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Corporation Commission Issues Emergency Order To Help Power, Gas Systems Strained By Winter Storms

Oklahoma Corporation Commission

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission issued an emergency order late Wednesday telling gas and power companies to prioritize their service during prolonged freezing temperatures.

The order does not direct companies to cut off anyone specifically.

"But we are directing them that if a choice comes up and they have to decide between public health and safety to divert gas or to send it somewhere that’s not for public health and safety that they need to choose the people, the human needs over whatever the other thing is," said Public Utility Division Director Brandy Wreath.

The order is largely aimed at stabilizing the multistate grid Oklahoma draws power from. That could include gas companies diverting fuel from industrial customers to power plants, for example. OG&E attorney Bill Humes said they prioritize "people over widgets" anyway, but the order could provide legal cover if they have to break a contract.

"I think an order of the commission that shows the solidarity of the commissioners would be a nice thing to be able to hold up in a courtroom should it get to that point," Humes told commissioners during their emergency meeting.

The Southwest Power Pool has issued alerts this week directing electric companies to use planned outages to keep it from failing, and thousands of Oklahomans had their power shut off with temperatures well below freezing.

"It was -8 degrees, and my electricity was off for an hour. And within 10 to 15 minutes, the temperature dropped drastically in my home, and I have a 1-year-old and a 12-year-old," Alesia Wright told commissioners.

Two of three commissioners — Todd Hiett and Dana Murphy — signed the order. Murphy said they’ve taken several unprecedented actions in the past year to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and didn’t have to take this one.

"But it seemed like the right thing to do and to gather information and to send a message to the public we’re on duty," Murphy said.

Commissioner Bob Anthony declined to sign the order, saying it could hurt businesses that rely on natural gas deliveries.

"I believe that there are unintended consequences that we will face, and I have concerns about interference with contracts," Anthony said.

The order is in effect through Saturday unless the Southwest Power Pool issues another alert Saturday saying rolling blackouts are necessary to keep its electrical grid from failing. The order would then be extended until 24 hours after the alert expires.

The order also directs utilities to work with their customers to reduce energy use through steps like turning down thermostats and turning off unnecessary lighting, including in unused parking areas and on billboards.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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