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What Texas Will and Won’t Say: Our Look at the Panhandle Fires Investigative Report

By Adrian Shelley

February is a bad month for extreme weather in Texas. 

In February 2021, Winter Storm Uri – one of the worst winter storms in Texas history – hit. Two years later, also in February, a smaller storm caused havoc in part of the state. 

Then, this past February, the largest wildfire in Texas history burned in the Panhandle. Three people died in the Smokehouse Creek Fire, which burned more than a million acres before it was contained. Four more fires followed in two days: Grape Vine Creek, Windy Deuce, 2277, and Reamer Creek. 

What is happening in Texas? Concerning the wildfires, a special legislative committee sought answers while regrettably ignoring some hard truths.

At the direction of Speaker Dade Phelan, the Texas House Select Investigative Committee on the Panhandle Wildfires was created to investigate and its report was released at the beginning of May. As we feared, the committee’s report failed to mention climate change a single time. The Legislature is after all more likely to protect the state’s powerful fossil fuel interests than it is to take meaningful steps to address the changing climate.

Several causes of wildfires were listed: abundant fuel and a lack of fire breaks, decaying utility poles, and irresponsible oil and gas operators. The report also cites unusual weather conditions–high temperatures, low humidity, and severe wind.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association directly attributes these conditions to climate change, “Research has shown that climate change is likely causing the fire season to start earlier and extend longer.”

But not the Texas Legislature.

It is an egregious oversight that the wildfire report fails to acknowledge climate change. How can Texas rise to the challenge if it is afraid to name what makes such fires more likely?

Though it ignored climate, the report lists four factors contributing to the Panhandle wildfires. 

Downed power lines and decayed poles cause most fires

The report accuses two companies of being the main culprits behind the Smokehouse Creek fire. A tree wore down power lines on a decayed pole owned by Xcel Energy. A service company–Osmose Utility Service–had identified the pole as needing replacement, but nothing was done. 

The Grape Vine Creek Fire, the Windy Deuce Fire, and the Reamer Creek Fire were all caused by failing power poles. Local utility companies are responsible for maintaining poles and lines. The report tasks the Public Utility Commission of Texas with studying and reporting on its procedures to ensure that poles are inspected, restored, and replaced as needed.

The Railroad Commission is “grossly deficient” in oversight of oil and gas wells

Many decayed poles and failing wires were traced back to oil and gas wells. Thousands of wells in the panhandle produce only a few hydrocarbons. Irresponsible operators often neglect these marginal or “stripper” wells, which end up orphaned or abandoned. Many have electrical equipment–breaker boxes, wiring, and poles–failing even as power flows through them.

One landowner testified to the select committee that 85% of the fires on his property were sparked at oil and gas sites.

The Texas Railroad Commission–the agency tasked with regulating oil and gas operations in the state–was typically clueless or feigning cluelessness. A commission executive who testified before the select committee was “unaware” that oil and gas operations were causing wildfires across the Panhandle.

The committee recommended that the Railroad Commission “revisit” its system for prioritizing which orphaned wells to address first. 

But what’s going wrong here? Is it that the Railroad Commission isn’t good at predicting which wells are most likely to cause one disaster or another? Or is it that there are simply too many orphaned wells in Texas? The Railroad Commission hardly keeps pace with the rate of newly  orphaned wells, and they allow active operators to delay well plugging practically indefinitely. In Texas, more than 16,000 inactive wells have been abandoned for twenty years or more.

The real problem is obvious, even if the select committee fails to call it out: the Railroad Commission isn’t doing its job and isn’t even aware of the problems it creates. 

Models and predictions are failing

The Texas A&M Forest Service (TAMFS) is responsible for predicting wildfires. However, TAMFS didn’t expect the devastating fires of February.

According to the longtime chief of the Texas Department of Emergency Management, Nim Kidd, neither did the federal government. He asserts that the feds didn’t take the fire risk in February seriously.

TAMFS Director Al Davis called the February wildfires “a new phenomenon.” For people living in the heart of Texas wildfire country, exceptionally hot, dry weather is becoming the norm. It’s no wonder that Panhandle residents were confused by Davis’ remarks. Maybe he should just call it what it is–climate change. 

