It’s been a disheartening month for the fossil fuel industry.
First, President Joe Biden suspended new oil and gas leasing on federal land. Then, General Motors announced it will transition from the internal combustion engine by 2035.
But this week’s cold snap, and the chaos it created, should remind policymakers, and all Americans, that our nation is still dependent on fossil fuels, and offer a cautionary tale on rapid change.
Exhibit A is Texas, of all places.
That state’s grid operator experienced a total systemic failure akin to a cold Katrina, leaving millions of residents without heat and water through days of dangerously cold temperatures. The resulting human suffering has been immense.
Even here in Louisiana there were rolling blackouts, especially in Acadiana, where Mardi Gras temperatures dipped to 16 degrees. The blackouts and frozen pipes were more than an inconvenience, as several people were reported dead and Gov. John Bel Edwards asked for a cold-weather disaster declaration that was approved by President Joe Biden. Still, it was better than the alternative, which is a complete collapse of the power grid because of excess demand.
Another complication is that Texas’ electric grid largely operates independently from the rest of the nation. Louisiana’s is overseen by a multi-state nonprofit to help keep the juice flowing. But regulators here are concerned that prices rose abruptly on natural gas markets.
Next month, when the utility bills start arriving, voters will complain they are being overcharged, and politicians will give them a sympathetic ear.
A better course would be to thank the workers who extract fossil fuels from the ground and utility employees who labored in the cold and drove through the ice to rebuild transmission lines damaged by trees coated in ice. Voters can also thank elected officials, like members of the New Orleans City Council, who approved responsible expansions of conventional generating capacity.
A bloated power bill can be a hardship, especially for those who lost their employment during the coronavirus crisis. But it’s better than the alternative: shivering at home during the lost Mardi Gras of 2021.
Climate change is a real threat to everyone in Louisiana. So is an abrupt disinvestment in fossil fuels.
A reality is that every form of energy has its shortcomings, and not just because some involve emissions. Coal piles can freeze over; natural gas transmission can freeze up; wind and solar have drawbacks we’ve just seen, including in Texas’ great plains where many turbines froze.
The widespread nature of this weather event requires national leadership to deal with keeping the lights on.