No apology: Texas Public Utility Commission chair resigns after catastrophic power failure during storm

DeAnn Walker, chairperson of the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) resigned Monday after Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called for her to do so. He is the most powerful politician to date to state she must resign after the statewide power failure during a rare winter ice storm.

Last week the Texas legislature held hearings on the power failure during the storm. Ms. Walker was grilled for five hours over her performance and that of her agency. Throughout the hearing, she not only asserted that other agencies must accept their part in the catastrophe, but she also failed to offer an apology when asked if she should do so. The PUC regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication, and water and sewer utilities. It oversees the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT). ERCOT manages and operates the electricity grid for most of the state. Several board members and one director of ERCOT resigned last week, including the chairwoman and the vice-chair. The CEO of ERCOT, Bill Magness, has apologized. ERCOT’s board says that he did not do a good enough job alerting board members to what was coming. “I certainly could have done a better job emphasizing what was coming and had that communication with the board in more depth as well. So I understand your frustration,” Magness said.

Ms. Walker, who earns a salary of $201,000, came under fire from both Republicans and Democrats last week during the hearings for not doing more to prevent the power crisis. She countered the blame from Magness by saying he was overstating the amount of authority she had in her position.

Walker, during her testimony to lawmakers last week, largely deflected blame to ERCOT and Magness, who testified in front of state senators on Thursday before Walker did.

“You know, there’s a lot of things Bill said about our authority over them that I simply disagree that that’s how it’s actually playing out in real life,” Walker told lawmakers.

But lawmakers countered that she leads the regulatory agency with the oversight of the power sector: “When you say you don’t have authority,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, “I’ve got you down as a pretty powerful person.”

Walker said the commission has “not been given legal authority by the Legislature to require winter weatherization,” a primary concern after the power crisis was precipitated by power plants tripping offline. Many power generators are not built to withstand extreme cold weather temperatures in Texas.

In her letter of resignation to Governor Abbott, Walker wrote that she was resigning for the good of the state. She also pointed a finger at others that should be stepping up and admitting their part in the power failure.

She went on to call on others, including the Railroad Commission, ERCOT, the Legislature, gas companies, electric generators and other industry players to “come forward” to acknowledge how their actions contributed to the power crisis — all of them, she wrote, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps for the past 10 years to address issues that each of them could have addressed.”

She’s right about that. All of those must come forward and work with the PUC, especially the Legislature which would authorize the funding for the winterization that is obviously needed. Despite its name, The Railroad Commission of Texas is the state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, gas utilities, pipeline safety, safety in the liquefied petroleum gas industry, and surface coal and uranium mining. The Legislature has kicked the issue of winterization down the road since 2011. However, she was the head of the PUC and the buck stopped at her desk.

Walker was appointed by Governor Abbott in 2017. Her term was set to expire in September. Her background includes experience in the energy sector. Before she was appointed to run PUC, she was a policy advisor to Abbott on regulated industries and was associate general counsel and director of regulatory affairs for CenterPoint Energy. CenterPoint is a Houston-based electric utility company for much of the Houston region.

The tone of Walker’s resignation letter is described as “indignant”.

In her resignation letter, Public Utility Commission Chairwoman DeAnn Walker sounded indignant, saying she had “worked endless hours over the past two and a half weeks to return electric power to the grid,” and that others contributed to the lapse.

She added, “I know that I acted with the best of intentions and used my best judgment on how to respond once the crisis was upon us, as well as the days that led to the crisis.”

Unfortunately for those of us in Texas who lived through days and nights of no power, heat, and water, her best judgment wasn’t good enough. It is right that she resign and allow someone else to take the job. Lt. Governor Patrick also calls for the resignation of Bill Magness, CEO of ERCOT. He, however, has not resigned, at least as of Tuesday morning as I write this.

“The lack of adequate preparation by both the ERCOT CEO and the PUC chair before the storm, their failure to plan for the worst-case scenario and their failure to communicate in a timely manner dictates they are not the ones to oversee the reforms needed,” Patrick said in a statement released to the media on Monday morning.

“The ERCOT CEO and the PUC chair did acknowledge their poor communication prior to the storm, but they did not seem to understand what a critical point that was,” Patrick said on Monday. “As one example, ERCOT didn’t make a public call for Texans to conserve energy until the storm was upon us on February 14.”

“I do not make this call for the resignation of the PUC Chair and the ERCOT CEO lightly,” he added. “These are two good people who have worked very hard.”

The Texas legislature is in session. Governor Abbott has added the power grid and its issues as emergency items to the agenda. There is plenty of finger-pointing to go around.