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A week after last month’s deadly failure of the electric grid amid historically cold weather, state lawmakers sought answers from grid operators, energy regulators and oil and gas industry executives.
On Feb. 26, during the second and final day of hearings, lawmakers heard from Grant Ruckel, senior director of government affairs for Energy Transfer — one of the largest pipeline companies in the U.S.
Ruckel was asked about gas pipelines and their role in hampering the gas-fired power plants that struggled to generate electricity at optimal levels during the worst of the storms.
"Just to be clear, you didn’t have pipelines that froze up — right?" asked state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee who has received $3,000 from Energy Transfer’s political action committee.
"Pipelines do not freeze," Ruckel said. "They are naturally insulated. They’re buried beneath the ground."
His response contradicts what others have said about how natural gas infrastructure faltered during Texas’ winter storm. Grid operators said last month that problems occurred up and down the natural gas production and delivery system — from frozen wellheads to frozen gas-fired power plants.
And Gov. Greg Abbott repeated those claims during a televised interview with WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas, on Feb. 16.
"My team has been talking to all the natural gas producers and suppliers in the state of Texas all afternoon to accelerate the process of their ability to get (gas)," Abbott said. "Their answer is: ‘It's just frozen right now. It's frozen in the pipeline. It's frozen at the rig. It's frozen at the transmission line.’"
Did gas pipelines freeze during Texas historic winter storm? As with many things in the energy sectors, the answer to this question is tangled in technical complexity.
Oil and gas pipeline experts all agree that even the sustained freezing temperatures Texas experienced last month couldn’t freeze gas in pipelines the same way water would. For instance, to turn methane — a fuel commonly used to power gas-fired electricity plants — from a gas to a liquid state would require temperatures around negative 83 degrees Celsius. The process of freezing natural gasses to a liquid state using cryogenics is common for transporting gas products in large tankers, experts said.
"To take it as literal, that natural gas is frozen in the pipelines, would require temperatures that I don't think have ever been found on the surface of this earth, outside of a cryogenic process," said Tony Scott, managing director of analytics at the industry research group BTU Analytics.
"It’s just a misunderstanding of the system," said Chuck Fontenot, vice president of operations at WSP USA, an energy management and consultancy firm whose clients have included Energy Transfer. "As a rule, natural gas does not freeze."
It’s also true that natural gas pipelines are required to be buried underground by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and all of Energy Transfer’s 43,500 miles of Texas pipeline meet the U.S. Department of Transportation’s minimum depth standard of 3 feet, the company said.
Although this depth requirement is primarily meant to protect pipelines from damage or interference incurred from agriculture or digging, burying pipelines can serve a dual purpose of keeping temperatures stable. In many northern states, pipeline companies bury pipelines well below the federal minimum standard to dip below frozen ground.
"Certain companies can choose to do even more for their use," Fontenot said. "Up north they bury pipelines deeper in areas that stay frozen for months on end because the ground stays frozen down to a point. It kind of depends on where you are and where that typical frost depth is. This could be up to 6 feet in the northern U.S."
An Energy Transfer spokesperson asserted that the company’s pipeline in Texas "never stopped operating" during the winter storm. But that doesn’t mean the storm spared mid-stream natural gas infrastructure from harm.
Mid-stream systems, the infrastructure that carries fuels from upstream oil wells to downstream refineries and power plants, include several stages that were compromised by Texas’ winter storm.
After natural gas is separated from the oil and water that are co-mingled in the stream flowing out of an oil well, the gas enters a processing plant where the natural gas is again divided into propane and methane, which is sent on to power plants.
But because many of these processing plants run on electricity and were also cut off from power, they struggled to supply the power plants with enough gas to produce electricity.
"You end up in this very cyclical feedback where everyone’s out at the same time and they all need the other to get restored," said Scott. "That's the cascading loop of failures when you have such cold temperatures in an area that's just not prepared."
The sustained freezing temperatures hampered natural gas primarily in the upstream sector. Upstream producers in the fields struggled with things like frozen wellheads and icy roads that prevented trucks from servicing well sites.
Natural gas production in Texas fell from around 21 billion cubic feet of gas to less than 14 billion, and gas moving from more than two dozen West Texas processing plants to pipelines fell by 85%, according to the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie.
A pipeline company executive testified before a legislative panel last week and pushed back on claims that pipeline infrastructure froze during Texas winter storm. Ruckel said that pipelines don’t freeze because they are "naturally insulated" by being buried underground.
Gas pipelines are required to be buried underground by the U.S. Department of Transportation, although the purpose of burial is more for protection than insulation from winter weather.
It’s also accurate that natural gas itself doesn’t freeze, and only reaches a liquid state under a cryogenic process.
We rate this claim True.
Joint State Affairs and Energy Resources Committee, testimony, Feb. 26, 2021
Austin American-Statesman, Blame game pushes into second day as Texas lawmakers examine devastating power outages, Feb. 27, 2021
Interview with Tony Scott, managing director of analytics at BTU Analytics, March 2, 2021
Interview with Chuck Fontenot, vice president of operations at WSP USA, March 3, 2021
Emails with Amanda Gorgueiro, Energy Transfer spokesperson, March 3, 2021
Texas Campaign Finance Dashboard, accessed March 5, 2021
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