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Burn, baby, burn

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Burn, baby, burn
Why does the G.O.P. love fossil fuels?
Sleet, snow and ice shut down Dallas, Texas.Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times
Author Headshot

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

The Texas electricity crisis was a terrible, deadly event. As I explained in today’s column, it proved that extreme deregulation doesn’t work — when even Senator Ted Cruz starts demanding that regulators rein in windfall profits, you know the game is up.

But while Cruz decrying profiteering and demanding price controls is quite the man-bites-dog story, I think it’s also worth delving into the dog-bites-man story that came first. When Texas suffered catastrophic power outages — mainly because the gas-fired power plants that supply its surge capacity froze up, along with the pipelines that supply those plants with fuel and the wellheads that feed those pipelines — the immediate reaction of pretty much the whole right-wing political-media complex was to blame … wind power, and declare that the whole episode showed the folly of a Green New Deal.

The only dissenting opinion I’ve seen from that side comes from Larry Kudlow, who was Donald Trump’s chief economist, and who blames the collapse of the Texas grid on … Joe Biden. No, I don’t understand his logic either.

At some level this blame game wasn’t surprising: Everyone knows that Republicans love fossil fuels and view A.O.C. as the devil incarnate. But why, exactly, do conservatism and the urge to burn the residue of prehistoric plant life go together?

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This wasn’t always true. As recently as 1990 political contributions from the coal industry were split fairly evenly between the parties; West Virginia, now among the Trumpiest states in America, generally supported Democrats until 2000.

So what happened? First, over the course of the 1970s and 1980s Republicans became the anti-environmental party. This isn’t quite the same thing as being a free-market party: Even if you believe in the virtues of markets, Econ 101 says that polluters should face financial incentives to curb emissions, in the form of either pollution taxes or marketable emission permits. But the idea of a free market with incentives to behave responsibly may be too subtle for a campaign slogan.

Also, politicians and political strategists generally believe — rightly, I think — in something I think of as the “halo effect.” The party that wants less government tends to oppose any public intervention, no matter how justified, out of fear that it will legitimize a bigger role for government in voters’ minds. To be fair, the party that wants more social spending tends to favor government programs for the same reason.

And here’s the thing: Fossil fuels are, well, dirty. Coal is the worst, but even natural gas has its problems. It’s not just the greenhouse gas emissions; burning fossil fuels releases particulates, mercury and other nasty stuff that hurts health and increases mortality.

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Democrats are more willing than Republicans to do something about that, which makes the fossil fuel industry favor Republicans. And that reinforces the difference between the parties, which leads to even more disparity in political support.

At this point, in fact, we seem to be reaching the end of a doom loop in which the G.O.P. has become a party of fossil fuels, by fossil fuels, for fossil fuels. In the 2020 election cycle the oil and gas industry gave only 16 percent of its contributions to Democrats; the coal mining industry gave just 4 percent.

The problem Republicans and their fossil friends face is that they’re on the losing side of history. Incredible technological progress in renewable energy has made coal almost completely uncompetitive, with oil not far behind and gas seeing the writing on the wall.

Hence the craziness of the recent attack on wind power. It wasn’t just routine blame-shifting and disinformation; it was also, in a sense, a cry of despair.

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Quick Hits

The Texas electricity market isn’t laissez-faire. In fact, it takes a lot of regulation to make those “free” markets possible.

El Paso went its own way, and avoided the worst.

People have been asking me whether there’s anything in Texas like the market manipulation in California 20 years ago. I haven’t seen any evidence, at least so far.

Remember when Rick Perry tried to force utilities to keep burning coal?

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If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at krugman-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Facing the Music

A bit of beauty for the dayYouTube

Norwegian bluegrass, a cappella.

IN THE TIMES

What a Texas Plumber Faces Now: A State Full of Burst Pipes

Since a winter storm and hard freeze swept through the state last week, knocking out power and heat, homeowners have swamped plumbers with urgent repair calls.

By Allyson Waller and Mark Felix

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How Texas’ Drive for Energy Independence Set It Up for Disaster

Texas has refused to join interstate electrical grids and railed against energy regulation. Now it’s having to answer to millions of residents who were left without power in last week’s snowstorm.

By Clifford Krauss, Manny Fernandez, Ivan Penn and Rick Rojas

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Why Top Economists Are Citing a Higher-Than-Reported Jobless Rate

The official rate stood at 6.3 percent in January, but using an expanded metric, Fed and Treasury officials say it’s closer to 10 percent.

By Jeanna Smialek

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Why Texas Republicans Fear the Green New Deal

Small government is no match for a crisis born of the state’s twin addictions to market fixes and fossil fuels.

By Naomi Klein

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