(Art design: Jean-Dominique Lavoix-Carli)
From Texas with Cold
In February 2021, a “polar vortex ” swept through the U.S. and triggered a “perfect (winter) storm” that ravaged Texas (Johny Diaz, Guilia Mc Donnell, Nieto del Rio, Richar Faussett, “ Texas extreme cold snap has killed residents in their homes, cars and backyards”, SBS News, 20 February 21).
During the two-week dire cold snap, more than 4 million households, i.e. 15 million people, lost electric power. The same cold front froze innumerable collective and domestic water pipes Their explosions triggered dozens of thousands of domestic inundations, as well as state-wide water transport problems (Hannah Dellinger, “Plumbers “haven’t seen the worst of it yet” as cold weather bursts pipes across Texas”, Houston Chronicle, 16 February 2021).
The Winter 2021 extreme weather event is not an isolated instance. It belongs to the chain of consequences of the climate hyper siege that hammers the very living conditions of Texas. This cold front is itself part of the cascading effects of the destabilization of the polar jet stream, resulting from the rapid warming of the Arctic (Jeff Berardelli, “Climate change and cold front: what’s behind the Arctic extreme in Texas”, CBS News, 20 February 2021).
Thus, this very strange catastrophe reveals the growing probability that Texas could become incrementally uninhabitable. That could emerge from the cumulative interactions between infrastructures, living conditions and climate change in this state. The Winter 2021 extreme event also has momentous international consequences, because Texas plays a major role in energy geopolitics.
A winter of mass destruction
Turning home into a trap
From prehistoric times, the defining character of a home, the place where the family lives, is artificial heat and protection. Fire generates heat. Walls are providing protection, while also keeping some of the warmth inside. These two conditions are the basic life support system of sedentary families (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies, 1999).
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The extremely violent cold snap that hammered Texas in February 2021 deeply subverts this multi-millennial order of things. The wave of Arctic air that cut across the United States and that froze Texas was so cold that millions of houses, built for the warm climate of Texas, consumed far more electricity for heating.
This collective drain on the grid generated immense power outages. The freezing cold did also impact the gas pipes that were feeding several power plants, shutting them down. This heightened the pressure on the power grid and had a multiplying effect on the outages.Those outages stopped house heating.
As a result, millions of houses became cold traps for their inhabitants (Benjamin Storrow, “Why the deep freeze caused Texas to lose power”, Scientific American, 18 February, 2021). The sub-zero temperatures also froze the water in the house plumbing. The pipes’ explosions set off innumerable interior floods, turning houses into glacial and flooded traps (Laetichia Beachum, “Texas is in desperate need of plumbers. Two brothers-in-law drove more than 20 hours straight to help”, The Washington Post, 26 February, 2026).
Development as vulnerability
In other words, the Texan “Suburbia” became a gigantic trap because of its fundamental vulnerability to a freezing extreme weather event.
This means that the very paradigm of the U.S. urban development induces a very large set of “invisible” vulnerabilities, such as the state-wide mass destruction of plumbing and of warmth keeping.
My kingdom for a plumber
Furthermore this domestic mass destruction event becomes a longer term issue with a wider scope.
For instance, first, it led to a massive need for plumbers in Texas with consequences elsewhere.
The Texan government called for skilled workers from all around the United States. The government even accelerated the validation of the out-of-state plumbers’ application documents (Tyler Durden, “Texas desperate for out-of-state plumbers amid broken water pipe chaos”, Zero Hedge, 26 February, 2021).
This was all the more urgent that the plumbing crisis was rapidly becoming a massive and lasting water crisis. As it happens, millions of Texas citizens were thus deprived of access to fresh water for daily domestic and sanitary uses.
However, attracting thousands of plumbers from all over the U.S. is also likely to trigger a national tension in the plumbing field. When plumbers leave their own cities and states, needed repairs will be delayed and thus will worsen (Chaffin Mitchell, “Accuweather estimates economic impact of winter storms to approach 50 billions“, Accuweather, 18 February, 2021) . This will impact in turn insurance companies.
Then, back in frozen Texas, domestic electricity consumption skyrocketed. The direct consequence was a rapid and steep increase in electricity prices, because of the growing demand in a deregulated energy market. Then, because of automated payments, people lost hundreds or thousands dollars in a few days.
The Texas Attorney General is even suing power company Griddy, LLC for “violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act through false, misleading, and deceptive advertising and marketing practices”. Indeed, the electricity prices of the Griddy power company went from 50$ to 9000$ per megawatt (Press Release, Consumer Protection/Scams, AG Paxton Sues Griddy, LLC Energy Company: Customers Hit with Exorbitant Energy Bills, March 01, 2021; Tyler Durden, “Texas AG hits electricity provider Griddy for “deceptive practices””, Zero Hedge, 01 March, 2021).
In other terms, in a few days, millions of people lost their domestic, water and financial security because of a jet of Arctic air. Furthermore, the financial toll is certainly going to worsen, because homeowners are going to have to pay for repairs, while their property is losing value. Meanwhile, a lot of them are also going to have to keep on reimbursing their mortgage.
In the same time, insurance companies are also going to have to pay for damages.
Overall, these dynamics show that the Texan plumbing, water and home crisis is literally propagating all over the U.S.. Entire sections of the U.S. urban and suburban network will feel the impact of the 2021 February cold snap on Texas.
Texas Hyper Siege
From a strategic point of view, this winter sequence is in the continuation of the “hyper siege” that climate change imposes on Texas. This means that Texas is being literally “immersed” into the new and adverse geophysical conditions that are besieging it. (Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 31 2014, and Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, The fate of the Humans in the Anthropocene, 2017).
