One could certainly take issue with the idea that power providers don’t owe customers anything, much less elected officials, but Boyd is at least explicit in his passing of the buck. (He later announced he had resigned his position.)
Other elected officials in the state, more sophisticated about navigating the political rapids, took a different approach. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show to suggest that the crisis offered the country an important lesson: Democratic leadership is bad.
“This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America,” Abbott said Tuesday, offering an obviously polished turn of phrase focused on a Democratic proposal for redirecting the economy away from greenhouse-gas-emitting energy sources. About a quarter of the state’s electricity generation in 2020 came from wind and solar, according to data from the unfortunately-named Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT.
“Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis,” Abbott continued, arguing that this showed that “fossil fuel is necessary.”
As many others have noted, this is wildly misleading. Most of Texas’s power generation comes from fossil fuels; nearly 60 percent of its 2020 generation was from coal and natural gas. The majority of the production that went offline was from natural gas plants. As Bloomberg News reported, wind made up a disproportionately small part of what was taken offline due to the freezing conditions.
One problem is that both wind turbines and natural gas pipelines were left vulnerable to extreme cold because they weren’t insulated against it. Even as he tried to leverage the moment to bash renewable energy, Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) noted that one factor in the outages was that “pipelines in Texas don’t use cold insulation — so things were freezing.” Wind turbines can similarly operate in cold weather, if they are protected against the cold. In the north, they are. In Texas, many weren’t.
So what do you do if you’re a political actor? If you’re not willing to go full Tim-Boyd-Lord-of-the-Flies, you redirect people’s anger elsewhere. Abbott and Crenshaw were just part of the flurry of conservatives using the moment to bash renewable power, a bit of rhetorical judo leveraging the right’s ongoing skepticism of wind and solar power and climate change — itself a product of decades of concerted focus on bolstering fossil fuel producers by businesses and politicians in fossil-fuel-rich states like Texas. Fox News ran multiple segments attacking renewable energy; the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page made the same argument even as its reporting offered a more accurate presentation of the problem.
Abbott’s interview was jarring: The governor of a state sitting in a presumably warm, well-lit room, telling the country that millions of his state’s residents were sitting in cold, dark houses because of those devious Democrats — and that they are coming for you next.
It immediately brings to mind Republican Donald Trump’s odd reelection strategy as racial justice protests emerged last year. In tweets, speeches and multiple campaign ads, Trump suggested that acts of violence that had occasionally spun off from those protests were a mark of what would happen under his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden — as though they weren’t currently happening with Trump as president. Trump’s campaign literally argued that video images of things happening in 2020 under Trump were a bleak vision of the future in Biden’s America.
This redirection tactic appears elsewhere, too. After Trump spent months falsely claiming that the 2020 election was riddled with fraud, Republican legislators rushed to introduce legislation meant to address the “problem.” Often, they cited concerns about fraud as a rationale for new rules, as though Trump intentionally scaring people was a good-faith predicate for changing voting rules. Sometimes, though, the false claims were accepted as accurate, another example of bad things purportedly happening while Republicans ran things that were the Democrats’ fault.
At least in Texas, the cold weather wasn’t invented out of whole cloth to assuage a losing candidate’s ego.
That this tactic might actually work is a function of a few overlapping things that have become familiar to political observers. A conservative media more interested in promoting a viewpoint than in conveying accurate information. A deeply polarized electorate happier to see points scored against the other side than to hold its own elected leaders accountable. Politicians who’ve discovered how that instinct from voters can allow them to escape scrutiny and blame, always an appealing option. It’s not just Republicans doing that, of course; New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), for example, is happy to have voters more angry at Trump than at him.
From the outside, though, those efforts can often look transparently self-serving. If you’ve internalized this habit of leveraging partisanship as self-defense, it can lead to scenarios that seem easy to justify but that collapse under even light scrutiny.
The disaster in Texas is ongoing and enormous in scale. Millions of people lack consistent power. The lack of power cascades to other systems, like water treatment and distribution. It’s a massive problem that may take weeks to fully resolve.
Once the acute crisis is over, the chronic problems of the power grid in the state will need to be resolved. But that’s already where Abbott and other Republicans are fighting: making the case for increasing the use of fossil fuels and, happily, thereby boosting a major Texas industry.
Because it’s easier and less painful to blame Democrats in theory than to fix massive problems in reality.