Oil and gas defenders, starting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, seem to have the silliest argument. Texas suffered massive power outages beginning Feb. 14 when ice, snow and frigid temperatures slammed the state. Unlike power systems in northern states that routinely endure brutal storms, the Texas system isn’t winterized. Pipelines and machinery froze up, forcing rolling blackouts that left nearly 4 million people without heat, power or running water for days. At least 31 have died.
Abbott blamed wind and solar power. “Our wind and our solar got shut down,” the governor said on—where else—Fox News. “That thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis.” Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was also Energy Secretary under President Trump, also blamed wind and solar for the fiasco, in a blog post on the website of Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Wind and solar, however, have almost nothing to do with the freeze-up in Texas. About 80% of the power in Texas comes from natural gas, nuclear energy and coal, and that’s where most of the shortfall came from. The biggest breakdown was in natural-gas delivery. It’s true that some wind turbines froze up, curtailing the small portion of power that comes from wind. But that’s only because the Texas turbines had no ice protection. There are thousands of wind farms operating globally in cold climates. Researchers in Sweden—which operates turbines in the Arctic Circle—helpfully explained to Bloomberg how deicing systems and carbon-fiber blade tips allow many turbines to operate under extreme conditions. Texas turbine operators simply didn’t think they needed to prepare for a winter with snow and ice.
Texas obviously needs a thorough after-action review to figure out what went wrong. The state has a unique power system not connected to any other state’s grid, so it can’t import power in an emergency. Parts of the Texas system rely on just-in-time delivery of gas from in-state wells, which failed as natural-gas rigs froze up. It’s also a largely unregulated system allowing power providers to decide what’s best. Freak weather caused outages in 2011, and power companies were supposed to winterize. They didn’t.
Implications for the oil and gas industry
The rush to vilify green energy instead of identifying the real problem reveals paranoia in the oil patch and knee-jerk opposition to President Biden’s ambitious goals on climate policy. Biden is aiming for a net-zero electricity sector by 2035, which would require massive reductions in the burning of oil, gas and coal at power plants. Net-zero means there could still be some fossil-fuel use, as long as an equivalent amount of carbon is pulled from the air using technologies that aren’t yet fully developed. Biden aims for a net-zero economy by 2050, which would require the near-elimination of carbon as a transportation fuel, as well.
There are obvious, and worrisome, implications for businesses and workers in the traditional oil and gas industry, which supports roughly 10 million jobs directly and indirectly. And clear battle lines are forming between Biden’s climate team and the carbon industries. Biden already killed the Keystone XL oil pipeline and halted new drilling permits on federal land, pending a review. He backs the mass adoption of electric vehicles that won’t burn gasoline or diesel. A huge Democratic infrastructure bill coming later this year is likely to include massive investments in renewable energy that would displace oil, gas and coal, while also repealing tax breaks for oil and gas drillers.
Oil and gas defenders—mostly Republicans—already claim Biden’s green-energy plans are killing jobs. The Texas wind-turbine gaslighting is clearly an effort to tar green energy as unreliable. More fervent opposition will heat up as Biden fleshes out his ambitious transformation plan and winners and losers become more apparent. Politicians and pundits will stir up resentment. Social-media will amplify the oft-feigned outrage and spread every lie or rumor.
Adding to the challenge: There’s a kernel of truth in some of the lies. Biden’s green-energy goals will displace existing jobs, including many that pay well. Wind and solar power are “reliably unreliable,” since they require the wind to blow and the sun to shine. A transformation from carbon to renewable power is possible, but it must be incremental, with a careful shift from proven technologies to novel ones. Protecting and creating jobs will need to be paramount, and if it’s an afterthought, expect failure.
Biden anticipates the political blowback. His national climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, told Yahoo Finance recently that “we have a president that hears climate and thinks jobs. We’re not in a fight against oil and gas.” She emphasized the need to generate new green-energy jobs that can pay as well as carbon jobs that might be on their way out, without requiring workers to move across the country or spend years retraining.
Could the Texas meltdown represent a clean-energy opportunity? Texas is already the nation’s No. 1 wind-power generator and the No. 4 source of solar power, with at least 35,000 wind and solar jobs. Coal has plunged as a power source in Texas as wind and solar have gotten cheaper and more efficient. With thousands of abandoned oil and gas wells, Texas could also be the top beneficiary of a forthcoming Biden plan to employ oil and gas workers capping old wells, to reduce methane leaks.
Abbott and other Texas Republicans could legitimately highlight wind and solar as a bright spot in the energy landscape, and a key source of growth and diversity in the Texas economy. The party-line trashing of green energy instead indicates the depth of opposition Biden is likely to face as his green-energy push intensifies. Biden’s challenge is convincing oil and gas stalwarts his climate plan has something for them. Even if it does, they might not listen.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.