The Scary Links Between The Texas Energy Massacre And The Climate Crisis
“That’s the climate crisis in a nutshell: a white male millionaire gloating about “hitting the jackpot” as millions of people suffer because of a global crisis his company helps worsen for profit.”
In the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre film released in 1974, “two siblings and three of their friends en route to visit their grandfather’s grave in Texas fall victim to a family of cannibalistic psychopaths.” I’m quoting that from IMDB because I’ve never seen the movie (and don’t plan to anytime soon since it feels like we’re living through a different massacre every day).
47 years later, we just witnessed a different kind of Texas massacre seemingly out of a movie. The Lone Star State suffered a severe cold snap that broke its electric grid, leaving millions of Texans without power and water.
A grid that had failed Texas before (as you’ll see below) couldn’t handle a few days of sub-freezing temperatures. Dozens have died and millions of lives have been disrupted.
As Texas reckons with the causes and effects of a catastrophic blackout, I can’t help but notice some parallels between the Texas Energy Massacre of 2021 and the broader climate crisis that makes these sorts of disasters much more likely than they used to be.
Why The Texas Power Grid Failed
If you were sucked into America’s right-wing vortex of lies and deceit, you’d either chalk up the Texas Energy Massacre to a once-in-a-century winter storm or blame renewable energy (i.e. the windmills that you might think kill birds and cause cancer more than they help cut costs, save lives, and keep carbon out of the atmosphere).
That’s what Texas government officials did. Prominent Texas politicians like Governor Greg Abbott attributed the blackout to the 10% of the state’s power that comes from renewable energy (mainly wind). Right-wing media (especially Fox News) helped amplify that discredited and disingenuous message.
Abbott explicitly blamed solar and wind for his state’s blackout. He would have you believe “this shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”
This is flat-out wrong. The grid didn’t fail because the windmills froze or the sun stopped shining. The Green New Deal would be far from deadly. Renewable energy didn’t perform perfectly during the cold weather, but the blame for the blackout lies elsewhere. Texas suffered because it has an independent power grid dependent on fossil fuels. Why is that the case? Read this for the long version. The TL;DR version: Texas prioritized a deregulated (and thus profitable) power grid rather than a regulated, safe, equitable, and resilient one.
The result is a grid run by an operator called ERCOT (an EPCOT-esque acronym that stands for Electric Reliability Council of Texas) that has the gall to charge some residents tens of thousands of dollars in one month to keep the lights and heat on while others are left in the cold, either because it’s not profitable to deliver power to them or because the fossil-powered grid simply couldn’t move enough electrons to squeeze another buck (or thousand).
ERCOT’s own data disproves the lies spewed by the right. The windmills performed “about as well or better than they were expected to in extreme conditions.” Remember, windmills ably power plenty of areas that are much, much colder than Texas (like the Upper Midwest and Great Plains).
Many believe renewable energy capacity depends on the sun shining and the wind blowing. This is false for many reasons, the primary one being that renewable energy can be stored and redistributed across a grid just like any other form. Rather, what failed Texas was its fossil fuel capacity. The state’s infrastructure for natural gas, responsible for powering two-thirds of Texas in times like these, failed.
This was a catastrophe straight out of a Hollywood script, just like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Texas Energy Massacre, however, had real-life consequences. And its causes — physical, political, and economic among others — speak to some unsettling truths about the climate crisis.
The Physics, Politics, And Economics Behind The Blackout
Why did it get so cold in Texas? Climate change disrupts the critical Arctic jet stream. Warming temperatures destabilize the jet stream, unleashing cold air that’s normally confined to the Arctic. The result is polar chill thousands of miles south of where it normally hovers.
This happened in Texas a decade ago, in February 2011. As that year’s Super Bowl was held in Dallas, a period of frigid temperatures set in across the Lone Star State. Much of the state’s fossil-dominated power infrastructure froze, leaving Texans without heat and electricity.
That cold snap wasn't as bad as this one. But it sparked a reckoning that should’ve led to some Texas-sized changes to its grid. Sadly, as BuzzFeed recounted, that didn’t happen.
“Not only did federal regulators identify that the state’s energy system was vulnerable to extreme cold, but even the state’s grid operator and several power suppliers all acknowledged the need for wells, pipelines, and power plants to be better protected from the low temperatures.”
This wasn’t the first time Texas refused to heed a warning from Mother Nature. In the report released by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and North American Electric Reliability Corporation in the wake of the 2011 blackout, regulators noted that after a similar cold snap in 1989, recommendations to better prepare energy infrastructure for such weather went largely unheeded.
Texas has had multiple golden opportunities to winterize its power infrastructure. But since its deregulated power grid answers to no one, Texas couldn’t be compelled to choose people over profit (or at least balance the two). Infrastructure upgrades aren’t immediately profitable for grid operators, so when the regulators can’t enforce safety and reliability, profit wins. As grocery store shelves stay empty, millions of people go days without heat or running water, and dozens of people lose their lives, the fat cats line their pockets and brag about it on earnings calls (see below).
This is a classic script of disaster capitalism at work. Disorienting disasters lay the groundwork for politicians and the powerful to implement agendas that might normally face crippling opposition but avoid scrutiny as shocks (like an energy crisis) scare people either into submission or ignorance. Naomi Klein described this form of capitalism in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine.
Like a tornado, these disasters create vacuums of power and privilege. Instead of alleviating desperation, companies take advantage of the misery created by the shocks. Disaster capitalists step in to offer free-market solutions to these shocks that “systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else” as Klein described in an interview centered on the opportunities presented by coronavirus for disaster capitalism. It happened with Hurricane Katrina, COVID, and plenty of other disasters like the Texas Energy Massacre.
