During Winter Storm Uri in February 2021, Oklahomans witnessed a massive explosion in natural gas prices over a few day period. Major utilities purchased more gas by cost in a few days than they do in a year. Instead of investigating price gouging, clawing back excessive profits or demanding utilities that were ill-prepared for winter weather pay part of the burden, the government of Oklahoma passed Securitization laws that force Oklahomans to pay additional utility fees for the next 25+ years to pay for these natural gas charges incurred in Feb 2021. This is a story of how a three-day storm turned into decades of debt for all Oklahomans.
Since the storm, our electricity and gas bills have risen dramatically. All together, Oklahomans were hit with the largest single tax increase in history. More than $4 billion dollars will be paid out over the next 25+ years. This was a market failure, not an infrastructure one. Gas kept flowing, electricity was produced (except for brief interruptions), we just paid way, way more for it and now have a generation worth of bond payments to show for it. Below, we lay out how the Stitt administration guided this process from the beginning and failed to protect Oklahomans.
Southwest Power Pool Crisis Calendar with Major Events
Electricity Supply and Demand During Winter Storm Uri
Natural Gas Spot Market Prices
Through a series of public records requests and candid conversations, Oklahoma Progress Now has obtained never before seen emails, text messages, audio recordings and presentations showing how this happened and who was most likely responsible. We will unpack Oklahoma’s response to Winter Storm Uri. We have identified who wrote and supported the earliest versions of the Securitization laws forcing Oklahomans to pay these astronomical bills, who benefited the most from this arrangement and who failed to hold anyone accountable for their failures or the massive costs to Oklahoma families.
This is a story of regulatory capture, gross mismanagement by utilities, government incompetence and unbridled corruption at the highest levels of Oklahoma government. Dozens of public officials, politicians and industry insiders colluded to soak Oklahoma ratepayers with decades of costs without doing the most basic due diligence or asking any questions that oppose the interests of private energy company profits. Our cost recovery from Winter Storm Uri has been the worst in the nation (Cost Recovery Study) and elected leaders protected powerful corporate interests at our expense.
Oklahoma Progress Now submitted four open records requests seeking texts, emails and documents relating to Securitization and communications from key players. As far as requests go, we were specific. We received one complete response from the Secretary of Energy in a timely manner. We received a majority response from the Corporation Commission. To date, only Commissioner Hiett still has not responded. We got a complete dodge from the Commerce Department via the Governor's office. We also received no response from the Attorney General's office and the last communication more than two months after confirming they received the request and several follow ups was that the person who responds to these is having shoulder surgery. This is certainly in violation of the spirit of the law, if not the letter of it, something the AG should know.
Sept 1st Commerce Department Response
Start of the Blame Game
While many are to blame, that blame is not shared equally among the players. The Stitt administration, the Corporation Commission, the legislature, specifically Sen Kim David and Sen Greg Treat and Attorney General Hunter bear the most responsibility. In our research, utility executives, regulatory staff and energy interests had seats at the table, while consumer advocates and regular citizens largely watched from the sidelines.
The questions of when and where need to be answered before who. The timeline on this is absurd by legislative standards. Winter Storm Uri peaked in the days around Valentine’s Day 2021. Over a three-day period, Oklahoma utilities and private contract customers paid astronomical prices for natural gas when markets started to breakdown. There are complicated reasons this happened, mostly relating to corporate greed and incompetence, but we never got to address those, we jumped straight to how are we going to pay for it. The most concerning part is that key leaders knew this!
Securitization has been used in other states, like Florida and Texas, but usually for things like major infrastructure damage from a hurricane. Oklahoma did not suffer infrastructure damage. Things froze and then a few days later they unfroze. That's it. The costs incurred in Oklahoma were massive profits. There was no material reason to pay $4.5B, just broken natural gas markets and bad contracts.
The legislation (SB 1049 and SB 1050) was written between the end of February and early April. This is lightning fast by legislative standards. It was then passed and signed into law by Gov Kevin Stitt in less than two weeks from when the actual bill language was introduced. Debate and discussion on the largest tax increase in Oklahoma history, more than $4.5B paid out over more than 25 years, was barely discussed. Legislators had the serious concerns the day before the vote. A mechanism to assume all responsibility to pay these highly questionable gas bills was made law of the land. At this point, we didn’t even know the names of the companies who got paid!
