‘Natural Gas Saved the Day’: Experts Assess the Texas February Freeze

Thu, March 18, 2021

February looked different this year as Texans from Lubbock to Beaumont began to feel the impacts of one of the largest winter storms to hit the state in recent history.

Texas is a state accustomed to handling just about anything nature throws its way: scorching hot summer days, hurricanes, floods, and even tornados. But few were prepared for single-digit temperatures, ice-covered roads, forced blackouts, and frozen water pipes -- and that includes the state’s power grid.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is Texas’ primary grid operator, regulating power from wind turbines to natural gas plants for the majority of the state. After the storm had passed, the lights turned on, and the snow started to melt, the blame game began. ERCOT board members and Public Utility Commission (PUC) officials resigned, and energy sources like wind, solar, natural gas, coal, and nuclear, were pitted against one another.

But one energy source stepped up to meet demand and helped keep people safe as temperatures plunged: natural gas.

“Natural gas saved the day," said Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian earlier this month as data began to show the critical role natural gas played in meeting rising demand.

As temperatures across Texas dropped almost overnight, families boiled water on their gas stovetops and huddled next to gas fireplaces for warmth. ICF, an energy consulting firm, told POWER Magazine, “Despite the loss in production, natural gas consumption in Texas, including both LDC [local distribution company] and power generation demand, reached historical winter highs early in the crisis.”

Even as oil and gas producers across the state experienced frozen well-heads and equipment issues, they were able to ensure natural gas reached Texas homes. The Department of Energy reported that natural gas suppliers compensated for lost output by withdrawing from storage facilities.

In short: during one of the coldest weeks in Texas history, natural gas was rising to meet growing energy demand.

Natural gas continued to provide Texans with reliable power until a series of extreme events occurred, limiting the ability of the state’s infrastructure to function properly.

Blackouts lasting for extended periods of time, often over multiple days, prevented natural gas plants from deploying winterization efforts such as temperature-activated pumps and steamer units. Because many processing plants run on electricity and were also cut off from power, they struggled to supply the power plants with enough gas to produce electricity. As temperatures stayed below freezing, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), issued an emergency order to energy providers to prioritize natural gas deliveries to “residences, hospitals, schools, churches and other human needs customers” over electric generation facilities.

According to the EIA, more than one-third of Texas households rely on natural gas as their primary heating fuel. While producers were able to keep warm those homes heated by natural gas, electric heating systems were deprioritized under the RRC order.

Texas produces more natural gas than any other state, and natural gas accounts for more than 50 percent of the state’s power grid. Policymakers will soon set the precedent for how to prepare for future cold-weather events, and it is paramount that natural gas producers have a voice in finding that solution to ensure they are able to continuously and reliably provide the resources that Texans need.  

Natural gas is abundant, affordable, and can help keep the lights on and houses warm during extreme winter storms in the future. Any effort that seeks to diminish or reduce natural gas’s role in providing reliable energy is putting millions of Texans at risk.