Editor’s note: Bloomberg News issued a correction on Jan. 6 indicating that 1 million cubic feet of gas was burned, not 1 billion. We revised the story below to reflect that change, but be advised that the incorrect number is still in the original interview audio in the player above.
This past weekend’s cold front sent temperatures tumbling across the state. And as Texans fired up their furnaces, Texas’ energy infrastructure had its first cold weather test since last February’s winter storm.
How did it fare? Not great, according to a report by Bloomberg Green. Pollution was up and gas production was down. And that was after repeated calls over the past year for better winterization protocols for Texas’ power grid.
The cold caused complications at some plants, including equipment freezing up, says Bloomberg energy reporter Sergio Chapa. Listen to the interview with Chapa in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about how he and his team evaluated pollution levels in the oil patch during this recent cold snap.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: You and your colleagues pointed out that pollution soared when temps dropped. What did the numbers actually look like?
Sergio Chapa: Yeah, that’s right. So on the New Year’s cold blast that hit Texas, we noticed that natural gas production in Texas declined by 20%. And so when something like that happens, operators and the oil and gas industry out there in the oil patch, what they do is they they file reports every time equipment goes down and then they have to flare gas or vent gas – pollution, in other words. And and we added it up, and it ended up being tons of methane, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, all types of pollutants spewed into the air. We did the math and it was the equivalent of 1 million cubic feet of natural gas being burned during that cold snap.
So what you’re saying is that there is a relationship between production loss and pollution increase, at least in this case.
Well, every time equipment goes down, what these operators have to do is they have to reroute the gas and they have to burn it off or flare it that way the rest of the system doesn’t get over pressurized. They’re trying to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. And it’s a safety feature, but one that ends up, in the end, producing an unexpected amount of pollution.
Was there a pattern when it comes down to which plants seem to have the biggest issues?
Yes, actually. We did a statewide survey of all these reports with broken down equipment and the majority of them came from the Permian Basin of West Texas where temperatures got into the 20s during this cold snap. And it seemed to wreak havoc out there in the oil fields, with turbines, freezing up, valves, freezing and all types of unexpected failures that resulted in this equipment going down, and then this gas being burned off or flared instead of being pipelined and sold on the market.
Are there certain companies that are not stepping up, that are not taking the necessary measures to winterize?
In the analysis we did, it was pretty spread out among the various gas plant operators. I can’t pinpoint one at this exact time. But, geographically, the cold weather seemed to be affecting several different types of operators.
Texas has had nearly a year to prepare after last February’s winter storm. Why do we see this happening now?
We’ve heard from several companies over the past year, and they said that they’ve actually weatherized their equipment and taken several steps to ensure that what happened last year wouldn’t happen again. And certainly what happened last year, there was far more incident reports than we saw in this cold snap. And of course, this was a far shorter cold blast, so one wouldn’t expect quite that level of reports.
But it’s clear that the industry still needs to weatherize and winterized their equipment out there in the oil field, especially in the Permian Basin when you have people at their homes and businesses, depending on that natural gas for heat and for electricity. Luckily, I was told there was a an uptick in other forms of electricity generation, such as wind turbine generation, that helped us get through this. Plus, the cold snap was short so demand wasn’t so high. And it kept prices and demand kind of low.
Where do we stand in terms of weatherization for the grid? Should Texans be concerned about potential future cold weather days?
Right now, the state is in the middle of a two-year process to weatherize its grid, to harden its grid, as they say. And you know, it all starts with various agencies like the Railroad Commission, PUC [Public Utility Commission] and ERCOT [Electric Reliability Council of Texas] all working together. And it’s something that probably won’t take effect at the earliest until September 2022 or maybe perhaps March 2023 at the latest. And you know, what watchdogs are saying about this is that leaves us vulnerable for at least two winters – this winter and possibly next winter for another cold snap like the one we saw in February.