Media reaction: Texas ‘deep freeze’, power blackouts and the role of global warming

Media reaction: Texas ‘deep freeze’, power blackouts and the role of global warming

This week, a blast of Arctic air has engulfed much of the central US, bringing freezing conditions and record low temperatures to many states.

Texas, in particular, has been badly affected, with grid operators hit by power outages and struggling to provide electricity to millions of residents. 

The events have triggered a wave of media reaction – both on the causes of the extreme weather and why the state’s power sector has been unable to cope.

Right-wing media outlets and politicians were quick to blame the widespread blackouts on “frozen wind turbines”, despite evidence that most of the problems were linked to shortcomings in fossil-fuel infrastructure.

In this article, Carbon Brief summarises how the media has covered the storm, but, particularly, its repercussions across the energy sector and potential links to climate change.

What is happening in Texas?

Winter storm Uri, which swept across Texas and parts of Mexico over the weekend, has attracted global press coverage after plummeting temperatures left millions without power or heat for much of the week. 

Although Texas is generally known for its hot climate, BBC News said:

“The state is seeing some of its coldest temperatures in more than 30 years, with some areas breaking records that are more than a century old.”

The US National Weather Service (NWS) said the conditions were due to an “outbreak” of cold air from the Arctic that had spilled out from above the US-Canada border, according to the news website.

The New York Times reported that the weather had affected a large swathe of the country “from the Rio Grande to Ohio” and that as the week began “roughly 150 million Americans were under some form of winter storm warning”.

On Monday, Reuters reported that the “rare deep freeze” had forced the state’s grid operator to impose rotating blackouts “because of higher power demand”. This resulted in four million Texans being left without electricity.

It added that the “cold snap” had also reached northern Mexico, where authorities said 4.7 million people had lost power early on Monday, although service was restored to almost 2.6 million of them by midday.

US president Joe Biden declared an emergency, unlocking federal assistance to Texas as temperatures dropped to between -2C and -22C.

Beyond the widespread blackouts, which have continued throughout the week, the New York Times reported on Thursday that days of glacial weather have “left at least 38 people dead nationwide”. The lack of power to run water-treatment plants meant about seven million Texans have been left with unsafe drinking water, according to NPR.

How has the storm affected power supplies and energy production in Texas?

Much of the media focus has been on the impact the icy conditions have had on the Texan energy system. These impacts are complicated and involve not only the state’s electricity grid, but also its position as a major fossil-fuel production centre.

Reuters reported on Monday that the price of wholesale electricity on the Texas power grid had “spiked more than 10,000%”, partly due to the rise in demand as people struggled to stay warm and partly due to extreme conditions causing generating units to “trip offline”.

According to the Financial Times, faced with the prospect of sending out “skyrocketing bills”, some electricity retailers even encouraged customers to take their business elsewhere.

The ensuing coverage has largely focused on the ways in which the freezing temperatures have affected power infrastructure. According to the Independent, 12 gigawatts (GW) of the state’s 25GW of wind power capacity “iced over” on Sunday.

However, a piece in Bloomberg warned against pointing “too many fingers at Texas wind turbines, because they’re not the main reason broad swaths of the state have been plunged into darkness”.

It reported that wind only comprises 25% of the state’s energy mix at this time of year and that wind shutdowns accounted for less than 13% of the 30-35GW of total outages seen across Texas.

Instead, the piece added that the “main factors” instead have been “frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas”.

Ars Technica also identified fossil gas supplies as a likely factor as during previous cold snaps its use in residential heating has been forced into competition with its use in generating electricity.

The role of gas infrastructure in the crisis was confirmed by various news outlets, quoting officials from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (Ercot), which manages most of Texas’ grid. 

According to the Texas Tribune, Ercot said the primary cause of the outages appeared to be the state’s gas providers, many of which are “not designed to withstand such low temperatures on equipment or during production”.

A piece in the Financial Times explained that the oil and gas industry in Texas has “buckled under the strain” of the weather that has “disrupted a big pillar of the global energy market and sent crude prices to their highest levels in more than a year”. It said that, according to Ercot, 46GW of power generation – more than half of the state’s total – remained offline on Wednesday afternoon.

