The Texas electric grid collapse during the February winter storm killed hundreds of Texans and caused an estimated $295 billion in damages, while generating seismic gains for a small and powerful few. The natural gas industry was by far the biggest winner, collecting $11 billion in profit by selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis. No one won bigger than Dallas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren: Energy Transfer Partners—the energy empire Warren founded and now is executive chairman of—raked in $2.4 billion during the blackouts.
That immense bounty soon trickled down to Governor Greg Abbott. On June 23, Warren cut a check to Abbott’s campaign for $1 million, according to the governor’s latest campaign finance filing, which covers January through June. That’s four times more than the $250,000 checks that the billionaire has given to Abbott in prior years—and the most he’s ever given to a state politician in Texas.
In the months after one of the worst energy disasters in U.S. history, Abbott has dutifully steered scrutiny away from his patrons in the oil and gas industry. Last month, the governor signed into law a series of bills that strengthened regulation of the state’s grid. But experts warned that lawmakers didn’t go far enough to prevent another grid failure and failed to crack down on natural gas companies. At a bill signing ceremony on June 8, Abbott proclaimed that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”
The unusually large contribution from the blackout’s biggest profiteer raises questions about Warren’s influence over the governor and has prompted outrage at what many see as a blatant political kickback for kowtowing to the powerful natural gas industry.
“When Governor Abbott said that we did everything we needed to do to fix the grid, what he meant was we did everything we needed to do that doesn’t interfere with my cronies’ profit margins,” says Democratic state Representative Erin Zwiener, who chairs the House Climate, Environment, and Energy Caucus. The governor’s office and his campaign did not respond to emails requesting comment, nor did Energy Transfer Partners.
Warren has been a prominent GOP donor for years, cutting big checks to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, among others. He financed the failed presidential bids of former Governor Rick Perry—who sits on the Energy Transfer Board—and then became a major backer of Donald Trump, hosting an exclusive fundraiser for the former president last year at his $30 million castle in the gaudy Dallas enclave of Preston Hollow. In Texas state politics, he’s opened his wallet widest for Abbott, filling his campaign coffers with $2.25 million since he was elected governor in 2014, according to state campaign finance records. Texas is one of the few states that have no limits on campaign contributions. Abbott has in turn awarded the mogul—as well as his wife—with plum state appointments, first to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission and then on the University of Texas System board of regents.
Warren’s million-dollar contribution—one of four that Abbott received from donors—was part of a major fundraising sprint in the final 10 days of June, during which the governor’s campaign hauled in $20 million. In addition to Warren’s check, a long list of other oil and gas donors pumped in millions more. That haul ballooned the total size of his political war chest to $55 million, which his campaign boasted was “more than any other statewide candidate in Texas history.”
As he gears up for a reelection bid in 2022, Abbott has resisted calls to include further power grid fixes in a special session. Instead, his current special session agenda centers on sweeping “election integrity” legislation that prompted House Democrats to break quorum for the second time this year and hole up in Washington, D.C., until the session expires.
The governor has relentlessly pinned blame for the grid failure on renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials (ERCOT), and even the state’s giant power generators, all while ignoring the significant failures of the natural gas industry. Lawmakers watered down proposed regulations on the gas supply system in the face of aggressive industry lobbying.
By refusing to include additional grid reforms in special sessions, Abbott has ensured that the natural gas sector will avoid any further legislative scrutiny. That, experts warn, means the state’s grid remains at risk of future collapse. Earlier this month, Abbott issued another love letter to his fossil fuel benefactors, ordering his three brand-new Public Utility Commission (PUC) appointees to create incentives for fossil fuel and nuclear power generators and impose new costs on wind and solar plants.
While gas companies made huge profits during the winter storm, the financial fallout has been passed on to Texans. In May, lawmakers passed legislation that provided several billion dollars in state bonds for power companies that were waylaid by the exponential hike in energy costs. Texans will be paying that off through higher gas bills for at least the next decade.
The City of San Antonio’s municipal electric utility, CPS Energy, was also among the hardest hit and is suing Energy Transfer for alleged price gouging; two of Energy Transfer’s subsidiaries charged CPS $300 million for gas during the blackouts.
Energy Transfer has denied those charges and claims it made record profits because it was better prepared than others, with significant amounts of gas in storage that it could sell on the market coupled with major investments the company had already made weatherizing some of its pipelines and processing plants.
Natural gas companies were the biggest winners from the power outages —collectively raking in about $11 billion during the storm—in large part because the natural gas systems that supply so much of the state’s power grid are almost entirely unregulated. With hardly any oversight or transparency, gas suppliers can get away with setting exponentially high prices during energy crises—amounting to what critics say is legal price gouging. “This is one of the biggest problems that no one is talking about, and Kelcy Warren certainly doesn’t want people talking about it,” says Doug Lewin, an energy expert and president of Stoic Energy.
“The focus continues to be on ERCOT and the PUC and not on the gas system and Railroad Commission,” Lewin says. “That’s a huge benefit to the ONG industry as a whole and a huge detriment to Texans.”
Before heading to Washington to break quorum last week, Representative Erin Zwiener filed a special session bill to institute campaign contribution limits for statewide and legislative candidates. “No individual should be able to give one candidate a million dollars. That fundamentally raises questions of undue influence,” she says. “If the governor wants to talk about election integrity, I think the best way to do that is to make sure elected officials are not bought and paid for.”