Texas Braces for Cold, Sleet and a Test for the Power Grid
(Bloomberg) -- A blast of frigid air is bringing cold and slippery conditions across southern Texas, triggering winter storm warnings and raising concerns for power grid operators and natural gas drillers.
Temperatures are forecast to drop below freezing across parts of the state as the weekend approaches. Some storms will cross the southern half of Texas and bring mainly freezing rain -- though nothing like last winter’s deadly storm.
“It’s not going to be as brutal as last year,” said Bob Oravec, a senior branch forecaster with the U.S. Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland. “It doesn’t look like it is going to be a prolonged event.”
Deep cold in Texas last February crippled the state’s energy grid, leading to outages and the deaths of more than 200 people. Freezing temperatures can disrupt production of natural gas, the main fuel for power plants.
This week’s weather is likely to trigger post-traumatic stress syndrome for those who experienced last February’s freeze and provide a critical test in a state where reforms to fix the grid and weatherize gas production have moved too slowly, said Ed Hirs, an economics professor and energy industry expert with the University of Houston.
“It takes more than eight months to fix something that’s been decaying for more than 20 years,” he said.
Inspectors for the state’s main grid operator found that almost all power generating units comply with new winter weather requirements. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas said that three generators out of 302 resources inspected didn’t meet the standards, according to a report filed Tuesday with state regulators.
Winter weather advisories and warnings are either already in place or set to take effect later Thursday, covering the area to the north of Austin and further south to the border with Mexico, according to the National Weather Service. There is a risk of freezing rain over parts of the state, it said. That could add a glazing of ice on roads and power lines, causing problems.
A winter storm warning is scheduled to take effect overnight Thursday in the area around Corpus Christi, a refining hub, with trace amounts of snow possible. Near San Antonio, temperatures are set to reach highs just above freezing on Thursday. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, wind chills are forecast to drop to the teens (Fahrenheit).
Gas wells are particularly susceptible to so-called freeze offs because of the high volumes of subterranean water that typically flow out of the ground alongside the fuel. A cold snap at the start of January, which saw the temperature in Dallas plunge to 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-7 degrees Celsius), led to a 10% drop in gas output over two days, according to BloombergNEF data.
The impending chill could affect oil markets, depending on the extent of freeze offs in the Permian Basin, North America’s largest crude field. Any supply hiccups typically create dislocations in regional oil prices before rippling into the broader oil-futures market.
Houston pipeline operator Kinder Morgan Inc. sent out a notice to customers on Wednesday saying it was packing its El Paso Natural Gas pipeline ahead of below-freezing conditions expected in the Permian on Thursday and Friday. The company also warned the potential exists for supply shortfalls due to freeze offs.
“We are monitoring the weather and believe that we are well prepared for the upcoming cold conditions,” spokeswoman Katherine Hill said. “Historically, our systems and personnel have performed well during cold weather events, and we expect them to do the same this week.”
The Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees oil and gas production in the state, held conference calls Tuesday with top producers and major pipeline operators about the upcoming freeze.
“They didn’t anticipate anything other than normal production fluctuations, however they are prepared to address any issues they may have with overnight freezing temperatures,” Railroad Commission spokesman R.J. DeSilva said in an emailed statement.
Temperatures will likely get warmer by the weekend.
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