While Texas Froze – Part 2

While Texas Froze – Part 2: The St. Valentine’s Week Massacre
LNG overlooked in an energy crisis

© Paul Robbins April 21, 2022

This is the second article in a four-part series revealing how the exportation of natural gas adversely affected Texans during Winter Storm Uri, how this situation could have been prevented, and what policy changes are needed to avoid a similar disaster in the future.

In This Article:

Introduction: Emergency Response in an Energy Emergency
Premonitions of the ERCOT energy collapse
Using LNG could have relieved the suffering
LNG terminals outside regulatory reach
How it could have worked
How Many Homes Would Have Kept Power On?
Using LNG Common in Other States
Underground Storage Was Also An Alternative
Paying More While Texas Froze

Emergency Response in an Energy Emergency

© Andreusk | Dreamstime.com

Between February 14-19, 2021, there were 771 daily records or ties of records for lowest minimum daily temperatures at 194 Texas weather stations. Many stations broke records on more than one of these 6 days. Austin Bergstrom station broke records on four of these six days, and Austin Camp Mabry broke records on all six of these days.

The tally of deaths related to Winter Storm Uri and the massive blackouts and fuel shortages it triggered for the state’s poorly regulated and unprepared electric and gas supply systems ranges from a low of 246 to 948. At least 28 were from Travis County, and at least 6 were from Williamson County.

On September 1, the Texas Department of Insurance released a report estimating at least $8.2 billion in insured losses (so far) resulting from the storm. This did not account for uninsured and unreported losses, nor did it estimate insurance premium increases that will probably result from the disaster. This pales in comparison to the largest all-inclusive damage estimate for Texas for Winter Storm Uri by the Perryman Group: $195-295 billion due to property damage, lost income from business closures, and crop losses.

First responders at the local and state level attempted to rise to the challenge. But when an entire society is set up to fail due to insufficient planning and deficient infrastructure, layered over unprecedented weather as Texas was during the Winter Storm Uri disaster, even an army of heroes would be challenged.

Between February 15 and February 17, 2021, the worst three days of the electric blackouts, Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services incidents averaged 570 per day, a 39% increase over the same three days the year before. The largest reasons for these emergency calls were cardio-pulmonary incidents (24%); pandemic-related incidents (19%), and falls (9%). The EMS average pandemic-related incidents in these three days were 7 times the annual daily average in 2021.

This peak number of emergency incidents were served by ambulances without snow chains or 4- Wheel Drives that can better navigate roads mined with ice and snow. Sometimes they haplessly slid off the road and had to be pulled out of snow and other undrivable situations by EMS 4X4s.

According to Assistant Chief Teresa Gardner of Austin/Travis County Emergency Medical Services, the incidents varied as the week progressed. During the iced-over parts, there were collisions and falls. However, as the electric infrastructure failed, they started dealing with more chronically sick people such as those who could not receive dialysis because of the lack of electricity and water, people who needed oxygen, and others who needed routine care.

Chief Teresa Gardner

Gardner said, “Problems with the medically frail became exacerbated. If they could not get to a hospital, things got worse for them. The hospitals were limited in some of their responses. Without dialysis and oxygen, the problems continued to pile on to each other.”

“I think that in terms of our experience, [Uri] was something that we thought we were prepared for. The complete collapse of electricity and water was…and it was statewide…there was no one that we could call for help [backup].”

EMS personnel had already suffered from overwork, short staffing, and damaged morale from a year of dealing with Covid-19. Uri took them even further down. Various EMS workers and ambulance drivers described the stress.

• “We were so close to sliding off of roadways and even over guardrails on overpasses (most of which would have ended in our death). We often had very little control over our ambulance. I had a conversation in my head about what my last words would be over the radio…”

• “I worked 29+ hours on a shift. We were sent literally all over the city, from far north, to far south, back to back. No food, water, relief, etc. was told we couldn’t use hospital bathrooms, yet our station’s bathrooms were unusable due to no water. We literally had no relief. We were exhausted, run ragged, with no nutrition or basic needs to be met.”

• “We were alone in this…individuals made this work. The department stood by silently while we struggled. Not only with work, but we too were going through the same damn struggles at home. It felt like the department didn’t care about their own personnel. Just come to work and run calls, who cares if you’re without power, food, heat, water, or gas at home. Then the stations’ power, water, etc. started going as well.

• Still another recalled being expected to run 30 calls with no breaks.

Selina Xie, President of the Austin EMS Association, recalled the extreme measures taken during the Uri emergency.

Selena Xie

She said that EMS Commanders physically drove to people’s houses to pick them up. Once there, “Many medics stayed well over 30 hours at their station. Our communications folks could have stayed at work up to a week, sleeping at the station and then working a 12-hour shift.

“They [EMS employees] were trapped because they knew that the roads were impassable to their homes. Obviously because of Austin prices, a lot of our medics can’t afford to live in the City of Austin, and so live up to 90 miles away from their stations and in very rural parts of Central Texas. So a lot of times they were told by their family ‘Do not even try to come home. You won’t be able to make it.’”