The symbol of disaster capitalism at work in Texas came from Comstock Resources, a publicly traded energy company that operates in Texas and Louisiana in which Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones holds a majority stake. Comstock drills for shale and thus profits when natural gas becomes expensive due to a climate-driven mismatch between demand and supply. The surge in natural gas prices — which surpassed 500% over the course of a week — driven by the Texas Energy Massacre was a major windfall for Comstock.
“Obviously, this week is like hitting the jackpot,” Comstock Chief Financial Officer Roland Burns bragged on an earnings call as millions of people were left to fend for themselves in the cold. Obviously.
Somewhere, Mr. Burns from The Simpsons — who also made his fortune in the energy trade — is clasping his hands and muttering “excellent” to himself as he watches real-life millionaires bring his mocking disdain of ‘peasants’ to life.
That’s the climate crisis in a nutshell: a white male millionaire gloating about “hitting the jackpot” as millions of people suffer because of a global crisis his company helps worsen for profit.
The Shared Root Cause Between The Texas Energy Massacre And The Climate Crisis
There’s a sad symbolism in the root cause of Texas’s energy crisis: its independent grid. The power went out in Texas because Texas chose to isolate its grid from the rest of the country. Texas is like a child who refuses to cooperate with other players in a game, even if cooperating would lead to a win-win outcome. Except the children are now adults and there are untold real-life victims: dozens of people dead, millions of lives disrupted.
This didn’t have to happen, as Beto O’Rourke highlighted in remarks about the crisis in his home state. If Texas hadn’t dug itself an energy hole, it could’ve borrowed electricity from other states. But Texas wouldn’t be Texas without its independent maverick streak.
Texans are proud of their Lone Star State. State history glorifies the valiant and victorious struggle for independence from Mexico in the 19th century. I’ve been to almost every state in America; no state I’ve visited has a stronger shared identity than Texas.
That shared identity manifests itself in a resilient spirit that comes in full force in response to disasters like this one. Texans help one another when the cards are stacked against them in a way that some other parts of the country (I’ll leave this to your imagination) often don’t. Stories of kindness have put a heartwarming spin on an otherwise devastating story.
Nonetheless, there’s a dark side to the Texan ethos. Texans embrace the narrative of a pioneer ethos where everything is bigger and success is open to anyone willing to work for it and grab life by the longhorns (hook ’em, as they say).
To me, the epitome of Texan mythology is the wildcatter. It’s a term referring to independent oil prospectors who could purchase large tracts of land to drill wildcat wells, which are exploratory oil wells drilled in areas not known to contain oil. Wildcatters took big risks drilling for oil where no one knew if it existed. They made it by the skin of their teeth, summoning their pioneering individualistic spirit to unlock profits hidden deep underground.
Along with cotton and cattle, oil put Texas on the map. The former were (and are) harmful in many ways, but they didn’t pose an existential threat to humanity. Oil does.
Nonetheless, it’s a risky business (hello Tom Cruise) but one laden with opportunity. It reflects how America sees itself: a land of opportunity where success is open to anyone willing to work for it. The smell of profit outweighs the smell of rotting food and frozen corpses made so by disaster capitalism, the latest form of greed of the highest order.
When you strike oil in the middle of nowhere, you feel like you’re on an island isolated from the rest of the world. You tell yourself that since you paved the path to your success and found your island of salvation, you are entitled to reap the benefits, everyone else be damned. Hitting the jackpot is your Manifest Destiny.
Texas isn’t an island, but many Texans feel like they are. When you see yourself as an island, you start to believe your welfare is fully under your control. You begin to doubt the influence of other people and external events. You shed the altruistic and cooperative instincts that catalyzed our evolution and adopt an individualist and competitive creed. You want to be left alone to make a fortune so you can brag about having the biggest bank account in the graveyard.
And you don’t want the government meddling in your affairs. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who infamously couldn’t name the Department of Energy on the presidential debate stage, said “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” He didn’t say that years ago. He said it in the wake of this blackout! You just can’t make this stuff up.
This misguided mindset dominated by competitiveness and independence undergirds the climate crisis. Behind just about every atom of greenhouse gas added by humans to the atmosphere is a belief that each one of us is an island.
Recall the words of John Donne in the 17th century: no man is an island.
The kinds of formerly once-in-a-century extreme weather events that sow the seeds for catastrophes like the Texas Energy Massacre are happening more often, and thus the threshold of “extreme” is changing too. In a world where the severity of natural disasters is increasing left and right, is it really that extreme for a region that has always had volatile weather to have a week of severe chill? No.
In fact, as Texas Tech climate scientist and longtime Texas resident Katharine Hayhoe pointed out in a CNN interview, after recent cold weather events, commissions concluded the state’s power grid and gas lines were not prepared and urged the state to winterize like states further north.
El Paso, which is outside of ERCOT’s purview, heeded those calls and experienced minimal outages compared with the rest of the state. Unfortunately, most of Texas ignored those sage recommendations. You can take back a lot of mistakes in life; lost lives can’t come back.
We might not see all of Texas suffer sub-freezing temperatures for days on end for a little while, but the more we add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, the more we can expect weird weather to wreck with civilization.
In a place like Texas, cold weather should honestly be low on the state’s list of climate-related concerns. Texas is no stranger to natural disasters, and that ain’t changin’ anytime soon. Let’s not forget the hurricanes that have harangued the state, the tornadoes that torment it, the severe heat, the drought, and plenty more.
Mother Earth will keep reminding Texans that they are at the mercy of climate change as much as anyone else.
The question is: will Texans listen?