Geophysics under steroids
This new condition was highlighted, for example, in 2017, when the titanic hurricane Harvey surged in Texas. From 29 August to 5 September 2017, hurricane Harvey poured a staggering 22 cubic kilometres of rainwater across the South Eastern littoral of the U.S. It inundated also the coast and the hinterland of Texas.
The sheer weight of the quantity of water could create a two centimetres depression on the affected region. It took more than five weeks for all this extra water to flow to the sea (Mark Lynas, Our Last Warning: 6 Degrees of Climate Emergency, 2020).
A deluge has costs
This extreme event imposed immense economic costs, because of the direct damages to the infrastructures, cities, homes, fields and industries. To these costs one must add those of repairs and of business interruption. Indeed, for example, a lot of oil extraction and transaction operations were suspended by the hurricane, with impact on related companies (Matt Egan and Chris Isidore, “Tropical storm Harvey threatens vital Texas energy hub”, CNN Money, August 26).
Then there were the costs of necessary detoxification because of the massive industrial chemicals and sewage spillage. (Erin Brodwin and Jake Canter, “A chemical plant exploded twice after getting flooded by Harvey – but it’s not over yet”, Business Insider, 30 August, 2017).
If we take a look at just the counties of Harris and Galveston in Texas, for example, we see that “Hurricane Harvey has damaged at least 23 billion dollars of property…” (Reuters, Fortune, 30 August 2017). 26% of this sum is land value, the remaining part is being constituted by dozens of thousands of houses, buildings and infrastructures. This means that, potentially, millions of people found themselves brutally projected in very precarious situations.
In other terms, the very conditions of life in Texas become the medium for vulnerability to climate change. This has profound geopolitical implications, because of the importance of Texas on the international energy markets, in a Covid-19 world.
Texas and the shale oil revolution in a Covid-19 world
A plague in Texas
The turning of Texan infrastructures and urban development into a medium for social vulnerabilities combines itself with other cascading effects, those of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, 44.000 out of 29 million Texans died of the Covid-19. The Texas Government attitude went from delegating decisions about masks and lockdown to city councils to state government measures, often reversed. However, each easing of the sanitary measures induced a contamination spike.
In the context of the global pandemic and, as Hélène Lavoix puts it, of the emergent international Covid-19 order (Hélène Lavoix, “The emergence of a Covid-19 International Order”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 15, 2020), Texas installs itself in the Covid-19 World.
This takes a direct toll on the economy. Consequently, the unemployment rates reaches 8%. The slowing down of the economy is also deeply altering the trade and service activities. This situation triggers numerous public anti-masks and anti-lockdown protests.
Those certainly result from the combination of the collective economic and social anguish specific to pandemic economics and of the fiercely individualistic and liberal culture of the “Lonely Star state” (David R. Baker, Brian Heckhouse, David Wette, “California and Texas fought Covid their own, suffered just the same”, Bloomberg Business Week, 18 January 2021).
The Texas economic woes have a deeper layer. They are related to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Texas energy “renaissance” through the extraction of shale oil and gas.
All revolutions end
Since the beginning of the 2000s, Texas is the centre of the unconventional U.S. shale oil and gas revolution. This revolution is made possible by the fracking technology breakthrough. So, the exploitation of the huge Permian basin went from a paltry 850.000 barrels in 2007 to 2 million barrels in output in 2014. This was then almost 25% of the U.S. crude oil output (Daniel Yergin, The New Map, Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, 2020).
Since 2014, Texas is a major oil and gas producer. The two Permian basin Spraberry and Wolfcamp giant fields are among the five first oil fields in the world. The shale revolution turned again the U.S. in a net and major oil and gas producer, as it was until the end of the 1970s. (Michael Klare, Blood and oil, the dangers and consequences of America’s growing dependency on imported petroleum, 2004). This reinstates the U.S. at the table of the oil and gas producers, alongside the OPEC and Russia. This U.S. oil and gas resurgence also generates important tensions on the international energy market (Yergin, ibid).
However, with the COVID-19, oil and gas prices have known a brutal contraction during the 2020 Spring. They even plunge to -37$ during a few hours in April 2020. Since then, the U.S. shale oil and gas industry is in dire straits. Indeed, its massive costs and weak profits makes it very sensitive to energy low prices (“Oil price crashes below 0$ for the first time in history amid pandemic”, CGTN, 21 April 2020).
This deep fragility became a massive loss of 60.000 jobs in the Texas oil industry (David R. Baker, Brian Heckhouse, David Wette, ibid). So, the Covid-catastrophe turns the Texas shale oil and gas extraction into a major economic and financial vulnerability.
Texas as a warning to the World
In other words, through hurricane and winter extreme weather events, climate change is transforming the very development of Texas into unlivable conditions. In the same time, the Covid-19 World literally ruins the shale revolution and Texan workers and activities networks that depend on it.
As a result, from a strategic foresight and warning point of view, Texas and its situation underline serious questions that need to be asked about the near future of the United States.
Indeed, if climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic keep on hammering the Texan infrastructures, urban and economic development and sanitary conditions, the state will rapidly become literally unlivable for its 29 million strong population. However, if people start leaving Texas, where they will go? And where will such a large population be welcome? This is all the more complex that numerous U.S. states are also under their own version of the hyper siege.
The Texas hyper siege has also an international dimension. Indeed, the risk of a wreckage of the shale oil and gas U.S. revolution will rewrite the international energy order. But, at a more fundamental level, what can happen in such a very rich and developed region as Texas shows that the famous “resiliency” capability of an old industrialised region may have very real limits.
This should be a very strong warning for each and every country, especially in the rich, developed, and astonishingly vulnerable, Western world.