The piece also quoted Parker Fawcett, an analyst at S&P Global Platts, who said the drop in gas supply has fed a “negative feedback loop” that had forced gas generators offline, “resulting in further reduction in power supply and production”.

Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that 70% of US completion crews at shale basins were  waiting for “an historic freeze to thaw out” before they could return to their fracking activities.

Another Bloomberg piece gave an overview of the Texan energy situation, explaining that in the blackout “everything went wrong at once”, adding: 

“Power plants weren’t fully weatherised…The ones that were still standing struggled to get enough fuel, with shale wells experiencing so-called freeze-offs. Many wind turbines stopped spinning.”

The article added that as Texas’s grid is “notoriously isolated” from the rest of the US it could not call on neighbouring states for help.

The Hill published a piece titled, “five things to know about Texas’s strained electric grid”, noting that it is “subject to less federal regulation” and is “largely ill-equipped to handle low temperatures”. 

Bloomberg said that, after a similar cold snap-induced blackout in 2011, federal regulators warned that Texan power plants “couldn’t be counted on to reliably churn out electricity in bitterly cold conditions”.

With the blackouts still on-going, residents were told by officials on Wednesday that they should prepare for power not to return until the weekend, according to Reuters. They were also told to prepare for another round of freezing rain and snow.

A further Reuters story said that the state’s power consumers will be expected to “pay the price” of the winter storm with state utilities “likely hik[ing] bills after this year, both to pay for the record price spikes and to fund updates to Texas’s grid to make it more resilient”.

How have politicians and the media reacted?

With so many people affected by the massive power cuts in a US state that remains the heartland of the nation’s fossil fuel industry, the week’s events have prompted a misleading outpouring of blame from figures who are sceptical about climate change and renewable power.

Despite assurances from the state’s grid operator that most of the outages were due to shortcomings in gas infrastructure, conservative politicians, including Republican congressman Dan Crenshaw, and right-wing media outlets were quick to point fingers at wind turbines.

On Fox News, climate sceptic TV host Tucker Carlson took the opportunity to “slam” the green new deal, seeking to blame “frozen windmills” on the power grid fail.

The Wall Street Journal, a newspaper with a history of taking an anti-climate stance in its opinion pages, ran two editorials on Monday and Tuesday blaming renewable for the blackouts and lamenting “the folly of eliminating natural gas – and coal”.

The second article concluded that the situation in Texas is the result of “bad energy policy” and specifically the scaling up of renewables:

“Politicians don’t care about grid reliability until the power goes out. And for three decades politicians from both parties have pushed subsidies for renewables that have made the grid less stable.”

It is worth noting that a separate piece by columnist Jinjoo Lee in the same newspaper said wind was the wrong target:

“Just as observers blamed high solar penetration for California’s electricity blackouts last year, Texas’s bounty of wind power has been an easy target.”

Instead, she said the simpler explanation is that Texas’ power system “isn’t used to the cold”. 

A third editorial appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, again seeking to blame climate policies: “Climate obeisance has made the grid too fragile.”

The Guardian reported that the event has been “seized upon by conservative commentators presenting a false narrative that renewable power was to blame”.

While some wind turbines did freeze, the piece quoted Ercot’s findings that failures in natural gas, coal and nuclear energy systems were responsible for “nearly twice as many outages as renewables”.

The Texas Tribune added its voice to the pushback against the claims that “frozen wind turbines” were the main issue, quoting energy experts and officials from Ercot. 

It added that agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, known for Facebook posts that “spread misinformation and amplified conspiracy theories”, declared that: “We should never build another wind turbine in Texas.”

An article in the Independent by Jamie Henn and Duncan Meisel, organisers of a Clean Creatives campaign, examined the “disinformation” that has been circulating following the blackouts.

According to the piece, among the politicians circulating misleading posts and images were Texas Republican senator John Cornyn, Montana Republican senator Steve Daines and congresswoman Lauren Boebert.

The Independent noted that an image of a “helicopter supposedly de-icing a wind turbine in Texas” posted by a “fossil fuel publicist” had been shared by politicians and “liked nearly 88,000 times”.

