IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Texas officials circulated climate skeptic's talking points on power failures during storm

Alex Epstein, author of "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels," blamed failures on the state's embrace of wind and solar energy.
Image: An Oncor Electric Delivery crew works on restoring power to a neighborhood following the winter storm that passed through Texas Feb. 18, 2021, in Odessa, Texas.
An Oncor Electric Delivery crew works on restoring power to a neighborhood following the winter storm that passed through Texas, on Feb. 18, 2021, in Odessa, Texas.Eli Hartman / Odessa American via AP file

WASHINGTON — As millions of Texans went without power for days during February's devastating storm, Texas oil and gas regulators were circulating talking points from a noted climate skeptic blaming system failures on the state's embrace of wind and solar energy, emails obtained by NBC News show.

The talking points from Alex Epstein, author of "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels," made their way to the Texas governor's office and to the state's oil and gas regulator, known as the Railroad Commission of Texas. One commissioner amplified the talking points on Twitter, while another commissioner's aide forwarded them to top Texas oil and gas lobbyists.

The talking points said there was a lesson to learn from the Texas crisis: that wind and solar power are "often useless when you need them most."

In fact, independent fact-checkers have repeatedly said the state's failure to weatherize, along with its disconnection from the national grid, triggered a domino effect that forced the massive blackouts as power plants went offline. The biggest losses of generation came from natural gas; failing wind power played only a minimal role.

Still, the narrative about frozen wind turbines quickly took hold, particularly in far-right media, as Texas regulators and other elected officials took to television and Twitter to blame renewable energy for the failures. Gov. Greg Abbott asserted on Fox News' "Hannity" that "our wind and our solar got shut down."

Less than 12 hours earlier, talking points from Epstein had landed in the inbox of Luis Saenz, Abbott's chief of staff.

"Here's the bottom line: The root cause of the TX blackouts is a national and state policy that has prioritized the adoption of unreliable wind/solar energy over reliable energy," Epstein wrote to Saenz.

Epstein, who runs what he calls a "for-profit think tank" called the Center for Industrial Progress, is a staunch advocate for continuing use of fossil fuels who has repeatedly cast doubt on whether there's a scientific consensus about climate change. He describes himself as a consultant on energy messaging and runs a subscription service for pro-fossil fuel talking points.

Saenz, who emails show was invited to a weekly Zoom briefing with Epstein the day of Abbott's Fox News interview, didn't respond to an inquiry about whether he attended the briefing or passed the talking points along to Abbott.

Epstein's talking points were among hundreds of pages of emails from the governor's office and the Railroad Commission obtained by the watchdog group Documented and provided to NBC News.

The emails cast light on what climate advocates and good-governance groups have long decried as a cozy and inappropriately collaborative relationship among Texas elected officials and regulators, lobbyists for industry and proponents of fossil fuels. Despite its name, the Railroad Commission no longer deals with trains and instead regulates oil, gas and coal.

"For an elected regulator to immediately finger-point a particular resource lends the appearance of confirming a prejudice against that resource, particularly when the facts suggest that multiple resources failed in the cold — particularly natural gas," said Cheryl LaFleur, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

On the same day Epstein's talking points arrived at Abbott's office, Epstein tweeted his top-line points, calling wind and solar "unreliables." Wayne Christian, a member of the Railroad Commission, soon retweeted them to his followers.

Christian followed up by issuing a statement warning about the "dangers of relying too heavily on unreliable, intermittent forms of electric generation like wind and solar to meet the energy needs for thirty-million Texans."

And the following week, when his next memo went out on Feb. 22, Epstein singled Christian out for praise, crediting him with having written a "great line": "Had TX been using 100% renewables, we would have had 100% blackouts."

Christian confirmed in an email that he was a member of Epstein's "Energy Talking Points" service. He disputed that he ever based his public comments on the talking points, saying he has been "vocally opposed to using subsidies to pick winners and losers in energy since being sworn in."

"The issue isn't the existence of renewable energy, but that it has displaced reliable generation," Christian said.

Epstein's talking points also made their way on Feb. 22 to Kate Zaykowski, a spokeswoman for Railroad Commission member Jim Wright and a former employee of a powerful lobbying group, the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

Zaykowski forwarded them to three Texas oil and gas lobbying groups, including her former employer, with a note saying: "Talking points from Alex Epstein. Not sure if y'all call in to his calls but wanted to see what he sent out today."

"Thank you!" responded Lauren Clay, communications director for the Texas Oil & Gas Association, who didn't respond to a request for comment.

Zaykowski said that the commission gets "messages from lots of places" and that Epstein was just "one of many people talking about the winter storm in Texas that week." She said she didn't recall whether she passed the talking points on to Wright, her boss. She said she generally finds Epstein credible.

Epstein's argument about why reliance on solar and wind power are to blame for the Texas crisis is not without nuance.

Wind and solar are known as "intermittent" energy sources, because they don't generate electricity 24 hours a day, meaning the electric grid must pull from other sources when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. Epstein argues that policies that mandate or subsidize renewable energy in Texas and nationwide have led to the construction of fewer coal, gas and nuclear plants, which could be ramped up to handle a surge in demand like the one during the frigid winter storm.

It's a remarkably similar argument to the one Wright used Feb. 26 in an interview with BIC Magazine, an energy industry journal, in which he blamed "quotas" for the use of wind and solar energy in Texas.

"We need to look at how we are allowing renewables that access onto the grid and maybe not allow that to happen," Wright said in the interview. He didn't respond to a request for comment this week.

Epstein said in an email that his talking points are "a free service I offer pro-energy, pro-freedom elected officials who are interested in my views on energy policy and messaging."

He said his diagnosis of what went wrong in Texas "has proved correct."

"Anything a recipient of my Energy Talking Points uses is solely based on whether they agree with it," Epstein said.