How the fatal Texas power outage could alter the climate conversation

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Some in the oil and gas sector say recent events like the fatal Texas power outage could mean increased attention on the need for energy reliability during climate talks.

Two Texans warm up by a barbecue grill during power outage caused by the winter storm on February 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas.(Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Hopes are high that 2021 will be a milestone year for global efforts to combat climate change, with an environmentally focused administration in the United States and a few key meetings aimed at ratcheting up efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. President Joe Biden is making climate change a focus of his government and wants to add urgency to the discussion by hosting a summit next month as a stepping stone toward having major emitting countries around the world increase their efforts to tackle the problem during the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow at the end of the year.

Biden's presidential special envoy for climate change, John Kerry, has already described the UK climate summit as the world's "last best chance" to avert the worst environmental consequences around the globe.

The UN conference, known as COP26, will be focused on having countries step up their pledges to combat warming. However, some in the oil and gas sector say recent events like the fatal Texas power outage could mean increased attention on the need for energy reliability as well.

John Kerry, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's special presidential envoy for climate appointee, speaks as President-elect Biden announces his national security nominees and appointees at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 24, 2020. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

As more countries invest in renewable energy like wind and solar, some in the natural gas sector, in particular, say there still is a need for fossil fuels to ensure energy systems are robust and built with redundancies that ensure people aren't left scrambling for power if a part of the system goes down.

In Texas, a storm last month temporarily knocked about half the state's power plants, triggering outages that pushed electricity prices to exorbitant levels and left dozens dead.

A sign warns customers of a Shell gas station shut down by lack of electric power in Pflugerville, Texas, U.S. February 16, 2021. Picture taken February 16, 2021.(USA Today Network/Reuters)

Up until three months ago, Andy Calitz, the former head of LNG Canada, would have said the UN conference would be a debate solely about climate risk. But now, his perspective has changed, he said, after what happened in Texas and other parts of the world.

"The fact that we've had this amazingly cold winter in the Northern Hemisphere, which has left its mark on and North America, has left its mark on Russia and Europe, has left its mark on China and Japan, will impress upon the governments, cabinets, and role-players at COP, the careful balance that needs to be struck because the stakes are so enormously high between energy security and climate risk," he said recently at the CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference.

In Japan, for the first time in a decade, people were asked to conserve energy to avoid blackouts after a cold wave hit the country in January. The majority of the country's electricity is from coal and natural gas power plants.

Last summer, the state of California had rolling power outages during a heat wave because its electrical system was strained. About 33 per cent of the state's electricity is generated from solar and wind.

Energy security and climate risk are both "profound in terms of their impact on the global economy and global society," said Calitz, the deputy secretary-general of the International Gas Union, an organization that promotes the use of natural gas.

His comments are reflective of other industry leaders who also stress the need for fossil fuels, at least until there is sufficient technology available to store large amounts of electricity to ensure wind and solar are more dependable.

Two Texans eat dinner at their home by candlelight after power companies performed rotating outages in Glenwood neighbourhood in Hutto, Texas, February 16, 2021.(Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman/USA Today Network/Reuters)

More than 70 deaths have been linked to the intense cold and damaging storms that swept through the region in February, with about half of the fatalities occurring in Texas.

The prolonged power outage wasn't because of a failure of one type of electricity generation, but the result of many factors.

For instance, many natural gas wells and other infrastructure froze, some coal and natural gas power plants had frozen water intake and some wind turbines were impacted by icing.

The Texas energy crisis is a recent event and that's why there is a natural tendency to think it could change the discussion nine months from now at COP26, said Robert Stavin, the director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, in an agreement.

But he doesn't think that will happen.

"There's not going to be a difference because of Texas. That would, in my opinion, be ridiculous. Texas was a [once in] 100 year event," he said.

Reliability is an extremely important issue that's always discussed in the world of environmental energy economics and policy, said Stavin.

"I would not want to exaggerate the impacts of the Texas energy crisis on international climate negotiations," he said.

Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy, is urging oil and gas companies to do more to diversify and adopt low-carbon technologies to tackle climate change, such as speeding up the development of hydrogen and carbon capture technologies.

The climate crisis is "very high on our agenda," said Kerry, while speaking at CERAWeek, pointing to the wide range of impacts, including more intense weather events like hurricanes.

He also clearly laid out his expectations for the UN conference in November.

"We will meet with the nations that met in Paris [at the UN climate conference in 2015] to hold the Earth's temperature hopefully to no larger than a 1.5 degrees Celsius, increase."

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