July 3, 2022

FAILING UP: Texas utility CenterPoint Energy gives CEO multi-million dollar bonus despite grid failures

FAILING UP: Texas utility CenterPoint Energy gives CEO multi-million dollar bonus despite grid failures

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A Texas utility that was central to a wrongful death suit for failing to maintain power during winter storm Uri last year just gave their CEO David Lesar a $26 million performance bonus.

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At the peak of the power outage during the winter storm that devastated Texas, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that over a million customers of the CenterPoint Energy utility remained without power.

One of those customers,  83-year-old James Turner Jones, died when the home he was staying at was without power for at least 24 hours. Jones suffered from COPD, and the respirator he needed to breathe didn’t get the power it needed because of the outage.

According to Houston based law firm Livingston Flowers:

“There was no power for Jones’ respirator. Throughout the night he became weaker and weaker. His breathing became more labored. Eventually, he could not breathe at all.”

Jones’ daughter Pamela Bunkley says her father had a backup in preparation for the announced rolling blackouts, but after a 24 power outage — and a brief return to power – the electricity went off again. Bunkley told KHOU-11 that her father was asking for help while “trying to crawl to his backup respirator after his main one, which was plugged into the wall, stopped working.”

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“He was getting more and more tired throughout the day. I yelled for my husband to come in and help. I was telling my dad that we need to get you to the hospital. And he’s like, ‘I really don’t want to be a burden to anyone,” Bunkley added.

Jones dies at the hospital shortly thereafter.

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Despite their failure to keep the lights on, the CenterPoint Energy board awarded CEO David Lesar a compensation package worth almost $38 million – 366 times the average of a company employee and over three times the $12 million Lesar received in 2020.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the company justified Lesar’s compensation by saying the former Halliburton CEO, who was groomed at Halliburton by former Vice President DIck Cheney, “helped transform our company.”

ESG Review reported that in August 2021, the company filed a request with the Texas Railroad Commission to finance the $1.14 billion in costs that they incurred during the storm, saying that a lack of preparation, poor infrastructure, and slow production were to blame for the energy company’s higher than usual costs. Prices jumped from the average of $3 million per British Thermal Unit before the storm to roughly $355 million per BTU in its wake. Some markets saw prices as high as $1000 per BTU of natural gas.

CenterPoint’s Vice President of Texas Gas, Tal Centers, said:

“The extraordinary natural gas price increases during winter storm Uri’s widespread extreme cold resulted in significant natural gas cost increases for CenterPoint Energy and our customers.”

If the Texas Railroad Commission request is approved, CenterPoint Energy customers can expect a $2-5 a month increase in their energy bills. If it isn’t approved, however, a levy of up to $40 per month may take effect.

While increasing customer’s costs to offset the losses during the 2021 winter storm, CenterPoint Energy’s compensation to Lesar not only tripled, but included over $130,000 to charter private planes, cover security costs to accompany him on travel, and pay for a personal driver.

CenterPoint Energy also paid for Lesar’s primary residence.

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The company is dismissing claims that the former Halliburton head’s compensation is connected to the rate hikes, saying:

“Through Dave’s leadership and commitment to developing a strong succession plan, we remain focused on growing our utilities and enhancing the performance and value of the company for our customers, shareholders and communities.”

Karlee Weinmann of the Texas Public Utility Commission says Lesar’s pay is “out of line” with his peers. The average compensation package of the 15 utility companies studied is just under $12 million annually.

This news will come as little solace to Jone’s family and the hundreds of other individuals in Texas who lost their lives during winter storm Uri.

They are left out in the cold while those in power raked in cold, hard, cash.

Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick

Ty Ross

News journalist for Washington Press and Occupy Democrats.

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