Within days, OG&E was lobbying the commission to advance its agenda. The President of OG&E, lobbyists and others started sending letters, emails and public messaging demanding payment for the extreme gas purchases. The Securitization timeline advanced quickly.
Working the Refs
Within days of the freeze, utility company analysts, lobbyists and even the CEO went to work to protect their interests. Complex corporate relationships and structures that are never questioned or analyzed make it very difficult to determine where and how these companies make their profit but they are profitable. Very profitable. In the week following the storm, utility companies start a full court press on regulators to push for payment for the fuel charges they assumed.
In the available communications between state agencies, regulators and utility companies there is virtually no mention of price gouging, market manipulation, excessive profits or unnecessary exposure to natural gas spot markets. OG&E, ONG, PSO and others just bought natural gas at hundreds of times the normal price and there are virtually no questions asked in the immediate aftermath about how they let something like this happen.
Letter from OG&E President Sean Trauschke
Emails from OG&E to Corporation Commission saying they plan to recover costs immediately at great expense to ratepayers
These emails are noteworthy, mostly because of their very quick timing, the oddly familiar and rosy tone and their very specific request for what they want. Mind you, we did not have a list of who got paid for nearly one year but they managed to send these very direct communications to both regulators and the public before we'd fully thawed.
In the race to make us pay, legislators, regulators and Stitt fail to heed their own concerns.
While the timeline on this process was incredibly compressed, it was obvious from early on that a wide variety of Republican political leaders had explicit concerns about the fuel charges, including price gouging and market manipulation, and they ignored them. Below are a series of text message between Brandy Wreath, Director of the Public Utilities Division and Secretary of Energy, Ken Wagner as well as messaging between Kevin Stitt and Wagner. We've highlighted and added captions for context but the long story short is that in the days during the crisis, a lot of people were very concerned about price gouging and market manipulation.
Markwayne Mullin text from Brandy Wreath to Sec Ken Wagner
Sen. Shane Jett texts from Gov Kevin Stitt to Sec Ken Wagner
Kevin Stitt to Sec Ken Wagner
Rep Lonnie Sims to Rep Garry Mize
Brandy Wreath to Rep Lonnie Sims
The number of people ignoring their own good sense in a rush to get this done was staggering. Emails and texts from Brandy Wreath, Rep Markwayne Mullin, Governor Stitt, the Secretary of Energy, members of the Oklahoma House and random members of the public all show immediate as well as ongoing concerns about price gouging and potential costs to consumers. Within days, they started to change course, downplay concerns and ultimately ignore them. There are also concerns that specific questions raised by legislators were ignored by regulators as seen in the emails above and that some research done by the Corporation Commission might not have reached key decision makers.
This Securitization Research Document shows real concerns about the proposal and first appeared on 2/24/2021, just days after the freeze.
Under the list of “Cons” for securitization, is that securitized charges are "irrevocable." This information would suggest that it could stop any investigations into market manipulation or price gouging. It certainly creates a mechanism by which utilities can recover cost that don't involve going back to price gouging suppliers and renegotiating. Whether or not this information reached a wider audience is uncertain and deeply concerning.
State regulators with direct input from utility lobbyists and executives set about trying to pass a securitization law to make ratepayers pay. Emails and presentations show that utilities immediately invoked outlandish scare tactics to get payment. Mock bills showing ratepayers paying thousands of dollars were drawn up and sent to regulators and policymakers directly from utility regulatory analysts.
On March 3, ONG sends mock bills to the PUD Director to use to scare policymakers.
These fake bills would have been impossible for most families to pay and the utilities know it. They also would not have been able to go into effect without several regulatory steps to question the prudence and reasonableness of recovery of fuel charges and the ability of the Corporation Commission to stop it. It was a coordinated fear campaign to convince Stitt, regulators and legislators to pass securitization quickly, before we even knew publicly who had been paid for those fuel charges.
Who wrote and supported Securitization?
