WASHINGTON — The catastrophic cold snap that paralyzed the electrical grid in Texas has opened up a new front in the age-old battle between green-energy champions and their fossil-fuel rivals.
One side sees the chance to build a new, fortified and more sustainable power grid. The other calls it proof positive that it's too soon to abandon oil, gas and coal.
Both, however, acknowledge a familiar dynamic that dates back to the environmental movement's earliest days: people don't think about pollution when they're just trying to survive.
"When the temperature drops below zero, nobody cares where the electricity comes from — they just need the heat to come on," Republican Texas congressman Michael Burgess told a committee hearing Thursday.
"We all agree that America deserves a cleaner future, but pursuing a path towards that future while ignoring energy reliability is the wrong approach."
As soon as the Texas crisis began generating national headlines, conservative lawmakers and commentators seized their chance to sing the praises of fossil fuels.
It didn't seem to matter that natural-gas production in Texas, which provides the bulk of the state's power, was brought to a standstill by the cold. Frozen wind turbines and solar panels — together only worth 10 per cent of the state's power supply — offered a powerful image.
"It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, told Fox News.
In fact, the state's own energy department has acknowledged that a failure to properly winterize power systems, including natural-gas pipelines, was to blame for the collapse.
The campaign has extended well beyond Texas.
"When in doubt, burn coal," tweeted Twinkle Cavanaugh, president of Alabama's public services commission. "God put more than two centuries worth of coal in the ground for a reason."
Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a vocal champion of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion, called Texas "a perfect example of the need for reliable energy sources like natural gas and coal."
Marta Stoepker, deputy communications director for the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign, said the rhetoric is extraordinary.
"I have never seen energy Twitter blow up the way that it did during all of this," Stoepker said in an interview.
"So long as disinformation about the truth of the failures of the grid continues, more people will be at risk to grid failure. We will see this again."
All told, more than four million people in Texas lost power after a dip in the jet stream, an atmospheric current that usually keeps Arctic air further north, brought winter storms and frigid temperatures to parts of the country woefully ill-equipped for either.
The statewide power outages were quickly followed by a new crisis: frozen pipes burst and flooded homes and crippled water treatment systems, forcing residents to melt snow and queue up in hours-long lines to secure precious clean water.
Utilities across the country imposed rolling blackouts to prevent unprecedented levels of demand for power from overwhelming their systems.
The extreme weather has killed at least 59 people across the country, some of them as a result of dangerous makeshift efforts to stay warm.
Texas leads the U.S. in the transition to renewable energy, and has done so more quickly than any other state, Burgess told Thursday's energy subcommittee meeting.
But there's a danger to moving too quickly — and the decision to cancel Keystone XL suggests President Joe Biden is doing exactly that, he said.
"As investments are made in new energy production and energy infrastructure, the reliability of those systems must always be the priority," Burgess said.
"Unfortunately, President Biden's early actions — cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and prohibiting new energy production on federal lands — signal a desire to go in the opposite direction."
Democrats on the subcommittee detected a whiff of political opportunism in the wind.
More than 25,000 megawatts of power was off-line in Texas last week, most of it at gas-fired power plants, said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat.
"Yet some Republicans and conservative media outlets are peddling alternate realities," Pallone said.
"They are shamefully turning a crisis into an anti-renewables campaign, and they are conveniently leaving out the fact that the majority of the failures have come from fossil-fuel infrastructure."
Stoepker called it a disservice to the countless Americans who are freezing in the dark and urged lawmakers to start telling people the truth.
The fossil-fuel industry, she said, is "spending millions of dollars every year to try to confuse us about its ability to be reliable and clean — and it's clearly not doing either one of those things right now."
Biden, for his part, said Friday he would declare a major disaster in Texas and planned to visit the state as soon as practical.
But in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, even the White House had to concede that emissions concerns would be temporarily on the back burner.
The Department of Energy granted permission for Texas to temporarily ignore emissions regulations, said White House Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall.
"So, essentially, to relax some of the standards in an emergency for pollution so that they can generate sufficient power while some of their sources are off-line or reduced."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press