WW0 Investigates: 72 Hours of Disinformation in Texas
Ever wonder how disinformation spreads?
Last month, Texas, a state that derives three-quarters of its electricity from fossil fuels and non-renewable sources, experienced devastating days without power because, as Governor Greg Abbott said on day one, "The ability of some companies that generate the power has been frozen. This includes the natural gas & coal generators."
Indeed, a freak winter storm turned dangerous, knocking out 30 GW of thermal energy capacity. Wind and solar actually performed within the grid operator's expectations. Texas counts on thermal power plants for winter peaking capacity, not wind energy. It's a matter of fact what happened, and the facts make very clear it wasn't caused by wind power.
But hours, days, and now even weeks later, we're still debating the reliability of wind energy. It's a reminder that disinformation distorts too much of our debate and wastes endless media cycles.
But where does it come from?
The political firestorm that followed the polar vortex in Texas offers an unsettling, but telling case study on how a network of powerful influencers and associated media channels coordinated an effective, but baseless, attack on wind energy to distract the public from the state's mismanaged energy grid and its massive reliance on fossil fuels.
Front Lines investigated, and below are the results in timeline form to show the events as they happened.
TIMELINE - TEXAS DISINFORMATION
FEBRUARY 15, MORNING:
I. Luke Legate, a publicist for the fossil fuel industry, tweets a picture of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine, ostensibly in Texas but the image was taken in 2014 -- in Sweden! The photo then spreads rapidly across right-leaning social media.
II. Conservative economist, pundit, and 2016 Trump Campaign Adviser, Steve Moore, appears on Fox's Varney & Co. claiming that frozen wind and solar infrastructure caused the failure of Texas's energy grid. (Watch Steve Moore on Varney & Co. here.)
FEBRUARY 15, AFTERNOON:
FEBRUARY 15, EVENING:
Fox News becomes omnipresent, leading the charge to turn the Texas narrative away from the truth. Tucker Carlson appears on Fox News claiming that "the Green New Deal Has Come to Texas," repeating the false claim that wind energy caused the outages. He goes on to tie the issue to familiar themes of anti-elitism, rural authenticity played against 'decaying' progressive cities, and xenophobia. He labels wind energy companies as "Goldman Sachs compan[ies] destroying the natural environment with Chinese-made windmills that don't work when it's cold out."
Tucker Carlson again echoes the claim that, Texas has become "recklessly reliant on so-called alternative energy meaning windmills," causing the power outages. (See segment at the 2:04 mark.) He also claims, "The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories that they are, and people in Texas died. A lot more than died at the Capitol on January 6 by the way just for reference." (See segment at 2:40 mark.)
Fox News Tucker Carlson on February 15, 2021.
FEBRUARY 16, MORNING:
I. The Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal publishes an op-ed titled, A Deep Green Freeze, arguing that "the Biden Administration's plan to banish fossil fuels is a greater existential threat to Americans than climate change."
II. Senator John Coryn, Senator Steve Daines, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, among others who are ardent defenders of the fossil fuel industry in Congress, begin publishing tweets blaming wind energy for the power outages.
III. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a Facebook post that has been shared over 9,000 times, that appointees to the State's Public Utility Commission should be fired and that more coal and oil infrastructure should be built.
FEBRUARY 16, AFTERNOON:
I. Telegram channels begin spreading wild conspiracies about the cause of the storm itself. Many of these are driven by QAnon supporters and sympathizers.
II. Fox & Friends questions if power outages would become the future under the Green New Deal and America's Newsroom further amplifies this narrative.
Fox News The Five claim that Texas power outages were due to to the frozen wind turbines, February 16, 2021.
FEBRUARY 16, EVENING:
Governor Abbott initially acknowledged what happened in Texas, but as the attacks on clean energy accelerated, Abbott undermines himself by blaming wind turbines on Fox News with Sean Hannity. (See segment at 0:40 mark.)
Fox News Sean Hannity interviews Texas Governor Greg Abbott who falsely claims that wind and solar failed and that fossil fuels are necessary for the state's energy demands, February 16, 2021.
FEBRUARY 17, EVENING:
Fox News Tucker Carlson falsely claiming that the wind turbines failed and crashed the Texas power grid, February 17, 2021.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
First, let's recognize the good news: Most media outlets debunked the wildest assertions of conspiracy theorists and politicians who spread disinformation:
- Bloomberg - Frozen Wind Farms Are Just a Small Piece of Texas's Power Woes
- TechCrunch - Severe Weather Blackouts Shows The Grids Biggest Problem is Infrastructure Not Renewables
- Boston Globe - Why is the power out in much of Texas? Frozen instruments at power plants, not wind farms, are the main factor
- Ars Technica - Texas power grid crumples under the cold
- Fortune - Frozen wind turbines are one culprit in Texas's power outages
- RenewEconomy - Massive Texas Gas Failure During Climate Extremes Gets Blamed on Wind Power
- Vox - Why the Texas power grid is struggling to cope with the extreme cold
PolitiFact, What caused the Texas power outage? Wind energy didn't cause outages, March 3, 2021.
But let's also recognize the cost of disinformation. Texas experienced a tragedy. One that was preventable with grid and transmission modernization and mitigation. That's neither conservative nor liberal -- that's just a fact. It's a problem with a solution: we could all get behind national efforts to invest in modern energy infrastructure across America. But the disinformation industrial complex left much of America saying, "I guess it's the windmills," or "I guess both sides failed."
We all need to work together to spot disinformation at the source -- and before it spreads. That's what our new WW0 Investigates column is all about. Giving real facts a loud voice in the debates we need to have, and the fights that need fighting.