The primary architects of the law seem to be the Oklahoma AG’s office, the Governor, the Corporation Commission and the Senate. The Corporation Commission Public Utilities Director, Brandy Wreath, was in communication with utility companies, but interestingly, so was the Governor’s office, Commerce Department, possibly the AG and legislators throughout the process.
The first known draft of Securitization appeared on 2/23/2021 (link here). This appeared in a memo from a young attorney at the AG's office, Jared Haines, three days after the temperatures started to warm up. On an email from 2/24/2021 (link here), the Secretary of State, Brian Bingman, an oil and gas guy, former Pro Tem of the Senate and a Stitt appointee as well as Ken Wagner the Secretary of Energy, got the draft the next day. That email states it was in the hands of Stitt's Chief of Staff (and presumably the Governor himself) shortly there after.
This bill language, never before seen in Oklahoma, would convert $4.5B in overpriced gas to a long term debt instrument and it was in the governor's hands within 4 days of the crisis before people could even get their burst pipes fixed. The second draft that got sent widely to the legislature and other key players happened a few days later on 3/4/2021 (link here).
The text and email messages above from federal legislators like Markwayne Mullin and State legislators like Sen Shane Jett, Rep Lonnie Simms and even Stitt himself immediately started raising the alarm about price gouging and extreme fuel charges. OG&E and ONG staffers ramped up their fear-based campaign of misinformation pushing aggressively to simply pay the fuel charges.
In addition to the emails above by OG&E saying they would seek to recover fuel charges immediately and pushing that to customers, OG&E also tried to make their potential for a credit rating downgrade the Corporation Commission's problem.
There are also emails from the Commerce Department that utilities were complaining to them and that they planned to listen in on their quarterly earnings calls. Stitt's Commerce Department put out this very curious analysis in a file dated 2/25/2021 already calling for Securitization.
Instead of state regulators demanding that our utilities address why they'd left themselves so exposed to the commodity markets or offering to eat some of the cost or aid investigators in finding out what really happened during those few days, utilities raced to change laws to put it on ratepayers.
While these emails don't show anything illegal, it definitely shows that OG&E was in a mighty big rush to get paid before the ice had even melted. In business, payment terms can often be put out months. Big deals can take years to sort out. The utilities were looking to get paid, as fast as possible and their focus was exclusively on shifting that burden to taxpayers.
The Attorney General’s office, who is statutorily required to represent ratepayers in these types of cases before the Corporation Commission but also enforces laws around price gouging and abuse of the public good, instead provided assistance in the form of legal work to draft the legislation. They helped figure out how they could legally pay the fuel charges instead of first, investigating price gouging or clawing back excessive profits gained from a natural disaster.
As the AG's office did not respond to our request, we are potentially missing context here but given that an assistant AG had the first known version of Securitization on 2/23/2021 AND was responsible for forwarding concerns about price gouging as of 2/16/2021 (see below), that is more than a little concerning. In a conversation with Jared Haines in May 2021, he did seem interested in those investigations but many ships had already sailed by then. When John O'Connor was appointed by Stitt in June, all discussion of investigations died and Securitization was heading toward the finish line via the Corporation Commission and Supreme Court.
Ultimately though, it is our lawmakers and Governor who had to craft the legislation and sign the bill into law. Based on the responses we received, it is clear that the Oklahoma House of Representatives was further removed, even though legally, revenue raising measures should originate there. Instead, it is the State Senate under the leadership of Greg Treat and Kim David, who termed out this year and is now running for Corporation Commissioner, who led the charge legislatively. Sen David, in the clip below, explicitly uses the fear mongering lines of the utilities to make her case for repping Securitization.
Sen James Leewright presser:
Sen Kim David debate:
It cannot be overstated the involvement of the Governor’s office and his appointees. Ken Wagner, Stitt’s Secretary of Energy, was involved from the start as was Stitt’s communications chief and the Governor himself. In public messaging around the disaster, Stitt’s message shifts from one of conservation during the crisis to one of protecting ratepayers from excessive charges to one of figuring out how to pay these bills in shocking speed.
