Two Steps Forward, One Step Backwards in Texas Energy Fight

Climate Change Energy Environment Future Politics Texas

            New Orleans      Texas has a reputation as oil country.  There aren’t drilling rigs on the state capitol grounds in Austin, like there are in Oklahoma City, but you can find them almost everywhere else.  Less well known is that Texas has also been a leader in building alternative energy production and integrating wind and solar into its power supply.  Almost one-third, 31% of the electricity in Texas, comes from alternative sources compared with 43% from natural gas.  Surprised?  Sure, you are, but so it seems are way too many of the hard right Republican state legislators who are now determined to claw back support for alternative in favor of restoring the dominance of oil and gas.  One source counted “171 bills affecting the state’s electricity market, many of them anti-renewables.”  The session has now closed and reportedly some of the worst of the anti-renewables failed to pass, but enough did that consumers wanting cheaper prices and suppliers wanting to develop more alternative capacity are now hamstrung in many ways.

An example of how bitter the fight became can be seen in how outrageous the claims and some of the bills were.  The Texas lieutenant governor now calls alternative fuels, “luxury items.”  One bill would have assessed fees on alternative producers, which would be used to benefit building and upgrading fossil-fuel plants.  Where recently Texas had been heralded for subsidies to develop alternatives, now the political program seems bent on punishing them in favor of fossil fuels.

Trying to follow this story triggers mixed feelings, because it’s hard to find the good guys.  Much of it is a fight between old energy enterprises long ensconced in Texas and throughout oil country against new energy enterprises and their lobbyists, trade associations, and developers who are undeniably in it for the same buck.  There’s also the land issue, which is huge when it comes to the huge solar arrays potentially occupying thousands of acres or the skyscraper tall wind turbines that dot the horizon in many western states from Texas to Wyoming.  Big rich Texas ranchers and landowners, raise issues of conservation, wildlife, and aesthetics in opposition to alternative construction, but you get the feeling that they are not looking out for many besides themselves and their buddies.  One said the multi-acre solar farms look “like absolute crap,” and truth to tell, it’s hard to disagree.  They aren’t the prettiest things any of us have ever seen, but neither is a giant power plant with spewing smokestacks.  Even Texas ranchers would understand that it comes down to “whose ox is being gored.”

The political justification for this retreat from alternatives is reliability, partially because of the 2021 collapse of the Texas grid, where the governor wants alternatives to take the blame which should be shouldered by all producers and the politicians who abetted this strange outlier grid in the first place that is arrogantly detached from the rest of the backup supply in the USA.  Scapegoating is not a solution, but many in the legislature think moving subsidies and tax breaks from alternative sources back to oil and gas might be.  The irony of the conservatives claims about the sanctity of free enterprise when they so clearly want to put the state’s thumb on the scale to benefit different industries is rich.

Too much of what is at stake here in finding a real solution is a feeling of a pox on all of their houses while being spectators watching elephants fight each other on the vast Texas plains.  What seems pushed aside and missing is boots on the ground fighting for consumers and the people of Texas.  We need to find those good folks, and give them full support, because the future, and not just the past, depends on it.