Almost exactly a month before Texas plunged into darkness, a panel convened in Austin to host a discussion about the superiority of the Texan electric grid. Called “Keep the Lights and Ventilators On: The Future of Texas’ Grid Reliability,” the panel was part of an annual conference held by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a conservative think tank.
Predictably, much of the panel was spent bashing California and that state’s use of renewables on its grid, which many of the panelists fingered as the cause of blackouts in summer of 2020 (falsely, of course).
“Their politics have driven their policies,” panelist Kelly Hancock, a sitting Texas state senator, said of California. “Right now, renewables are very very popular, and [that’s] not always feasible long-term...We have people moving to Texas [from California] who are tired of having their refrigerator go out at night because the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining and they have to buy groceries short-term. They can’t have a freezer in the garage because they don’t know if that freezer’s going to go off and their meat is going to go bad….We [in Texas] are more business-minded and more sober in thought in saying, OK, what do we have to do to make sure the lights stay on?”
Seemingly without an ounce of irony or self-awareness of what its own panel had to say in January, TPPF has pounced on the blackouts this week as a chance to bash renewables. In four separate blog posts published this week, the organization rails against “weather-dependent renewable energy,” accuses lawmakers of undercutting fossil fuels by propping up wind and solar, and claims the blackouts could have been avoided if the state had installed more gas instead of wind. “It’s our hope that these events are a wakeup call to those in power that energy is not just important to our economy, but an integral part of our survival,” executive director Kevin Roberts said in a statement.
There’s lots of right-wing figures that have made noises about the blackouts this week, but TPPF has real influence. Though their name suggests that they’re concentrated in Texas, conservative leaders from across the country–from Florida Gov. Ron deSantis to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy–have participated in their panels and conversations this year. TPPF is connected to the highest levels of Lone Star politics, and their talking points are being repeated by those politicians to prop up gas and oil interests and continue deregulation despite the dire outcomes we’re seeing this week.
“It’s so divorced from the data on the ground, it’s pure narrative,” Ben Serrurier, a manager of the carbon-free electricity practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute, said of the posts. “None of it holds up. It’s a fuel tribalism, more than a partisan ideology; they’re beholden to hydrocarbons.”
Looking at the group’s connections and donors, this undying loyalty to fossil fuels isn’t surprising. Even though TPPF has made its home in Texas, it has powerful and longstanding ties to some of the biggest fossil fuel companies and national climate-denial groups of the past few decades, including the Koch Brothers, Exxon, Chevron, and ALEC, a group that has pushed radical right-wing legislation to protect fossil fuel interests in statehouses across the country.
If TPPF is ringing a distant bell somewhere in your Trump-addled political memory, it’s because one of their former fellows was one of the most deranged nominees of the past administration. In the fall of 2017, President Trump nominated Kathleen Hartnett White, then a fellow at TPPF, to serve as the head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Her nomination resurfaced a torrent of her absolutely incredible smooth brain theories on science and climate, including the concept that we shouldn’t reduce carbon emissions because carbon dioxide is a “plant food” and her claim that fossil fuels helped end slavery. The White House actually yanked Hartnett White’s nomination following a disastrous hearing where she repeatedly demonstrated her lack of a grasp on science.
She may have been denied a spot in Washington, DC, but Hartnett White’s insistence that fossil fuels are needed to help poor people, actually, has expanded into a major tenet of TPPF. The organization has a whole separate arm, Life:Powered, that exists solely to promote the idea that fossil fuels “advance the human condition.” One of their products includes a truly cringy and tone-deaf video on the necessity of coal for the Navajo Nation, set to stereotypical Indigenous flute music and narrated by an anonymous little girl, who calls a coal plant “a castle with three chimneys” and miners “warriors.” (Notably, major fossil fuel companies like Peabody Energy have also jumped on the bandwagon of propping up their products as a solution to poverty.)
It’s easy to make fun of TPPF for stuff like this, but it’s clear that they have the ear of some very powerful people in Texas and beyond. And, predictably, some of the things these people have said during the state’s power crisis this week have mirrored a lot of the messages the organization has been pushing for years. Gov. Greg Abbott, who repeatedly attacked wind energy this week, was a keynote speaker at TPPF’s January conference. Rep. Dan Crenshaw hosted a luncheon talk at last year’s conference, while Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn have spoken at multiple summits over the past few years. The latter three have also bashed California over its use of renewables in the past using almost the same exact language heard at TPPF’s summit prior to Texas’ blackout. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board doubled down on attacking wind in two separate and unhinged pieces this week; one of its board member, Kimberly Strassel, gave a keynote breakfast at the 2021 Austin conference.
And what’s frustrating for experts like Serrurier is how organizations like TPPF muck up actual, meaningful conversations on thorny issues like the power grid with their allegiance to fossil fuels.
“There are interesting conservative viewpoints on power markets and electricity markets,” said Serrurier, who pointed out that FERC commissioner Neil Chatterjee, a Republican, had criticized the party’s urge to blame wind turbines for the failures in Texas. “Electricity planning, grid planning, power regulation, a lot of these questions require an understanding of physics, and at some point, the rubber has to meet the road in terms of keeping the lights on. That physical grounding has helped anchor the [electric grid] community by and large around reality.”
But there are fossil fuel interests that want to eschew nuanced discussions in favor bad faith ones as a means to preserve market share. TPPF traffics in that bad faith, but with a veneer of think tank respectability. That in turn gives cover for politicians and other leaders to repeat them. That keeps the status quo entrenched, and stops meaningful, desperately needed reforms to the electric grid and energy system from going through, let alone being discussed.
“What has frustrated me so much about this event is what I consider one of the last bastions of fact-based technocratic governance,” he said, referring to the electric grid, “is being corrupted by a whole bunch of partisan bullshit and culture war stuff. We have problems around climate change, equity and justice, problems around keeping cost down for consumers, problems around the reliability of our system. These aren’t new problems necessarily and they are political, they’re about power and money, but they are the set of complexities that we have to deal with. We can deal with them, they’re not insurmountable problems. But it requires a grounding in reality.”