Here are relevant clips of Kevin Stitt and Ken Wagner's evolving position on the utility cost crisis from a series of press conferences they gave from 2/12-22/2021:
Governor Stitt himself in the days around the crisis expressed concern about "sticking taxpayers with the costs" but then signed the legislation that forced them to do just that. Within 6 weeks of the storm, Governor Stitt signed the laws that required us to pay on these charges for the next 25+ years.
Who benefited from exorbitant gas charges during the Winter Storm and from the Securitization process?
Who benefited is a critical question. Our government left many options on the table and in their rush to get something done, ignored many glaring red flags that came at our expense.
It took almost a year for the Corporation Commission to release it, but in early 2022, a list of companies and payments was eventually made available to the public. We had already passed the Securitization law committing taxpayers to repayment before we even knew who got paid! The highlighted ones are relevant later.
Large companies paid for natural gas during Feb 2021 freeze
It was almost all a bunch of large out-of-state gas suppliers, midstream companies and marketing companies that were able to sell us gas at exactly the right time for hundreds of times the normal cost. Market manipulation, price gouging and other malfeasance was never truly investigated and a look at these companies’ influence and spending may explain why.
Large, national companies like Nextera, Tenaska Marketing Ventures, SW Energy, Exelon Energy, Chevron and Koch Energy got more than a billion dollars for natural gas they sold during the crisis. All this while providing zero extra value. The natural gas spot market merely exploded during an extraordinary weather event and profits went to hundreds of times their normal amount. Instead of questioning the structure of the market, the exposure of utilities to price shocks or if there was price manipulation or gouging, we jumped straight to payouts.
There is also the matter of regulatory capture at both the State Capitol but also the Corporation Commission. Legislators and the Governor are used to a parade of well paid lobbyists greasing the wheels for their clients. In the case of the companies directly involved in either utility work or energy supply, their presence at the Capitol is extensive and campaign contributions are large and frequent.
There are many financial ties between companies that made hundreds of millions of dollars and various legislators, Stitt, and potential Corporation Commissioners. For example, Sen Kim David, a powerful Senator in her own right, received maximum contributions from several of these companies for her run for Corporation Commission. There are likely many more connections under different names and entities. The highlighted companies above, appear frequently on lobbyist reports and contribution reports to very powerful legislators, Corporation Commissioners and the executive branch. These reports on cover from Jan '21 to July '22.
According to our research, several of the companies paid the most during Winter Storm Uri, also employ some of the most influential lobbyists in the business and also donate prolifically to candidates and campaigns. OG&E and ONG for sure, but also Nextera, Tenaska, Koch Industries, Exelon and others have huge teams at the Capitol protecting their interests. These lobbyists include long-time Republican political consultant and dark money spender, Pat McFerron, Jim Dunlap, Tonya Lee, former State Treasurer Ken Miller who is now with OG&E and several other well-known names with many clients. Here is the 2022 list of lobbyists.
In emails between OG&E, ONG and regulators, there is a level of trust in the utilities’ claims and collaboration that is simply inappropriate. Utility companies, who run in the same circles and use the same lobbyists as the companies they paid for overpriced gas, were sending mock bills made to scare people as well as direct to customer communication. Before the temperatures had even warmed up, utilities were working the refs and using scare tactics around their ability to finance debt to push for immediate payment instead of figuring out what really happened.
Government dysfunction, run entirely by Oklahoma Republicans, was a big player. The Corporation Commission, Attorney General, Legislature and Governor all have various mandates and charges in their founding documents to protect the public interest. That is the job of the government. The Corporation Commission is incredibly powerful as they have to regulate large corporations who often have considerable market power due to the capital intensive nature of their business and inability to have true competition. Instead of holding their feet to the fire or saving taxpayers money as Republicans often claim, the entire group rushed to arrive at an answer of how to make us pay over many years.
Now dark money groups are popping up to argue we should deregulate like Texas. This would obviously be a mistake as had folks had simply done their jobs, we could have gotten a better deal. Deregulation leaves all the decisions up to unelected boards and insiders, while a version of that is happening now, what happened in Texas was worse.
Utility shareholders, energy sector profits, and executives who badly mismanaged the natural disaster were never brought in and made to share the burden. In fact, in September of 2021, several energy companies and utilities gave presentations at the Corporation Commission that were so embarrassingly short and lacking any detail or commitment as to be laughable. All of the costs were shifted to taxpayers in the form of decades long bonds.
