In February, Kansas plummeted into some of its coldest temperatures on record. Families and businesses across the state were forced to go without heat and power, and utility companies used rolling power outages to conserve energy and lessen the demand on its systems. A combination of widespread and prolonged cold temperatures reduced production from multiple energy sources and a sudden demand for natural gas sent energy prices soaring.
Communities have already started declaring financial emergencies and homeowners and small business owners are also realizing the true cost of the crisis.
While speaking with energy stakeholders in Kansas over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that natural gas traded for more than 100-percent its normal price. Utilities did everything they could to keep the lights on and the gas flowing. But for small, rural communities, the price tag for the week will likely triple their annual budget for natural gas, and homeowners have received bills that are in some cases upwards of 100 times their normal cost.
As part of the recently passed American Rescue Plan, Congress directed over $350 billion to state and local governments to address ongoing issues related to the pandemic. I am engaging with U.S. Treasury Secretary Yellen urging the Department to provide state and local governments with the flexibility to use these funds to address the ongoing energy crisis. A $10,000 utility bill would be tough under normal circumstances, but the economic challenges brought on by this pandemic makes this catastrophe even more devastating for families and communities still trying to recover.
February’s wild weather highlighted the vulnerabilities of our energy infrastructure. Sustained cold temperatures stressed our system and unfortunately, we learned that it can break. Shortly after the cold snap, I requested a hearing in the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. During that hearing, I had an opportunity to question energy experts on exactly why we saw record-setting energy prices followed by a precipitous drop in gas prices. Many Kansans were left in a vulnerable financial position, but market trends suggest the possibility of certain actors making dramatic financial gains off of the misfortunate situation.
The question remains: did market manipulation occur when our energy system broke down? While the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) investigates any wrong doing, the job of Kansas energy producers is to continue increasing resiliency and ensuring the breakdown of our energy system never happens again.
Kansas is home to diverse energy sources. From petroleum to ethanol to wind energy and nuclear, our state has an abundance of resources to heat and power our homes and business. Efforts by past state and federal Administrations have pushed the growth of renewable energy sources, often at the expense of some of our state’s reliable and proven energy reserves, including coal and nuclear power generation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, wind power now generates more than 40 percent of our state’s energy. However, during the coldest days of the crisis, the Southwest Power Pool reported that wind generated just a tenth of its normal production because of the inability of wind turbines to operate in freezing conditions. Energy stakeholders in Kansas will remind you that while wind provides power, its coal and nuclear energy generation that are necessary for consistent generation. When we remove our reliable energy sources, we easily fall victim to the impacts of adverse weather conditions.
Reliable energy and the environment are not on opposite sides of this debate. American innovation has helped this country reach a 25-year low in carbon production and we are only becoming more environmentally friendly in our practices and technologies. We can and should find the sweet spot of protecting our environment while ensuring Kansans remain warm when temperatures dip below freezing.
As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I want to remain focused on preserving our diverse energy portfolio and guaranteeing that all forms of energy continue to be productive. This means we cannot push out entire modes of energy production – like coal and petroleum – at the expense of an all-renewable energy portfolio. America has the resources and innovation to keep all forms of energy flowing and that diversity will ensure the lights stay on, no matter the weather.
Roger Marshall, M.D., represents Kansas in the U.S. Senate