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Texas This Week: Gov. Greg Abbott's 'unprecedented' influence over ERCOT

A new report from The Texas Tribune reveals the governor has "veto power" over the search for a CEO to lead the agency.

AUSTIN, Texas — In this week's edition of Texas This Week, Mitchell Ferman, energy and economy reporter for The Texas Tribune, shares what he's learned about Gov. Greg Abbott's influence over the nonprofit that oversees the state's power grid.

Three things to know in Texas politics

1. Texas lawmakers ask Gov. Abbott for special session on TJJD

Round Rock State Rep. James Talarico and 33 members of the Texas House of Representatives are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address the failures happening within the Texas juvenile prison system. Staffing levels are so low at the state's five youth prisons that teens are spending up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells, using water bottles as bathrooms. 

The House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues heard testimony from prison leaders this week. They say without more funding they won't gain control of the crisis. 

When asked about the letter, Gov. Abbott's press secretary, Renae Eze, sent KVUE News this statement: 

“The safety and security of TJJD staff and youth is a top priority for Gov. Abbott. Under Interim Director Carter’s leadership, TJJD is implementing permanent raises to address the urgent issue of understaffing at facilities and ensure they remain secure and safe. To maintain greater transparency, TJJD is updating the legislature and probation chiefs across the state of the situation on a weekly basis. Many private and public employers like TJJD are currently having a difficult time finding employees. The agency is developing their budget request for next session, and the governor will support their request to increase the salaries needed to hire and retain a qualified workforce.”

RELATED: Texas This Week: Reporter Jolie McCullough on Texas's collapsing juvenile justice prison system

2. Judge: DPS doesn't have to give Uvalde records to state senator

On Wednesday, a Travis County judge ruled the Department of Public Safety (DPS) does not have to turn over records related to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School that were requested by State Sen. Roland Gutierrez. The judge did not answer the pressing question of whether DPS can withhold the information, but instead said Sen. Gutierrez didn't properly file his request for the records. Meanwhile, a coalition of media outlets, including KVUE and the Austin American-Statesman, are continuing a separate fight for records related to the school shooting. 

   

3. Beto O'Rourke curses at person who heckled him on Uvalde shooting

Democratic candidate for governor Beto O'Rourke is going viral for cursing at a heckler during a campaign event on Wednesday. O'Rourke was talking about the Uvalde school shooting, describing the impact AR-15s have, when someone, apparently in a group of Gov. Greg Abbott supporters, started laughing. O'Rourke's response was met with applause.  

Warning: This video contains explicit language 

Mitchell Ferman: Gov. Abbott's power over ERCOT

This week, The Texas Tribune published a report about the influence Gov. Greg Abbott is exerting over who will be the next CEO of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit that runs the state's power grid. Mitchell Ferman, energy and economy reporter for The Texas Tribune, joined KVUE to talk about what he uncovered.

Ashley Goudeau: You write, Gov. Abbott is exerting unprecedented influence over not only who will be the next CEO, but also what ERCOT tells the public. First, what are sources telling you about the search for CEO?

Mitchell Ferman: "Yeah, sources across the power industry have told me that the governor has final say in the search for CEO of ERCOT, even though he is not formally part of the search process. The ERCOT board of directors, as well as a contracted search firm, are primarily responsible for the search for the new CEO. But, you know, we've been told by sources that the governor has final say and he has veto power and he's already vetoed. He rejected at least one candidate, according to people familiar with the process, and that is unusual and has not happened, according to people familiar with ERCOT's history. But, yeah, the governor is is intimately involved in who gets that job."  

Ashley Goudeau: Interesting for sure. And now this is all happening, of course, after what we had happen in February of 2021, which was that unprecedented power failure where the grid completely just failed the people of Texas. Most people can remember what it was like to be without power and water for days. People died during that. And so, do you think that the gravity of that situation is why the governor wants to be involved in this process?  