In fact, according to a fact check in Earther, the image in question comes from a 2014 test in Sweden and has been rising to prominence among “conservative media and meme-makers” since 2016. 

In a separate incident, clean-energy analyst Ketan Joshi highlighted the image’s reappearance earlier this month.

In the Earther article, Joshi notes that, even if helicopters were being used to de-ice wind turbines, any resulting emissions would be dwarfed by the emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants wind turbines replace. 

He also joined other experts pointing out that modern turbines come equipped with de-icing systems and are very capable of operating in cold conditions.

Publications including Associated Press (AP) and BBC News undertook factchecks of some of the claims circulating, including the de-icing helicopter story.

AP also addressed a claim being made by some, including Boebert, that the green new deal was somehow responsible, noting:

“The green new deal is irrelevant, as no version of it exists in Texas or nationwide.”

Another Earther piece was titled, “How much the oil and gas Industry paid Texas Republicans who are lying about wind energy”. 

The article looked at donations to those “who have been most outspoken in their criticism of wind energy’s supposed ‘role’ in the blackouts” – three of the state’s leading Republicans, Ted Cruz, Crenshaw and Cornyn. (Cruz has since drawn criticism for allegedly “travelling to Cancun as a huge winter storm decimates his state”, as the Independent reports.)

Responding to the various claims, an editorial in the Washington Post offered its view that “we need more investment in renewables – not less” and that the “fiasco offers many lessons about keeping the lights on”. It added:

“The real failure was a lack of preparation. Wind power generally slumps during the Texas winter, so state regulators do not assume they will get much from that power source. Rather, their plans rely heavily on natural gas power plants – and they are the predominant culprits in the current emergency.”

What triggered the extreme cold weather?

The dramatic spell of cold weather this week has broken low temperature records throughout the central US.

Describing Texas as “ground zero”, the Washington Post reported that the entire state had  “for the first time” been placed under a “winter storm warning” on Sunday 14 February. It added:

“These warnings for hazardous amounts of ice and snow expanded Monday to cover all of Arkansas and most of Louisiana, Mississippi, and western and northern Alabama, while extending northeast through much of the Tennessee and Ohio valleys, and interior northeast.”

The icy blast has been caused by frigid air escaping its usual confines above the Arctic. This can be seen in the NASA visualisation for 15 February below, which shows sub-zero air plunging south from the Arctic.

NASA-Earth-Observatory-images-by-Joshua-Stevens
NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Black Marble data courtesy of Ranjay Shrestha/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Landsat data from the US Geological Survey, and GEOS-5 data from the Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at NASA GSFC. Credit: NASA.

During winter, the Arctic’s cold air is usually held in place by a low-pressure circulation pattern called the “stratospheric polar vortex” – often referred to as the “polar vortex” in many of the news reports. A feature of this system is a circulation of strong west-to-east winds high up in the stratosphere – up to 50km – called the “polar night jet”. 

This typically flows in tandem with the jet stream – a current of fast-flowing air high up in the troposphere. 

However, if something disrupts the stratospheric polar vortex it can weaken, reverse direction and even split into two. This can trigger a sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) event where air collapses in over the Arctic, causing a spike in temperatures in the stratosphere. 

As the Met Office animation below illustrates, this can have a knock-on effect on the jet stream, weakening it and making it easier for cold air to push its way down from the north.

This is how the Economist explained the events:

“Texans’ current chill was caused by rapid heating in the stratosphere, the second-lowest section of the atmosphere, 8-50km (5-30 miles) above the Arctic. Known as “sudden stratospheric warming”, it causes the polar vortex – a ring of cold air that encircles the poles – to weaken, lessening the forces that keep cold air corralled at high latitudes. This increases the movement of cold air southward and warm air northward, allowing low temperatures to sweep into typically warm areas such as the southern US.”

The Washington Post added that the cold weather helped “spark two major storm systems, the first of which dumped snow and ice on Sunday night and Monday morning, with the second on the way for Wednesday”.