It is too much to go into here as this is already long enough, but there is a whole lot to unpack on the financial side. The Treasury Department, which is run by a statewide elected position, currently Randy McDaniel, and the Department of Commerce, whose director, Brent Kisling, was appointed by Gov Stitt, played big roles at various points. Now these Departments along with Oklahoma Development Finance Authority (ODFA) are responsible for managing billions of dollars in bond sales to Wall Street and other financial interests. A complicated array of finance people are involved in this. People once employed at state jobs in the Department of Commerce and Treasury Departments are showing up at private equity firms who are buying these bonds. These firms stand to make millions of dollars in fees and may be rewarding key players for a job well done. More investigation is required.
Who failed to protect Oklahomans?
The finger pointing has been significant but at various points, different people and branches had incredible power to change course and failed to do so. Despite their own early concerns! Many of them are up for election in November and voters can immediately air their displeasure.
The Governor and the Senate bear the most responsibility. Without their crafting of the bill, guiding it through the process so quickly and ultimately Stitt signing it, there might have been time to question this. Legislative bodies are supposed to be deliberative and slow for a reason. They passed this in record time.
Governor Stitt’s appointees and communications team were integral in managing expectations and controlling the narrative. You can watch as Stitt expresses early concerns via text but quickly changes his tune from one of protecting ratepayers to one of sticking them with the bill.
The Governor’s office seems to be realizing their mistakes. In requesting information for this piece, we sent similar open records requests to the Corporation Commission, Attorney General, Secretary of Energy and the Department of Commerce, in hindsight, we should have included the Treasury as well. We only received two responses, the Corporation Commission and Secretary of Energy and our last communication from the Department of Commerce was that the Governor’s office was taking over responding now. They never responded.
In the Senate, Kim David, who is running for Corporation Commission and has taken huge sums of campaign contributions from utility and energy industry interests, was Majority Leader in the Senate and on the committee that wrote the law. Greg Treat is the Pro Tem. Both were copied on the earliest known versions of the law. The utilities had already taken loans for the fuel charges, there was no rush to pay anyone, they just wanted it off their books and on our backs. Sen David and Sen Treat made it happen.
Kim David's Corporation Commission Ethics report is a who's who of utility, energy executive and lobbying interests. Campaigns cost money but she is running against a relative unknown in Democratic nominee Warigia Bowman and frankly, it should be extra concerning when the regulatory hen house is guarded by someone financed entirely by foxes. Given her stated preference for and closeness to the Securitization laws, this six year position is a fine reward for a job well done.
The Corporation Commission failed to protect consumers. John Oliver of Last Week Tonight did an excellent explainer on utilities and the topic of regulatory capture recently.
You would struggle to find a better example of it than this Securitization mess. Electricity and gas utilities with complex corporate structures and interests in the supply, distribution and storage of natural gas were all around this process. Under no circumstances should the entity being regulated have that kind of unfettered, casual relationship with their regulators. The fundamental argument at the Corporation Commission is around whether costs were prudent and reasonable and getting overcharged by hundreds of times seems like neither.
As a three-person body, it only takes two votes to make a ruling. Bob Anthony voted against this (and has said much more since) but was overruled by Dana Murphy and Todd Hiett. Murphy is term limited so the next Corporation Commissioner could be a second vote for Anthony to protect consumers. As mentioned, Democrat Warigia Bowman is running against Kim David.
The Attorney General’s office was missing in action. While Mike Hunter didn’t have a lot of direct influence over the legislative process, he was supposed to represent ratepayers at the Corporation Commission hearings later that year. Unfortunately, he resigned in disgrace that summer. The assistant AG assigned to this project, Jared Haines, did have a lot of input in the regulatory process. Most of it was directly aiding utilities in getting their desired legislative relief. The first known draft comes from him. He was also responsible for taking price gouging complaints which is deeply concerning as Securitization ended most investigations into gouging.
After Hunter, Stitt appointed John O’Connor who didn’t lift a finger to oppose any part of the process. In fact, he was so negligent, he failed to even sign an order to question OG&E’s request to securitize their debt and got called out by the Supreme Court for not doing his job. The AG refused to respond to the records request.
