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Texas utility chairwoman resigns amid rebukes and fallout from record-breaking storm

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/2/2021 John C Moritz Austin Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK, Corpus Christi Caller Times
a screen shot of a video game: ERCOT control room © Courtesy of ERCOT ERCOT control room

AUSTIN — The chairwoman for the Texas Public Utility Commission resigned under fire Monday amid continuing fallout from the massive failure of the state's electric power grid during last month's record-breaking winter storm.

DeAnn Walker's decision came just hours after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called on both her and the top executive of the the grid manager to step down, saying they proved woefully unprepared to manage the crisis. 

In her resignation letter, Walker said responsibility for the grid failure that left more than 4 million Texans without electricity, many for several consecutive days, falls on many shoulders, including the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid manager.

"I testified last Thursday in the Senate and House and accepted my role in the situation," Walker said in her letter to Abbott. "I believe others should come forward in dignity and courage and acknowledge how their actions or inactions contributed to the situation."

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She specifically mentioned natural gas companies, the Texas Railroad Commission, ERCOT, electricity providers and the Texas Legislature as bearing some of the responsibility for the power failure.

Abbott, who appoints the three-member utility commission, through a spokeswoman thanked Walker for her public service and said that efforts to shore up electric reliability will continue. 

"Our focus is to continue working collaboratively with the Legislature on reforms to our power system and look forward to passing lasting and meaning full solutions to ensure these tragic events are never repeated," said Renae Eze, Abbott's press secretary.

In calling early in the day for the resignation of both Walker and ERCOT CEO Bill Magness, Patrick said they were unprepared for the severity of the storm that came with snow and ice storms coupled with several days of subfreezing temperatures all over the state.

"It is obvious ERCOT and the PUC simply did not anticipate the magnitude of the storm or the amount of power it would require," Patrick said in a written statement.

Late Friday, several Democratic lawmakers also called for Walker to step down.

Last week, five members of the ERCOT board of directors resigned under fire as Gov. Greg Abbott called for a shakeup in the organization. In a written statement, ERCOT noted the diminished ranks in leadership and suggested Magness' role might be diminished, at least in the near term.

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"Given the recent resignations of several ERCOT board members and the current composition of the ERCOT board of directors, our corporate secretary will be working with the current, remaining members to consider this request," the statement said. "Mr. Magness will continue to work with the Texas Legislature and any state agencies on investigations of the recent winter storm and its reform of ERCOT."

Both Walker and Magness testified separately last week before House and Senate committees examining the causes and potential solutions for the widespread and prolonged power outages. While ERCOT was scrambling to restore power, Magness told reporters in a series of news briefings that Texas lost nearly half of its generating capacity and was just minutes away from a total meltdown of its energy grid.

Patrick, however, said testimony from Walker and Magness showed breakdowns in communication and examples of miscalculation that exacerbated the failures in generation caused by freezing resources and spiking demand from electricity consumers.

"From their testimony it is clear they also did not consider the harsh freeze could shut down electricity generating power plants or that crews would not be able to make emergency repairs because roads would be impassable," Patrick said. 

More: ERCOT post-storm review: Outages saved Texas from blackout that would take weeks to restore

State Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, one of eight Democratic House members who signed a letter calling for Walker to step down, offered a withering assessment of the chairwoman's response to the outages.

"The people of Texas deserved nothing less than Commissioner Walker’s immediate resignation following the complete failure by her agency and ERCOT, the Texas power grid operator that she neglected to regulate," Anchia said. “Texans still await her apology."

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During her testimony before the legislative committees, Walker said she did not have the legal authority some members said she should have exercised to minimize the outages, or at least reduce their duration.

"If everyone thinks I have the authority, I'm more than happy to move forward with the rule-making," she said. "But it is something I think needs to be part of another discussion."

The three members of the PUC were appointed by Gov. Abbott and they each are paid about $201,000 annually. The state agency oversees ERCOT, which is a private nonprofit corporation.

According to her biographical information on the PUC's website, which was taken down immediately upon her resignation, Walker was a senior policy adviser to Abbott before he appointed her to chair the commission in September 2017. Her term was to expire this September.

She is also a former assistant general counsel for the commission.

Walker also served as associate general counsel and director of regulatory affairs at CenterPoint Energy before joining Abbott's staff.

John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at jmoritz@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Texas utility chairwoman resigns amid rebukes and fallout from record-breaking storm

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