Mitchell Ferman: "Yeah, and he has said that. And his, the regulators who he appoints have said that as well, that the governor has taken a particular interest in the power grid, which is, you know, I think most people understand. That was, it was a catastrophe. Like you said, hundreds of people died. But, you know, the governor, as sources told us, governing a state is different from governing a power grid control room or a power grid operator. And you know, the people who traditionally run power grids are studied in the industry. They're experts. But the governor has gotten involved in some of those operations, like we reported with the way ERCOT communicates with the public."

Ashley Goudeau: Let's talk about the other thing that is very unusual about the governor's hand in ERCOT right now is that sources told the Tribune that the governor is dictating what ERCOT can tell the public. In your report, you quote a source who says Gov. Abbott is reviewing and editing ERCOT's public statements and, "It means information is potentially not getting where it needs to go and that means Texans aren't hearing what they need to hear." How big is this? 

Mitchell Ferman: "Yeah, it's incredibly unusual. ERCOT has always, has traditionally, given the PUC and the governor's office heads-up when they're communicating with the public on issues that aren't minor, if they're issuing a report of what summer or winter is going to look like. But the governor's office, it's a heads-up. That's where they are rarely questioned or told what to say. But the difference post-Winter Storm Uri is that the governor is involved in what ERCOT does and says to the public. And as we've seen, EROCT's public communications have dwindled substantially over the last year."  

Ashley Goudeau: Did your source give any information when they said that there may be information Texans aren't getting, what that information might be, what it is that's been withheld from the public?

Mitchell Ferman: "Sometimes, that could mean an ask for conservation or that could mean, you know, ERCOT and power grids generally. Energy conservation is a practice that power companies talk about often, not only to help the protect the grid but also to help people potentially save money on their home electric bills. And so it's an unusual position for the governor to be in if ERCOT is trying to make energy conservation a more regular part of of people's energy practices at home. But if the governor perhaps views energy conservation as a political liability, then that kind of conflicts with what power grid operators, how power grid operators talk about energy conservation, which is it is a tool in their toolbox."

Ashley Goudeau: Tell us what you're continuing to watch as we continue to follow this story, not only the fact that we need a leader for ERCOT, but also as we're moving closer towards the election.  

Mitchell Ferman: "Yeah, there are a couple of things. I mean, one, ERCOT has a board meeting coming up this month and there is speculation that is when they could potentially name a new CEO. You know, obviously, we will see there. And another thing is what happens after summer, especially when it's in the kind of shoulder month season, which is … the months in between winter and summer and summer and winter when power plants typically go down for maintenance, scheduled repairs. Kind of like an oil change is what people in the industry describe it as, but a massive oil change. And, you know, the power plant fleet in Texas has been run extremely hard this spring and summer to keep up with record high demand for power. As the state's economy continues to grow and population, the demand for power also continues to grow with it. And when those plants are down for maintenance this fall, you know, as we saw this spring, there were times when it was hotter than expected. And there was concern for tight grid conditions because of plants that were unexpectedly down. And so, we'll see if that happens again. And who knows? September, October, before these tweener months, when it's historically been mild temperatures, you know, if it's unseasonably warm and Texans are cranking their AC at home, what will that mean for the grid?"

KVUE News asked Gov. Greg Abbott's office about the report. Eze provided us with the following statement: 

"Texas has taken unprecedented steps to protect our critical energy infrastructure and strengthen our power system. Gov. Abbott continues working to ensure the substantial bipartisan reforms passed by the House and Senate last year are properly implemented, including greater transparency and accountability at the PUC and ERCOT, so that the grid remains stable and reliable. Under the governor’s leadership, Texans have seen more communication and proactive responses by the PUC and ERCOT to keep the public better informed of current grid conditions, such as voluntary conservation appeals this summer during record-setting temperatures and demand. The governor also continues informing Texans and providing more information regularly, discussing the reforms and current conditions during press conferences and interviews throughout this year.

You can read Mitchell Ferman's full report here.

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