The Supreme Court was the last line of defense. They had to determine if Securitization was constitutional. Unfortunately, they ignored the public outcry, blamed the Attorney General, then ruled to move it onward. They are up on a retention ballot in November.
What can we do now?
First, there is an election coming up November 8th and electoral heads need to roll!
If Gov Stitt is reelected, he must address this crisis. The buck stops there, he signed the law and Stitt’s office was on this from the jump. First, making promises about bills not going up and then making sure corporations got paid. He signed the Securitization bill into law. Kevin Stitt signed a $4.5B tax increase with more than a 25 year payment term in less than six weeks. Not one investigation into price gouging had even started. They had not even identified who had been paid before we gave away the farm!
Stitt was also responsible for appointing a lot of major players throughout this mess. The Secretary of Commerce played a major role in managing corporate and finance interests. John O’Connor was appointed as AG after Mike Hunter resigned and completely rolled over on any investigations. The Secretary of Energy (a long time industry ally out of Scott Pruitt’s EPA), was in the room from the start. At any point, these guys could have asked questions or slowed this process down, they made sure their friends got paid.
We need to address serious concerns at the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. Sen David is running for that office and was one of the legislators most responsible for championing Securitization. She knew or at least was considering her run for Corporation Commission by this point. Given the dirty money she immediately took from Nextera, she is completely compromised to regulate the utility industry.
Bob Anthony was the lone vote against Securitization and Warigia Bowman could be a strong second vote.
The new Attorney General or Oklahoma County District Attorney needs to investigate price gouging and get money back for ratepayers. Drummond already took out Stitt’s lackey, John O’Connor, who even got called out by the State Supreme Court for his inaction on this matter but we need the new AG to do his job. Gentner Drummond needs to be an AG that looks out for Oklahomans, not figures out how to enrich his friends.
It is possible criminal action was taken. Two different agencies failed to respond to our records requests in a timely manner, the AG and Commerce Department, despite frequent communication. This law allowed out of state energy companies to profit wildly and many players were on schemes that required securitization to go through or they would not get large payments. We need a complete and thorough investigation into all communications and efforts to get this law through. Our utilities were immediate in their actions to make ratepayers eat the cost. It took a year before names of companies were even released that got paid. Ratepayers need to know who profited at our expense.
Keep an eye on the Treasurer’s race. This is also a statewide elected position and Randy McDaniel did us no favors as he’d already decided to not run again. The former Treasurer, Ken Miller, took a cush job at OG&E as their Government affairs director in 2018. There are concerns about the many financial arrangements that make something like this work. The Treasury Department, ODFA and Commerce Department were all very closely involved here. Todd Russ is a long time Republican partisan with a history of financial mismanagement, who has deep ties to the swamp. Democrat Charles de Coune stands to be much more independent and transparent.
Consider not retaining the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was legally required to review the Securitization law and could have stopped it. They decided to pass it through and blame the AG for not doing his job. If the AG didn’t do their job, why didn’t the court do theirs? Every public office is constitutionally required to protect the interests of the public, they failed.
- Democrats and concerned Republicans need to vocally make this an issue. Republican partisans were exclusively in the rooms, in text messages and in emails saying they saw evidence of price gouging and then ignored it or possibly actively hid it. While many Democrats failed to bring up these concerns at the time, there is an argument they didn’t know what was really going on. A single Dem sat on the Senate Energy committee. No Dem held any of the statewide elected offices or appointments that had anything to do with this. They only got information after decisions were made. They should have asked better questions and seen some of the handwriting here but they also did not have power at that time. With polls tightening, this is an issue they can take concrete steps to make things right. An example would be an offset tax on natural gas companies that profited to pay this back to consumers. There are many possibilities.
About the Author:
Nick Singer is the director of Oklahoma Progress Now. He has degrees in Math and Economics from Penn State and has been a long time political commentator and organizer. He is currently a candidate for Oklahoma County Assessor.
Tyreke Baker is the creative director, graphic designer, lead editor and meme artist.
Athena is a video editor, content creator and elite poster.