Such drastic weather conditions are rare – especially for Texas – noted Bloomberg. But an SSW event has been the root cause of other recent cold extremes – for example, the UK’s “Beast from the East” in 2018 and the brutally cold weather that hit the US and Canada in 2019

SSW events typically occur once every other year or so, but this year’s event “has been a whopper”, said the Associated Press:

“Meteorologists call it one of the biggest, nastiest and longest-lasting ones they’ve seen, and they’ve been watching since at least the 1950s. This week’s weather is part of a pattern stretching back to January.”

The event could be “considered not one, but three polar vortex disruptions”, the AP noted:

“There was a split of the vortex in early January and another in mid-January. Then at the end of January came the displacement that caused cold air to spill into Europe and much of the US.”

Could climate change have played a role?

The trigger for a SSW event is typically a natural weather pattern or disturbance in the troposphere. For example, a common source is variability caused by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

However, research has suggested that the frequency of “weak vortex states” in winter has increased over recent decades. The work suggests that global warming, through its impact on the decline in Arctic sea ice, could be playing a role.

This is one of several ways that a rapidly warming Arctic has been linked to extreme weather events in the mid-latitudes. These are explored in more detail in Carbon Brief’s detailed explainer from 2019.

Much of the media reporting around events in Texas has brought up these potential links. As the Los Angeles Times put it:

“While rising global temperatures are the best-known consequence of burning fossil fuels, there’s also a growing body of scientific evidence linking this kind of cold spell across the middle of the country to rapidly warming conditions in the Arctic.”

Dr Judah Cohen, director of seasonal forecasting at Atmospheric and Environmental Research, told the Guardian that events in the US this week “can’t be hand-waved away as if it’s entirely natural”, adding that “this is happening not in spite of climate change, it’s in part due to climate change”.

The paper added:

“Last year, Cohen co-authored a paper that found a strong uptick in winter storms in the US north-east in the decade leading up to 2018. This, Cohen and some other scientists argue, is a symptom of heating in the Arctic, occurring at a rate more than twice the global average, that is disrupting long-established climatic systems.”

Cohen explained to the paper that rapid warming in the Arctic – known as “Arctic amplification” – is affecting both the jet stream and the polar vortex. “The energy escaping from the jet stream bangs into the polar vortex so it starts to wobble and move all over the place,” he said, adding that “where the polar vortex goes, so goes the cold air”.

A weaker polar vortex “allows more chances for frigid Arctic air to ooze into the Lower 48 [states]”, University of Georgia’s Dr Marshall Shepherd told the Associated Press.

However, not all scientists are convinced. The New York Times reported that the link has not been settled yet, noting:

Computer models don’t show a strong association between the frequency of polar vortex spills and climate change, but some researchers have found a tendency to more frequent severe winter weather in general as the Arctic warms.”

Some scientists have “urged caution when attributing individual cold events to global heating”, reported a factcheck in the Independent

The paper quotes Prof Tim Woollings, associate professor of physical climate science at the University of Oxford and author of a book on the jet stream, who described the theory as “an interesting idea, but there’s not a lot of evidence for it…If anything, the evidence has got weaker in recent years”.

Similarly, the Economist reported that, “as yet, no clear causal link has been proven between climate change and the behaviour of the polar vortex”.

Dr Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, was one of a number of scientists who tweeted on the topic. She shared the findings of the IPCC’s 2019 special report on the ocean and cryosphere, which concluded:

“Changes in Arctic sea ice have the potential to influence mid-latitude weather (medium confidence), but there is low confidence in the detection of this influence for specific weather types.”

Vox noted that “scientists do expect to get a better handle on what to expect with cold weather extremes as they gather more data”. And it quoted Dr Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, who said: 

“Maybe we can’t say for sure there’s a connection, but it’s a matter of how soon that connection will become clear and how big that connection will be.”

In the meantime, though, global warming has seen cold snaps “become increasingly rare and less severe”, noted the Washington Post, while “heatwaves have become far more common and intense”. It added:

“The central US is currently the most unusually cold region on the planet, with temperatures reaching 50F below average in some areas. However, the planet as a whole is still unusually mild, and 2020 was on par with the previous record for the warmest year on record.”

(For more on how the world warmed in 2020, see Carbon Brief’s State of the Climate article.)

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