Written by Sara Kende
Republican, Texas Senator Ted Cruz flew to Cancun, Mexico on holiday just as his state went into a freeze and dozens died from the cold.
In mid-February, Winter Storm Uri swept through the United States, bringing record snowfall and the coldest temperatures in more than 30 years to Texas. The Lone Star State, which rarely experiences temperatures below 5℃ quickly descended into chaos when power outages caused by the unusually high demand left more than 4 million Texans without heat and electricity in the biting cold on February 16th. Dozens of people died of hypothermia and household accidents, such as carbon monoxide poisoning, after they tried to use their cars to generate heat.
That Texas was unprepared for the situation would be an understatement. Ironically enough, while other states saw heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures too, it was Texas, the US’s largest energy producer that experienced blackouts. How could that happen?
While the energy demand suddenly spiked as millions of Texans turned on their thermostats, the supply of energy dipped more drastically than the operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) expected when some power plants failed due to the unusually cold weather. Republicans, including Greg Abbott, the Governor of Texas, were quick to point the finger at renewable energy sources and true enough, some wind turbines did freeze, but natural gas, which accounts for a much larger proportion of the state’s electricity generation played a more important role in the blackouts. The biggest deficit in energy production was caused by frozen gas pipelines and because the remainder of the available gas was used for heating, rather than energy generation. This helped those who use gas for heating but left those using electric boilers shivering. The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that unlike other states, Texas’ electric grid is independent of the larger, federally-run grid, meaning that in cases like this, Texas cannot import electricity from other states.
The events in Texas show that the US needs a more reliable grid – and a greener one. Although no clear link has been established so far between climate change and the weakening of the polar vortex that caused this winter storm, the increasing frequency of extreme weather events as a result of climate change is well known. The current infrastructure will not be able to hold up for much longer if heatwaves, wildfires and deep freezes become the “new normal”.
This spectacular infrastructural failure coinciding with President Biden’s environmental targets (ending fossil-fuel emissions from power generation by 2035 and carbon-neutrality by 2050) indicates that ambitious plans to modernize the US’s energy industry are likely to come before Congress soon. Time is running out to curb emissions and limit global warming to less than 2 ℃ above the pre-industrial level, and with each passing year, the costs of reaching net-zero are swelling. Yet getting new climate change policy through the Senate is going to be an uphill struggle, as these plans are unlikely to attract any Republican votes, let alone 10 to beat the Senate filibuster.
President Reagan set a new paradigm for the Republican Party in the early 1980s when he labelled environmental regulations a burden on the economy. Republican politicians have gradually been downplaying the importance of climate change and casting doubt on whether it is caused by human activity ever since. Several prominent Republicans now openly deny the scientific consensus. Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry has become one of the biggest donors to the Republican Party, pumping more than 60 million dollars into the GOP in 2019-2020. With this, the fossil fuel industry can rest assured that Republican senators will not support bills that would negatively impact the industry, such as carbon pricing.
Texas and its Republican leaders also have other, more specific reasons to stick to the status quo. Firstly, Texas’ stand-alone grid ensures that the state’s electricity market is independent of federal rules. The deregulated and privatised electricity market offers lower than average prices, which attracts people and businesses to Texas. Investing in equipment “winterisation”, increasing excess capacity and phasing out fossil fuels in favour of renewables would push electricity prices up, therefore companies are unlikely to do so as long as they can delude themselves and their consumers and claim that storms such as this one come about only once in a lifetime. Similarly, Republican politicians, who face barely any opposition from Democrats in Texas and are validated by the state’s booming industries, are unlikely to ruminate on the long-term consequences over the short-term profits. Their attitude towards the problem was perfectly exemplified by Senator Ted Cruz who left the country for Mexico while his constituents froze.
There are some grounds for hope, such as the plunging costs of renewable energy sources, which have already helped the US’s decarbonisation in the past decade, and the increasing concern over climate change among some cohorts of Republican voters. However, hoping that one storm will change everything might be too optimistic. The last “once in a century” weather event happened in Texas ten years ago, when a winter storm disrupted electricity distribution. Experts then suggested winterisation and reforming the ERCOT. These of course were not implemented, allowing history to repeat itself a decade later. Unfortunately, it looks like “nothing changes if nothing changes” – the Republican leadership is unlikely to take a different stance until the extreme weather events force them to. But by then, it is going to be too late.
Photo source - Flickr (Gage Skidmore)