Texas Lawmakers Are Using the Blackouts to Make Fossil Fuel Dreams Come True

Texas Lawmakers Are Using the Blackouts to Make Fossil Fuel Dreams Come True
An oil rig in Midland, Texas. (Photo: Tony Gutierrez, AP)

Lawmakers in Texas are having a busy week: Both chambers of the legislature are weighing in on a slate of bills that are, in theory, designed to address the problems that led to February’s deadly blackouts.

But the ideas regurgitated in some of these bills, which would boost up fossil fuels while harming renewables, weren’t conceived wholesale in response to what actually happened in February. In fact, they appear to be exclusively items that have long been on the fossil fuel industry’s wish list, and lawmakers seem determined to check them off regardless of reality. If passed into law, they could prop up fossil fuels and kneecap renewables, all while doing nothing to ensure the Texas grid is ready for the next calamity.

“Pieces of both these bills have been in the works for years now,” said Luke Metzger, the executive director of Environment Texas.

First, there’s HB 17, which would prohibit cities and towns from passing bans on natural gas hookups in new construction. The bill’s author, Rep. Joe Deshotel, said during a House hearing earlier this month that “gas played an important part in helping a lot of people” during the February crisis. “I know in my own home, I was able to keep things going because we had a generator that kicked on and ran on natural gas,” he said.

That reality is not true for most Texans. The grid failure in February was driven largely by uninsulated oil and gas infrastructure. The bill would fail to address those issues, and instead penalise municipalities that want to join a growing movement to ban gas hookups in the first place.

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In fact, that appears to be the real purpose of the bill, which was authored in January before the blackouts. (This current iteration just got gussied up to join the slew of post-blackout bills.) Deshotel has also said that the legislation is in response to “what is happening on the West Coast.” With this context, it’s easier to see that the bill isn’t about the blackouts at all, but rather a response to the increasing number of cities, led by California, that are banning natural gas hookups in new construction. Similar legislation, bolstered by the American Gas Association and other fossil fuel interest groups, has already been introduced in 12 state legislatures across the country this year.

This bill’s makeover isn’t working very well. In the context of what happened in February (to say nothing of the climate crisis), it’s actually not be a good idea to encourage more natural gas hookups in homes.

“During the deep freeze, our natural gas supply systems froze up — we couldn’t get nearly enough gas moving through the system,” said Daniel Cohan, a professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. “Homes got prioritised to be the first in line to get that gas. Part of the reason power plants didn’t have enough gas to burn is because it was being sent to homes to burn in furnaces. But those furnaces didn’t work when the power was out — most modem gas heat needs electricity to power the fans that blow the air over the furnace. We had homes that they could still get plenty of gas to them, but if the power plants don’t work, then the homes are still in the dark and the cold.”

Cohan, who called HB 17 “a terrible bill,” pointed out that building new construction without gas lines is actually cheaper for both the builder and homeowner. “The only thing [HB 17] exists to do is tie our hands and take away a very cost-saving way of getting to a cleaner future,” he said.

If it were the only faux blackout fix, it would be bad enough. But it’s not alone. SB 3 is a sweeping Senate bill that, on the surface, is meant to address a number of problems with the state’s grid. But wedged into the mostly positive reforms like requiring equipment updates for extreme weather is a mandate that would impose new fees on “intermittent” energy sources — read, wind and solar — by requiring them to buy supportive services and replacement power. That portion of the bill is an echo of the Texas GOP’s consistentand false — drumbeat that frozen wind turbines were to blame for the power crisis. The proponent of these additions to SB 3, state Sen. Kelly Hancock, told the Houston Chronicle that the renewables addition to the bill was because of “the lack of reliability [of wind and solar], which is what we saw during this event.”

The text of this portion seems intentionally vague, but for a state that is the leading wind generator in the U.S., more fees could be a big deal. “These fees will really raise the cost for renewable energy in the state, and that, I think, is going to deter a lot of new generation,” Metzger said.

Hancock has claimed that the new fees are simply a “tweak” to level the playing field to even out market prices for renewables that GOP lawmakers say are made artificially low by federal subsidies. But it’s worth noting that Hancock has tried this trick before. In 2019, during the last legislative session (the Texas legislature meets every two years), he authored a bill that tried to get the state’s public utility commission to effectively eliminate federal subsidies for renewable energy.

That bill, which died on the House floor, was supported by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that stayed busy during the blackouts giving cover to Republicans blaming the state’s problems on frozen wind turbines. Hancock actually sat on a TPPF panel a month before the blackouts and claimed that the unreliability of renewable energy use was cutting power to refrigerators in California and creating a class of people moving to Texas in search of reliable power because their groceries kept going bad. (If you are one of these people, we’d love to hear from you.)

Killing federal subsidies for renewable energy has long been a project of conservative organisations like TPPF, which claims with that subsidies allow “profit from an otherwise profitless endeavour.” This is despite the fact that the government also provides substantial subsidies and tax breaks to fossil fuels; some estimates put that number at $US20 ($26) billion a year, with 80% of that going to natural gas and crude oil.

“Basically every form of generation had problems during the blackouts, and wind and solar actually outperformed some scenarios,” Metzger said. “This has been something that the fossil fuel industry has been pushing for multiple years, trying to disadvantage renewables.”

Looking at how renewable energy performed during the blackouts makes it clear that this addition to SB 3 has little to do with reality of what happened on the ground during February’s blackouts and more to do with checking another item off the fossil fuel industry’s wish list — the same wish list that includes passing legislation to keep gas hookups alive, as HB 17 would do. Both these bills will be considered by lawmakers this week.

“I’m really worried, and I think the renewable energy industry is freaking out,” Metzger said of SB 3. “The House will hopefully be more favourable for us than the Senate was, so I think there’s still a chance to stop it. But we’ve got a real fight on our hands.”