The Calaveras Power Plant.
CPS Energy's Calaveras Power Station includes its Sommers natural gas units. The utility's trustees will soon decide how much natural gas to rely on in the near future. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Just days after Bexar County officials learned that the county will face new air quality regulatory requirements and intensified federal oversight, two legislators pledged their support to the oil and gas industry.

Following a private tour of CPS Energy’s Calaveras Power Station Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) said they are committed to protecting the state’s oil and gas jobs, but would also like to see Texas become a leader in clean energy.

The lawmakers fielded questions from reporters after their tour about the future of Texas’ grid and what they are doing to strengthen the state’s energy infrastructure. CPS Energy denied reporters’ requests to join the tour, citing short notice. 

Cuellar and Gutierrez saw some of the $20 million worth of improvements CPS Energy made to its power plants following the deep freeze across Texas in 2011. That freeze almost caused the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to implement the rolling blackouts it enacted in February during Winter Storm Uri.

The utility has “already begun to address some weatherization measures that include additional heaters, temporary enclosures, and insulation” following February’s freeze, said Christine Patmon, a CPS Energy spokeswoman, but it is waiting for the Public Utility Commission of Texas to issue new standards.

“My concern is that we aren’t doing the things that we need to do at the state level,” Gutierrez said, “which is to increase capacity and … look to tying into the eastern and western grids of the United States.”

Gutierrez said he and Cuellar met with officials from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation while in Washington D.C. recently about that possibility. 

The lawmakers said their focus on clean energy doesn’t mean they’re out to “attack” out to get the oil and gas industry.

The Trump administration was “very good at attacking Democrats” when it came to oil and gas, claiming they were “trying to kill all the jobs,” by promoting clean energy, Cuellar said. Cuellar said he and Gutierrez support the oil and gas industry because it sustains thousands of jobs in the state.  

Allowing these jobs to remain means allowing oil and gas facilities to continue operating; allowing them to keep operating means allowing them to continue emitting ozone-forming emissions, a reporter pointed out. Ozone is a key ingredient of smog that irritates and damages the lungs and has been tied to chronic conditions such as asthma. 

Because efforts to reduce smog and improve air quality locally over the past three years have been insufficient, Bexar County will be bumped from “marginal” to “moderate” ozone nonattainment likely in early 2022, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials said Monday.

The new designation means San Antonio will face new air quality regulatory requirements with intensified federal oversight. Despite state data showing CPS Energy’s power plants have lowered their emissions between 2014 to 2019, they are still among the top sources of ozone-forming emissions in the region.

Cuellar said that as a member of the Appropriations Committee, he’s “added millions and millions of dollars for technology” focused on clean energy goals such as carbon capture and storage, to further reduce emissions.  

“Can we do better? Of course we can, and I’ve sat down with the energy folks and said, ‘Guys, we’ve got to do better,’” Cuellar said. “Hopefully when we do the big reconciliation, we look at clean energy. I’m hoping that natural gas can be part of that clean energy, but again, let’s do it in a way that we don’t attack the oil and gas industry.”

Gutierrez said he and Cuellar are not only focused on oil and gas though; they would like to see the state further diversify its energy sources. Texas is already a leader in wind energy, and has the potential to become one in solar energy as well, Gutierrez said.

Cuellar said he will continue to work with Gutierrez and his state counterparts to “modernize [the] electric grid,” and “build energy resilience” to keep Texans safe during extreme weather events. In a press release Wednesday, Cuellar boasted that he helped secure $100 million in Build Back Better Challenge Grant funds to go toward national power infrastructure and clean energy technologies.

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report. A native San Antonian, she graduated from Texas A&M University in 2016 with a degree in telecommunication media...