Jan 19, 2022
A blast of frigid air threatens to bring slick and cold conditions across southern Texas, triggering a winter storm watch and raising concerns for power grid operators and natural gas drillers.
Overnight temperatures are forecast to drop below freezing across a large part of Texas from late Wednesday through the weekend, approaching levels seen during the cold snap that struck the state in early January. 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.
A winter storm watch is in place through early Friday from just north of Austin south to the Rio Grande River, the border with Mexico, according to the National Weather Service. Only the extreme southern tip of Texas around Brownsville is outside the watch area.
The weather will bring a whiplash of temperatures. San Antonio will drop from a daytime high of 76 degrees to a low of 34 on Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service. The cold continues Thursday, with highs reaching 37 before dropping to 27 overnight. Friday’s low is forecast at 30 before temperatures begin to rebound with a high of 51 on Saturday. In Dallas, daytime temperatures will fall from 59 degrees on Wednesday to a low of 23 by Thursday night.
Freezing rain will arrive as cold air rushes through the area, potentially adding a glazing of ice on roads and power lines, causing problems.
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 Texas Railroad Commission, 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.