by Cassandra Pollock and Shawn Mulcahy, The Texas Tribune.
Abbott said in a statement that he asked for and accepted D’Andrea’s resignation and plans to name “a replacement in the coming days who will have the responsibility of charting a new and fresh course for the agency.” D’Andrea’s resignation will be effective immediately upon the appointment of a successor, according to a copy of D’Andrea’s resignation letter that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.
He is the latest in a long line of officials who have left the PUC or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since last month’s deadly winter storm plunged large swaths of Texas into subfreezing temperatures and overwhelmed the state’s electricity infrastructure, causing massive power outages. At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of the storm — most of them from hypothermia — according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.
The reason for D’Andrea’s resignation was not immediately clear late Tuesday. It came hours after Texas Monthly reported that he told out-of-state investors on a call he would work to throw “the weight of the commission” behind stopping calls to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during the storm. The cost of electricity last month has emerged as a hot-button issue in this year’s legislative session after an independent market monitor estimated that the electric grid operator overbilled power companies around the time of the storm.
On Monday, the Texas Senate suspended its own rules to quickly pass a bill to force the PUC to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during the winter storm. D’Andrea has publicly resisted such calls.
The PUC regulates the state’s electric, telecommunication and water and sewer utilities. D’Andrea was promoted to chair by Abbott less than two weeks ago to replace the chair at the time, DeAnn Walker, who resigned at the beginning of the month over fallout related to the winter storm. The other commissioner, Shelly Botkin, resigned a week after Walker.
According to a recording of the call obtained by Texas Monthly, D’Andrea at one point said he expected to remain the sole member of the commission for now, adding he did not think Abbott would want to appoint new commissioners during the legislative session since the Senate would have to confirm appointees.
“I went from being on a very hot seat to having one of the safest jobs in Texas,” D’Andrea said during the call. “I think it’s just going to be me for a while.”
A spokesperson for the commission did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A lawyer by trade, D’Andrea previously served as assistant general counsel to Abbott.
Until last month, the PUC operated largely outside of the limelight. Though the agency held regular public meetings, they were usually sparsely attended and often featured arcane policy discussions that could last for six to eight hours.
D’Andrea has fielded criticism over the repricing debate at the Legislature — and was grilled by Lt. Gov Dan Patrick himself during a Senate hearing Thursday, a highly unusual move by the head of the Texas Senate.
The next day, a spokesperson for Abbott said the governor “absolutely” still remained confident in D’Andrea’s ability to chair the commission. Hours later Friday, Patrick called on Abbott to “intercede” and replace D’Andrea.
“Texans deserve to have trust and confidence in the Public Utility Commission, and this action is one of many steps that will be taken to achieve that goal,” Abbott said Tuesday night.
Several bills have been filed in the aftermath of the power outages, yet there’s no clear understanding of who’s at fault and no consensus on what should be done. And beyond Austin, congressional subcommittees have launched their own investigations into February’s events and into the state’s electric grid operator.
At the height of the power crisis, nearly 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses were without power. That’s because nearly half of the total power generation capacity for the main state electricity grid was offline as weather conditions caused failures in every type of power source: natural gas, coal, wind and nuclear.
The PUC is one of the state’s smaller agencies, with about 170 full-time employees. By contrast, the Texas Railroad Commission — the state’s oil and natural gas regulator — employs about five times as many people.
Under normal circumstances, the utility regulator is helmed by a three-person board, each of whom is appointed by the governor and subject to approval by the Texas Senate. Commissioners have small teams of advisers and are bound by a strict set of laws laid out in the Public Utility Regulatory Act, or PURA. So much as a stray hallway conversation is a violation of open meeting requirements.
During a PUC meeting last week, as the last remaining commissioner, D’Andrea heard more than 20 minutes of public testimony, soared through the agenda and even voted on a couple of items. It lasted fewer than 45 minutes.
This is not the first time the PUC served with one commissioner. In 2001, Max Yzaguirre served on the commission alone after Pat Wood’s term expired and Judy Walsh resigned. PURA, the agency’s governing law, states that “a vacancy or disqualification does not prevent the remaining commissioner or commissioners from exercising the powers of the commission.”
The PUC is scheduled to meet again Thursday.