Regarding sliding ambulances, “There were countless. I remember when our ambulance got stuck, there were 3 other ambulances that had to be pulled out of the snow at the exact same time.”

In reflecting what could have been done differently, Xie had two main thoughts. First, she believed that winter preparedness could have been much more thorough.

“We stopped having chains on our tires…which made our response time much, much longer. We also used to have ‘winter boxes’ which included things like hand warmers…MREs…cleats for our shoes …we used to do this! And just because we haven’t seen these bad conditions in a long time…they just stopped refreshing them.“

The other was a much more fundamental problem: lack of adequate staff due to the pandemic and relatively low salaries. As of April 1, 2022, the department had a 22% vacancy rate.

“The problem is that the pandemic has really changed health care labor…there’s so many other places right now where you can make so much more money.” The EMS training class that began in December of 2021 only served 14 people out of maximum class of 30. The class that began in March 2022 will teach 17 out of 30. Xie sarcastically pointed out that Target employees often earn more than EMS workers.

Premonitions of the ERCOT energy collapse

There was substantial notice of a severe winter storm and accompanying energy shortage in mid-February 2021. Heeding the warning signs would have allowed adequate time to repurpose LNG intended for export to instead supply Texas.

Texas natural gas production began decreasing as early as February 7th due to the frigid weather, more than a week before ERCOT blackouts began. On February 9th, an intrastate pipeline company in Texas issued the first of what would be more than a hundred notices that month from the pipeline industry warning there would be delivery restrictions.

As the number of notices increased, power losses from gas-fired generation plants began to pile up. By February 13th, two days before the emergency, more than 4,000 megawatts (MW) of generation had been shut down because they were out of fuel.

By February 13th and 14th (the two days before the emergency), more than 14,000 MW of generating power was out of operation due to freezing conditions.

Despite all these advance indications, ERCOT has tried to defend its delayed response to the winter emergency by blaming weather forecasting errors.

Mike Kezar

Yet at least one Texas utility noticed the impending emergency in late January, and began preparing for it as early as February 1st: The Victoria County-based South Texas Electric Coop, which in 2020 served 3 percent of ERCOT’s customers in rural areas, was ready for the worst well in advance.

In public testimony before a joint Texas House committee of the Texas Legislature on February 26, 2021, Coop General Manager Mike Kezar outlined the extensive preparations made. They included: securing additional hydroelectric power; contractually locking in gas supplies and prices; securing heavy fuel oil as backup for its dual-fuel (gas/oil) generators; putting antifreeze in its combustion generators; and adding staff to its coal plant.

Despite the foresight and planning this utility took, it’s customers still endured blackouts because by law, like the other ERCOT-system electric utilities, it had to supply power to the failing grid. So the main benefit of South Texas Electric Coop’s initiative was to save money by not having to buy power, or as much of it, on the spot market at scalper’s prices.

Using LNG could have relieved the suffering

The LNG tanker Clean Ocean is a 984-foot-long vessel registered in the Marshall Islands. (Photo by Patrycja0909 Wikipedia Commons.)


That LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminals in or near Texas exported huge amounts of LNG to other countries during the worst energy shortage in the state’s history is the height of galling irony.

Could this fuel have been redirected to avoid part or all of the catastrophe?

That’s a difficult question to answer for several reasons, including the insufficient information from certain government agencies, government’s inability to regulate LNG operations, and a lack of transparency by LNG exporters themselves.

However, based on information available to the public and interviews with people close to the natural gas and electric utility industries, the analysis presented here attempts to quantify how a better outcome might have been achieved and how regulatory, commercial, and technical obstacles contributed to the human suffering caused by the winter storm.

In a rational world, the vast amounts of LNG exported while Texans suffered and died could have instead been repurposed as emergency fuel for generating electricity and for heating.

ERCOT already has the authority to order generation be available during critical periods. For example, during the severe Texas cold front that occurred in February 2022, ERCOT and state officials wanted to avoid a repetition of what occurred with Winter Storm Uri. To prevent another disaster, power plants scheduled to be down for routine maintenance were ordered to be available in case of weather-created generation shortages.

LNG terminals outside regulatory reach

It takes about two to 24 hours to start up regasification equipment at LNG export plants. It also takes only a few hours at most to reverse the direction of dual-flow pipelines that normally brings natural gas to an LNG plant.  Instead, these terminals could have dispatched regasified LNG for domestic use in fueling power plants and heating homes and businesses.

Thus, it’s technically possible to divert natural gas that was intended for LNG exportation to instead be used within the state during disastrous emergencies such as Winter Storm Uri.

The problem is that no government agency has the authority to intervene and make that happen.

Had that authority existed and been utilized it would have saved lives and  relieved a significant amount of suffering caused by the storm.

