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Months After Texas Blackouts, Critics Say Lawmakers Aren't Doing Enough

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When blackouts gripped Texas in February, state leaders said this must never happen again. They vowed to protect people from future power outages. Now as the Texas legislative session winds down, some experts say that's not happening. Mose Buchele of member station KUT in Austin has our story.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Ever since another major freeze and blackout 10 years ago, experts have said Texas needed to winterize its oil and gas infrastructure. Despite February's deadly disaster, it was not clear that would happen this time, either. Industry lobbyists and regulators often seen as cozy with them rejected winterization. In fact, Christi Craddick, the state's top oil and gas regulator, even denied the large role oil and gas failures played in the blackout.

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CHRISTI CRADDICK: My industry resolved the problem and didn't really create it.

BUCHELE: Given such pushback, it was a big deal when Republican State Representative Chris Paddie managed to get a sweeping blackout response bill through the statehouse this month.

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CHRIS PADDIE: It is the bill that addresses those fundamental issues that we identified early on with oversight and accountability, communication failures and weatherization.

BUCHELE: That weatherization part calls for the state to map out Texas energy infrastructure and protect the essential parts from the cold. Most agree that it is progress, but it would only apply to equipment linked directly to power plants. Experts say it ignores the interconnectedness of the gas infrastructure.

DAN COHAN: But I fear that that it's not going to be enough.

BUCHELE: Dan Cohan is a professor of civil engineering at Rice University. He says if there's another big freeze...

COHAN: Whoever has those direct lines into the power plants and winterizes those is going to point upstream and say, well, those upstream people couldn't get us enough gas. So yeah, it's hard to see how this provides full coverage.

BUCHELE: What's more, he says the penalties lawmakers set up could cost less than the price of complying. Meanwhile, some major proposals that might help safeguard the grid in both winter and in summer hardly received a hearing. They include rules to encourage power plants to have emergency backup fuel, more energy efficiency to relieve pressure on the grid and backing up the Texas grid by connecting it to other parts of the country. Jim Boyle is a former official at the state's public utility commission. He thinks that Texas energy industry may have derailed some of these measures because they would reduce its market power over the grid.

JIM BOYLE: I think oil and gas interests think, man, that doesn't sound too good to me (laughter), you know? I don't know.

BUCHELE: Then there was the question of overhauling the Texas energy market. The way it works now, gas and electric companies can actually make more during a blackout. But lawmakers left that unresolved, too, though they plan on studying the issue before they meet again in two years.

JON ROSENTHAL: It's just not enough. That's just the bottom line.

BUCHELE: Jon Rosenthal is a Democratic state representative from Houston who also works as an engineer in the gas industry. He says despite some progress, state lawmakers have plenty of work left to do.

ROSENTHAL: In the end, the product that came out of this body is not strong enough to ensure that we won't have another catastrophic event.

BUCHELE: That's a chance that might come soon. Summer is the time of year Texas usually uses the most energy, and some analysts say the state's grid runs the risk of yet another blackout in the coming months. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANDBOOK'S "CAN'T TALK NOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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