Davis’ colleagues at Texas A&M’s Office of the Texas State Climatologist have identified an alarming warming trend in Texas–3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1975. The office’s report, last updated in 2021, is unafraid to recognize climate change as the cause. 

If our predictions and models will work, they need to be based on the best available science. That includes accounting for climate change’s undeniable impacts.

Mitigation works, but there’s no money for it

There are proven strategies to lessen the impact of wildfires, including suppression lines, fire breaks, green strips, safety zones for firefighters, sprinklers, and training programs. All of these strategies have something in common: they cost money.

Fire prevention and mitigation is woefully underfunded in Texas. Nowhere is it more apparent than in our volunteer fire departments (VFDs). In 2002, the Legislature created a funding program for rural VFDs. But the $23 million allocated last year simply wasn’t enough. The select committee report prioritizes funding VFDs and vesting authority to fight fires with them and their allies in local government. 

Other concerns exist

The select committee report also identifies other concerns. Aviation support is challenging to arrange in time. Agencies cannot communicate with each other because they use different or outdated equipment.

The report also claims federal vehicle pollution emission standards are to blame for fire truck failures. Fire trucks in rural areas often go long periods without being used. When they are deployed, they often idle for long periods. The report claims that these driving conditions lead to failures in firetrucks with emissions systems that use diesel exhaust fluid (DEF). 

The report refers to these failures as a “potentially lethal danger to firefighters.” But it doesn’t cite a specific example of such a failure or its consequences. It might have happened, and knowing how significant the risk might be is important.

This is because, on the other hand, the risk of operating diesel engines without pollution controls is well known. Some weighing of impacts must happen here. But the Texas Legislature has a history of hyperbole when attacking federal rules it doesn’t like. State regulators have railed against clean car standards from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for decades. Given this history, we’d like to see evidence of the risk of fire truck failures before endorsing a blanket exemption from emissions controls.

Legislative recommendations

The report includes many good suggestions for addressing Texas’ wildfire problem. Here are a few suggestions within our areas of expertise that we think could be addressed by the Texas Legislature next year. Each seeks accountability for the industries that cause wildfires and the agencies that fail to regulate them.

Oil and gas operators
Oil and gas operators are already required to remove equipment and disconnect electricity from inactive well sites. But state regulations are too weak to compel action consistently and in a timely manner. The Legislature could impose liability on any owner or operator whose negligence causes a wildfire. The report suggests that the Texas Department of Insurance should study this approach.

The Railroad Commission
Reprioritizing the list of orphaned wells to clean up is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The Railroad Commission was clueless about the link between abandoned wells and wildfires. Abandoned wells also cause methane leaks, groundwater contamination, and surface breakouts. Let’s get rid of them. The legislature should fund the Railroad Commission to remediate all orphaned wells as soon as possible. Then the agency can focus on other challenges, like the 150,000 shut-in and inactive wells that active operators are still responsible for. 

Utility companies
Utility companies simply are not maintaining their power poles and lines. This was the biggest cause of the Panhandle Wildfires, according to the investigative report. Several companies, including Xcel and Osmoses, are being sued for their role in this year’s wildfires. These suits may be a wake-up call to the industry, although they could take years to resolve.  State regulators need to step in to direct the companies to act.

The Public Utility Commission
The PUC must oversee action by utility companies to remediate wildfire risk from their equipment. However, the agency lacks a budget to inspect power lines, and state law doesn’t allow the agency to conduct such inspections anyway. The report asks the PUC to study and report on how it can ensure that local utilities are doing the necessary work. Indeed, a PUC study would help, but clearly, the Legislature could also fund and authorize the agency to take a more active role in this work. 

The House Select Committee has done significant work identifying the causes and suggesting solutions for Texas’ awful wildfires. But didn’t we know that abandoned oil wells and rotting power poles were dangerous?

It feels a bit like our lawmakers are missing the obvious. It’s like refusing to say the words on everyone’s lips during any extreme weather event today–climate change. 

Adrian Shelley is the Texas director of Public Citizen