Oil and Gaslighting: Texas leaders must acknowledge economic climate change

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Texas has been a dominant force in the oil industry for over 100 years, but to remain an energy powerhouse our leaders must prepare us for a future where fossil fuels play a diminishing role. 

The Biden Administration has already shown its commitment to helping Texas make this transition but state leaders must cease burying their heads in the proverbial tar sands. 

Gov. Greg Abbott recently stated, “Texas is not going to stand idly by and watch the Biden administration kill jobs in Midland, in Odessa or any other place across the entire region.” The fact is that, in 2020, the year before Biden took office, Texas lost over 70,000 oil and gas jobs due to depressed demand and a crash in the market that at one point saw prices dip into negative territory. The volatility of the market, not presidential policy, set off alarms in oil dependent communities across the state, including in the Permian Basin. 

In an interview, Reagan County Judge Jim O’Bryan said, “Word is that no one has ever seen it this drastic … Hopefully it will be short lived. It’ll come back, it always has.” Of course this is also what coal miners in West Virginia thought when President Trump broke his promise to bring their jobs back. 

On the other hand, President Biden has moved quickly to fulfil his own promise to “transition away” from the oil industry. On day one he took executive action, including reentering into the Paris Climate Agreement and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline. The latter proved to be an example of why climate action must be paired with economic opportunity. 

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Axios that he was disappointed in Biden’s decision because it would cost union jobs and suggested that Biden should provide, “simultaneous and specific announcements about how those jobs would be replaced.” It’s good advice, especially since Biden plans to “create millions of good union jobs” through infrastructure investments. 

Trumka said something else that you could call a canary in the coal mine for Democrats. “I think what doesn’t get understood quite enough in the country, particularly in D.C. politics, is that that culture is very, very important to the people who live there.” Republicans exploit this truth well and they are using it to capitalize on any daylight between organized labor and the Democratic Party. It’s why Ted Cruz, a Harvard-educated attorney married to the managing director of Goldman Sachs, is feverishly trying to rebrand himself as a pro-union blue collar guy. And why Rep. Dan Crenshaw used the dust up to mockingly refer to the Democrats as “the working class party.” But here’s the deal. The Keystone Pipeline isn’t based in any one place or cultural region. It’s a 1,700-mile, $8 billion construction project that the state department concluded would only create about 50 total permanent jobs, some of which could have been located in Canada. 

This is about something bigger, culturally. Republicans want working class people to believe the Democrats want to destroy their livelihood and fair or not it’s a powerful weapon. That’s why Biden’s order to revitalize existing energy communities is so important. The idea is to create jobs by cleaning up toxic waste sites like abandoned mines and orphaned oil wells could greatly benefit Texas even if local officials have to liaison directly with the federal government to receive such benefits. Regardless of how state leaders act (or don’t), market forces are already leading to the shutdown of coal plants and associated jobs across the state due to cheaper (and cleaner) natural gas and wind power. 

A new report by Texas Advanced Energy Business Alliance (TAEBA) shows that $55 billion in stimulus investments in clean energy (similar to what Biden proposes) could bring $350 billion in economic activity to Texas, save consumers billions in energy costs and create 2.2 million jobs. Green jobs aren’t new to the state and there are more than 250,000 Texans already working in the advanced energy industry. In an Op-Ed that appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Environment Texas’ Executive Director Luke Metzger laid out how the clean energy revolution is already underway in Texas. 

“We lead the nation in wind power, and last year wind surpassed coal as the state’s second largest source of electricity. This year, Texas will install more solar capacity than any other state. The sun and wind are reliably powering our grid, reducing pollution and employing out-of-work oil and gas landmen,” Metzger wrote.

The economic case may be the most persuasive to Texas leaders but we must not forget the devastating effects that climate change is having on Texas from drought to Hurricane Harvey, and the long standing effects of environmental injustice on poor communities and communities of color.

Texas was blessed with the feedstock that fueled the last century but we’re also blessed with the resources and talent to power the future. It would be great to have leaders as visionary as those who made Texas a pioneer in science, health, energy and technology but we shouldn’t settle for less than those willing to open their eyes and acknowledge the economic realities of climate change.

Photo: USDA NRCS TexasWikimedia Commons

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