/Gov. Greg Abbott, other state leaders deplore ‘skyrocketing’ energy bills faced by some Texans

Gov. Greg Abbott, other state leaders deplore ‘skyrocketing’ energy bills faced by some Texans


Updated at 5:26 p.m.: to include Abbott and Dallas Sen. Royce West’s comments about the meeting.

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott and legislative leaders say they’re shocked by the “skyrocketing” energy bills that some Texans are facing in the wake of a brutal freeze that caused multi-day power outages last week.

On Saturday, Abbott held a hastily arranged, virtual meeting with 11 key lawmakers to discuss how to cushion already-traumatized state residents who had the misfortune of selecting retail electricity plans keyed to suddenly soaring wholesale power prices.

Over the next week, state leaders will work to try to “reduce this burden” so that “Texans are not left with unreasonable utility bills they cannot afford because of the temporary massive spike in the energy market,” Abbott said in a written statement.

Though Abbott characterized the meeting as productive, he offered no details about possible fixes.

Sen. Royce West of Dallas, who was added to the list of participants after Abbott announced the emergency huddle Saturday morning, said Texas’ deregulated electricity market is complex and both lawmakers and citizens will need to do hasty “fact finding” to get up to speed.

“And so the question becomes, while we’re doing that, whether or not we’ll be able to come up with some short term solutions,” said West, a Democrat who has spent nearly three decades in the Texas Senate – and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year.

A readout about the meeting by Abbott’s office said both the Republican governor and West spoke of a need for bipartisan cooperation.

“I applaud Republican and Democrat members of the Legislature for putting aside partisan politics to work together on this challenge,” Abbott said.

Noting that the governor has made acting on the power crisis an emergency item, allowing fast action in this year’s legislative session, West said:

“We can’t point fingers at Democrats and Republicans, at Democratic policies or Republican policies. We can’t do that if we’re going to get something done within the, quote unquote, emergency period because it’s going to take both parties in order to get there.”

Abbott convened the mid-afternoon huddle with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Speaker Dade Phelan and nine other lawmakers in response to reports of ruinously high bills for Texas power customers who aren’t on fixed-rate plans.

As wholesale prices jumped from as low as 2 cents per kilowatt-hour – and from 7 cents, usually – to $9 per kilowatt-hour, some homeowners have already been hit with bills topping $5,000 for just a few days of electricity.

“It is unacceptable for Texans who suffered through days in the freezing cold without electricity or heat to now be hit with skyrocketing energy costs,” Abbott said before the meeting, referring to how millions of state residents endured days of blackouts and water outages.

Afterward, he said his and the legislators’ discussion “focused on the need to quickly calculate the total cost of these energy bills and how the state can help reduce this burden. The call concluded with a discussion about addressing the immediate needs of Texans and how to ensure that Texans are protected long-term.”

Patrick, the Senate’s presiding officer, noted that exorbitant bills are hitting Texans in the deregulated electricity market who have signed up for variable-rate or indexed plans.

Patrick said in a written statement that he was particularly nettled by a comment earlier in the week – about a different topic – by the chief financial officer of Frisco-based natural gas producer Comstock Resources Inc., owned by Dallas billionaire Jerry Jones.

According to the Bloomberg Wire, since Feb. 11, when extremely cold weather and snowstorms started socking the central U.S., Comstock commanded premium prices for gas from its Haynesville Shale wells in East Texas and northern Louisiana.

“This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” said Comstock CFO Roland Burns.

“This is just wrong,” Patrick said. The Republican lieutenant governor’s statement linked to a national publication that quoted stories by WFAA-TV in Dallas, NBC News and KPRC-TV in Houston.

“We are going to fix it,” Patrick said. “We can’t allow this to stand.”

As for consumers being socked by their variable-rate or indexed retail electricity plans, which are tied to wholesale power prices, some lawmakers worry their constituents fail to understand the risk.

The plans can be tantalizing to consumers who are focused on the chances of very low rates in good weather but can be devastating when bad weather creates scarcity in wholesale energy market.

“The state needs to look into whether or not people are signing up for things that they don’t really understand and signing up for things that that could ultimately really hurt them,” Houston Democratic Rep. Gene Wu told KPRC-TV on Thursday.

Electricity customers with certain variable-pricing plans may be better off than others. Irving-based Vistra, which owns electricity retailers TXU Energy and Ambit, said in a news release on Saturday: “Our residential customers on fixed and variable pricing plans were insulated from extreme wholesale power price swings. We do not put our customers at risk.”

At Abbott’s request, lawmakers in both the Senate and House have scheduled hearings at which they will investigate what went wrong with electricity generation and management of the state’s transmission grid that permitted more than 4 million Texans to lose power and suffer through days of icy cold weather.

Abbott’s snap Saturday huddle fit the pattern of numerous conference calls he held last year amid the coronavirus pandemic, usually with about 10 lawmakers – often, with about eight Republicans and two Democrats. With the last-minute addition of West, Saturday’s had three Democrats.

Also invited were Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and her House counterpart, Appropriations Chairman Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood.

North Richland Hills GOP Sen. Kelly Hancock, who heads the Senate Business and Commerce Committee, and his vice chairman, Jacksonville Republican Robert Nichols, also joined the call, along with Brownsville Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., the vice chairman of Senate Finance.

From the House, in addition to Phelan and Bonnen, participants included State Affairs Committee Chairman Chris Paddie, R-Marshall; Energy Resources Committee Chairman Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth; and Houston Democratic Rep. Ana Hernandez, the vice chairwoman of State Affairs.

“We are moving quickly to alleviate this problem and will continue to work collaboratively throughout this week on solutions to help Texas families and ensure they do not get stuck with skyrocketing energy bills,” Abbott said.

West said he expects the governor and 11 lawmakers to “get back together next week. … Probably midweek.”

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