by Derek Jolley and Matt Stannard, on March 1, 2021
On the February 26 Solidarity Wyoming podcast, the writers of this post discuss the North American winter storm and the widespread political misinformation covered here. We also discuss the sweetheart deal that failed coal mine owners struck with the Department of Interior to the detriment of people and communities in Wyoming.
From February 13-17 of this year, Winter Storm Uri covered Texas with snow and ice. The underdevelopment and maldevelopment of Texas energy infrastructure resulted in widespread power outages in that state.
On February 16, Wyoming State Representative and former talk show host Chuck Gray of District 57 asserted on his Facebook page:
“Just as Wyoming conservatives predicted, the Texas grid is failing because of their reliance on renewables. I’m bringing a bill in the upcoming legislative session to assert that utility decisions must be made with consideration to reliability. We must save our coal-fired power plants.”
Congressman Gray’s effort to conform to one of the most lucrative tenets of the GOP party line shows how little he respects the intelligence of his constituents, as his statement on Facebook makes one of the most easily refutable yet oft-repeated claims by his particular brand of punditry. In the continuing wake of ‘Winter Storm Uri’, this claim has seen a renewal in mainstream political discussion. These unfounded attacks on the supposed unreliability of renewable energy sources are long past due for retirement.
Casper’s own Oil City News provided the most basic numerical refutation of the claim that the continual rolling blackouts experienced in Texas are the fault of “their reliance on renewables.” In the first place, wind-generated power accounts for only 25% of Texas’s total electricity supply. Offline power from renewable sources amounted to 16,000 megawatts, compared to 30,000 megawatts offline from gas, coal, and nuclear sources. Wind power in particular proved to be, on average, more reliable than nonrenewable sources during the February outages.
In examining the lie that Congressman Gray is parroting, a simplistic narrative emerges: the winter storm coated wind turbines with ice and otherwise induced malfunction, in contrast to fuel-burning energy sources, which are impervious to such problems due to the high-temperature nature of their operation. Yes, there were cases of storm-produced wind turbine shutdowns (due to a lack of proper weatherization). In the big picture, the extreme freeze largely disrupted off-source electrical equipment regardless of what that source was, again, thanks to the lack of sufficient weatherization. Severe winter storms in the region are not unprecedented – they occur rather regularly every eight to ten years, thus the excuse that proper equipment weatherization is not worth the cost is invalid.
An interesting case study in the propagation of this lie takes the form of a meme primarily transmitted on Facebook in the wake of the power crisis. Originating with Texas fossil fuels pundit and consultant Luke Legate, the meme consists of a 2015 photograph of a helicopter deploying a fluid de-icing agent to a wind turbine in Sweden with a caption that reads: “A helicopter running on fossil fuel spraying a chemical made from fossil fuels during an ice storm is awesome.” Another variant comprised the same image superimposed with the text “Only two things are infinite; the universe and human stupidity. – Albert Einstein”. It seems clear that the meme was spread with the intention of making the viewer think that this aerial maneuver was photographed in Texas, and more insidiously, that “helicopter turbine rescues” widespread practice in Texas. The photo was in fact taken during a research and development exercise for improving turbine weatherization technology, not an attempt to put a turbine back online “during an ice storm”. Weatherization technology has made wind a viable source of power from Canada to Antarctica.
The February winter storm has brought to widespread public attention the infrastructural anomaly that is the Texas Interconnection, the power grid that covers most of the state; this provides critical context for understanding the significance of the previously mentioned numbers. At no point crossing the state line, the Texas Interconnection’s manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is spared the trouble of having to comply with FERC regulations. This geographic confinement also nixes the state’s ability to take in power from outside sources, at least in a reasonable amount of time. In short, Texas’s intentional separation from outside electrical grids is the reason for the deadly power outages, not a reliance on renewable energy. The profit incentive so foundational to a capitalist economy has, as it always does, superseded the value of human life. The motivation for a separate Texas Interconnection was based on fossil fuel moguls’ unwillingness to sacrifice revenue to federal regulation; scores of otherwise preventable deaths are attributable to the Texas power outages alone.
One might question how such disasters are the fault of capitalism. To illustrate one aspect of this declaration, let’s look at the alliance between dozens of key players in the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who ensure their continued survival. Three members of Congress who represent Texas, Senator John Cornyn, Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Dan Crenshaw, are widely known as being some of the most outspoken proponents – and reliable voters – for the interests of the fossil fuel industry. In the 2020 election cycle alone, these three politicians together were the recipients of over $1.1 million in donations from fossil fuel donors. These donors took the form of political action committees organized by dozens of corporations, including giants like Chevron and Exxon and smaller regional players like Wildhorse Energy and Chief Oil & Gas, as well as thousands of individuals employed in these companies. Interestingly, Senator Cruz received tens of thousands of dollars in donations apparently just as personal spending money, since he wasn’t up for reelection this cycle and not running a campaign.
Hundreds of thousands more are donated to Texas state-level politicians every year, like Governor Greg Abbott, who in a recent appearance on The Sean Hannity Show claimed that the blackouts “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America…” and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who is preparing a bill that would blacklist Texas companies that “don’t love fossil fuels”. Fossil fuel corporations use this method of legislative electioneering as a form of insurance. Every dollar that they give to their political allies is a frantic attempt to protect themselves from legislation that would otherwise gut their profits or ultimately work toward replacing them.
A few days after Rep. Gray’s ridiculous comments, according to the Powder River Basin Resource Council,
“the Department of Interior, Eagle Specialty Materials (ESM), and the attorneys in Blackjewel’s bankruptcy case released a settlement agreement for unpaid royalties on federal coal leases mined by Blackjewel, and its predecessor, Contura, at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. According to the legal filing, over $32 million in royalties are unpaid at the Belle Ayr Mine and $27.8 million in royalties are unpaid at the Eagle Butte Mine, with hundreds of thousands owed in interest.”
Be sure and read the whole story. Belly-up mine owners are regularly taking millions of dollars away from mine workers and residents of Wyoming, often while getting away with their own golden parachutes. That makes it even more disturbing to far right politicians making such earnest efforts to lie for the industry. Who are their stakeholders?
The exorbitant amount of political power wielded by industrialists demonstrates a mortal flaw in a government system heavily influenced by liberalism (in this case referring to the political philosophy that props up free markets and private property rights). Democratic ideals are ineffectual when the capitalist elite have such an enormous influence on the information we have access to and the way we interact with each other. If you “vote with your dollar” under capitalism, in what way is the system where a few people have billions of times more votes than you democratic? Americans, and all who live under capitalist hegemony, live their lives with the unspoken understanding that, in the end, it is the rich and powerful who have the final say in how decisions are made.
Fossil fuel barons and their political allies are not our friends. Just as tobacco executives promised that their products were not addictive, fossil fuel executives are aware their products have been environmentally poisonous and are not economically viable. This is why companies that fund climate denialism and economic scare-mongering in the media are at the same time insuring their facilities against the effects of climate disruption.
It takes a great deal of moral fortitude to admit we’ve been duped, and we hope you’ll join us in the struggle for a healthier world and a more democratic society.
Derek Jolley and Matt Stannard are members of the Solidarity House Cooperative media team in Laramie. You can hear their discussion of this article on the February 26 episode of the Solidarity Wyoming podcast. You can support their work here.