How it could have worked

Three of the four LNG terminals listed in Part 1 of this series have regasifiers (Freeport LNG, Cheniere-Sabine Pass LNG, and Cameron LNG). Those terminals could have sent gas sitting in their storage tanks back to the Texas pipeline system to fuel power plants.

Two of these terminals with regasifiers are licensed for both imports and exports (Cheniere-Sabine Pass LNG and Cameron LNG) and have dual-flow pipelines.

The third plant with a regasifier, Freeport LNG, would have needed a waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to send gas back to Texas. Though the terminal has repurposed its original pipeline to export gas from Texas, it is possible it could reversed the flow with minimal work. (The company did not respond with information on this subject.)

The regasifiers in these three terminals may or may not have been in a condition to instantly start them, but there was considerable lead time to know that they might have been needed.  And given that such an emergency situation could occur, the haunting question is: why were they not required, per federal rule or law, to be available?

The fourth plant (Cheniere–Corpus Christi) does not have a regasifier, but the natural gas it had on hand could have been shipped to underground storage prior to and instead of it being liquefied.

Because federal or state governments possess no legal authority to mandate these emergency relief measures these four LNG facilities would have needed to take the initiative and request that their fuel, sometimes owned by other companies, be diverted to serve the emergency.

How Many Homes Would Have Kept Power On?

The number of residential customers that could have been served with the exported LNG varied by hour according to the amount of ERCOT gas generation that lacked fuel.  Between 3 AM on February 15 to the end of February 17, repurposed LNG would have provided electricity to between 29 percent and 78 percent of the Residential customers that required power during the blackout at the average daily use per household on February 14.  The weighted average was 51 percent.

Sources: Poweroutage.us and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission

Using LNG Common in Other States

When considering the use of the LNG for emergencies, it should be stressed that use of LNG for winter consumption is quite common in other parts of the country. While underground gas storage in Texas is the norm, there are 113 LNG sites in the United States using storage tanks similar to those in LNG export facilities. Most are used to provide for the highest “peak demand” for gas utilities on the coldest winter days.

LNG is used extensively in gas utilities New England, as well as in the states of New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania for winter peak demand.  There is noticeable use of LNG for peak shaving in the Midwest and parts of Appalachia.

LNG Storage Sites in the U.S.  Data from “Liquefied Natural Gas Annual Report” for 2020 by U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.  Click map for detail.

Underground Storage Was Also An Alternative

Storing gas underground in old oil and gas wells or salt domes is even more common than LNG storage.  In 2021, about 14% of all gas consumed in the U.S. was stored by this method. The state of Texas has the second largest volume of gas storage capacity in the country.

Given the significant warning time before the fuel shortages, there would have been adequate lead time to divert gas intended for LNG terminals to underground storage prior to its processing.

There was substantial underground storage capacity available during this time period.

From “The Timeline and Events of the February 2021 Texas Electric Grid Blackouts,” UT Energy Institute

And there was substantial fuel to divert to this storage.  Between February 10, the first day of announced gas shortages, and February 14, the day before the massive power outages, a total of about 13.5 billion cubic feet were shipped via Texas pipelines to LNG facilities.

Courtesy Natural Gas Intelligence, naturalgasintel.com

Paying More While Texas Froze

Only a small percentage of 50.1 billion cubic feet of LNG shipped from Gulf terminals between February 10 and February 18, 2021 would have been needed to provide for the gas power plants short on fuel.  However, had the LNG been available, it would have also cushioned or eliminated the extreme scarcity pricing that drove electric and gas utility bills to extreme levels.

February gas prices in Texas before Winter Storm Uri were about $3 per thousand cubic feet (MCF).  Spot-market price gouging drove prices as high as $400 per MCF during Winter Storm Uri.  At one point, some prices were at $1,100 per MCF.

This piracy not only occurred in Texas, but 13 other states in the Midwest and inland West as well.  Nationally, gas costs in February 2021 increased by over $26 billion compared to the year before.  Almost half of these excessive costs occurred in Texas.

The increase in costs for gas utilities in Texas – $3.4 billion – was so high that it required debt financing.  Residential customers will be paying about $60 a year for the next 10 years to compensate for fuel shortages that occurred in only a few days.  Roughly another $8.5 billion in extreme gas costs was paid by Texas electric utilities.

Costs from Texas Alliance of Energy Producers

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

This is the second in a four-part series on how Texas exported fuel that could have been used for emergency supplies during the brutal freeze of February 2021. I hope you will be interested in Part 3: The Politics of Liquid Fire.

Robbins is an environmental activist and consumer advocate who has lived in Austin for almost five decades. He is editor of the Austin Environmental Directory, a sourcebook of environmental issues, products, services, and organizations in Central Texas. The publication has been offered free to the public since 1995, and can be accessed free online.

This series is co-published (in a different format) with the Austin Bulldog, a non-profit independent online news site for investigative reporting.  It was launched in 2010.  It can also be accessed free online.

Thanks to Tony Switzer for reviewing this story, and Ken Martin for editing.

Continue to Part 3: The Politics of Liquid Fire ->

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