Leader of Texas Utility Regulator Resigns After Extensive Storm Outages

HOUSTON — The chairwoman of Texas’ utility regulator resigned on Monday in response to a growing bipartisan backlash over widespread power outages during one of the worst winter storms there in a generation.

DeAnn T. Walker, who has been the chairwoman of the Public Utility Commission of Texas since 2017, had been caught in a tide of fury that has swelled across Texas after the outages left millions without electricity during some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in the state.

She had been grilled by lawmakers during contentious hearings last week about how the storm had been able to push the power grid to the brink of collapse and why the system had not been prepared for such winter conditions.

The calls for her resignation came from both political parties, reflecting the intensity of the outrage and anguish created by the outages. On Monday, Dan Patrick, the Republican who wields considerable influence as lieutenant governor, said Ms. Walker shared in the blame for failing to plan for a worst-case scenario. And after she stepped down, the Texas Democratic Party said on Twitter, “Good riddance.”

In a letter on Monday, Ms. Walker acknowledged the anger over the outages two weeks ago. But, she said, the blame over the shortcomings that left the grid vulnerable extended beyond one individual or agency.

“I believe others should come forward in dignity and courage and acknowledge how their actions or inactions contributed to the situation,” Ms. Walker said, listing gas and electric companies and other state agencies that, she added, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps.”

ImageA February storm dropped snow and ice across Texas, causing a surge in energy use and a drain in supply as power facilities fell offline.
Credit…Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

Ms. Walker had been a senior policy adviser to Gov. Greg Abbott, who appointed her to the commission. She also worked as an executive at CenterPoint Energy, a power company based in Houston. Her term as chairwoman was set to expire in September.

In a statement, Mr. Abbott thanked Ms. Walker for her service and said he was focused on working with lawmakers “on reforms to our power system.”

Her resignation comes as lawmakers, prosecutors and the public at large have shifted their focus to determining who should be held responsible in the aftermath of the enormous storm, which swept across much of the state. It also comes as many remain in the grips of the storm’s fallout, including about 390,000 people who are still under notices to boil their drinking water after the outages knocked out hundreds of water systems.

So far, elected officials have assigned much of the blame to the Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid and the flow of electricity to millions of Texans. Several members of the governing board of the council resigned last week.

The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, filed a lawsuit on Monday against Griddy, a service in which customers paid for electricity based on fluctuating wholesale prices, which shot up to astronomic heights during the crisis. Some customers said they had bills of $10,000 or more.

Mr. Paxton asserted that Griddy had misled its customers. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day,” he said in a statement.

In a statement on its website, Griddy said electric officials had essentially forced the company to cease its operations. “We have always been transparent and customer-centric at every step,” the company said. “We wanted to continue the fight for our members to get relief and that hasn’t changed.”

Image

Credit…Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

Still, much of the backlash has been focused on the agencies overseeing the state’s power grid, with Mr. Abbott and others vowing to overhaul the system in the wake of the storm.

On the night of Feb. 14 and into the next morning, the storm dropped snow and ice across Texas, causing a surge in energy use and a drain in supply as power facilities fell offline.

The electric system was barreling toward a complete collapse. It was just 4 minutes and 37 seconds away, officials said, when operators instead turned to rolling blackouts that still plunged much of the state into darkness, leaving residents to shiver in unheated homes.

Ms. Walker was called to the State Legislature last week along with energy executives and power company representatives. And her testimony only intensified the backlash.

“Do you think Texans deserve an apology from the Public Utility Commission?” Rafael Anchia, a Democratic state lawmaker from Dallas, asked during a hearing on Friday.

Ms. Walker was quiet.

“The fact that you’re hesitating,” Mr. Anchia said, “is astonishing.”

“I believe others should come forward in dignity and courage and acknowledge how their actions or inactions contributed to the situation,” Ms. Walker said, listing gas and electric companies and other state agencies that, she added, “had responsibility to foresee what could have happened and failed to take the necessary steps.”

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