locations participating in the Emergency Response Service (ERS) program were also in the fuel supply chain for generation resources, including gas processing and pipeline infrastructure. There is no quantitative data to draw a conclusion as to the impact of any particular asset particularly when considering there are hundreds if not thousands more in the fuel supply chain.
  • The UT report did NOT say broadly that “the natural gas industry failed to ensure that power flowed,” but instead characterized that natural gas delivery interruptions were due to failures by operators of specific natural gas infrastructure to alert the transmission/distribution providers that they were critical load. The study and the article failed to mention this notification form did not apply to production. Only after requesting a correction about the much misunderstood form did the article note that the two-page ERCOT critical load form explicitly stated, “This is not intended to apply to field services.
  • The article also incorrectly conflates the issue of the ERS voluntary load shedding program with the electricity being cut off to natural gas production and processing assets who were not and are not a part of the ERS.