Trump executive order based on energy fantasies


As an editor at pv magazine, I was tempted to fact-check the statements coming out from the Trump Administration during the signing of today’s executive order on energy. However, attempting to address individual falsehoods was like pushing sand uphill, given that the entire announcement was based upon a fantasy world. Sadly, many of these are being propagated to play on the desperate circumstances of workers who have been left behind in a changing energy sector.

Where to start?

First off, while Trump is telling coal miners that he will put an end to the war on coal, the mythology that he is lulling them with – that the death of their industry comes primarily from federal regulation – is not going to save their jobs.

According to an analysis by Bloomberg based on U.S. Department of Energy data, there were over 131,000 coal mining jobs in 1990, and less than 66,000 in 2015 – a fall of nearly half. Coal mining jobs fell below 100,000 in the 1990s, and during the first term of Barack Obama  coal mining jobs were actually growing.

This is compared to the over 260,000 jobs in the solar industry – jobs which Donald Trump did not address, and appears unconcerned with.

Furthermore, the president’s executive order will assist, not stop, the real thing that is destroying coal jobs – cheap natural gas. During the last 20 years the United States has built a massive fleet of gas-fired power plants, which have overtaken coal as the largest supplier of power as renewable energy grows to a mere 15% of U.S. electricity generation.

Trump’s lies regarding reviving coal mining jobs are so transparently false that even coal CEOs are publicly dismissing them, with Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray telling the Guardian that “he can’t brink them back.”

The coal executives aren’t the only ones throwing cold water on the Trumpian fantasies. Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), said the coal industry especially remains unlikely to recover, regardless of what the administration does.

“Market forces overwhelmingly favor natural gas-fired electricity generation and renewable energy, and the trend away from coal will continue,” Sanzillo said. “Coal is simply being outpaced. It is an industry in decline, and the fundamentals are inescapable.”nstitute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis

IEEFA research indicates momentum is all but unstoppable in a global energy transition that has brought structural change to coal markets and that has driven U.S. consumption of coal down 27% since 2005, from 1.02 billion tons to 739 million tons in 2016, its lowest level in almost 40 years. The outlook for U.S. coal remains dim, and will continue to be shaped by five forces in particular in 2017:

  • Coal production declining by as much as 40 million tons.
  • Coal prices failing to increase enough to benefit shareholder or stimulate new investment.
  • Coal exports remaining weak.
  • Little or no gain from regulatory relief as capital continues its flight from coal.
  • Increasingly dim employment prospects.

“Our research finds no U.S. utility adding now or in the future to its coal-fired rate based. This trend will continue to cripple the coal industry and it will unfortunately bring further economic distress to communities that rely on coal mining,” Sanzillo said. “The new energy economy brings opportunity, however, and localities and regions that are in transition require and welcome forward-looking investment now.”

He said likewise the administration’s reversal of a moratorium on taxpayer-subsidizes federal leases to coal companies will not affect core trends.

“We see zero impact on employment,” Sanzillo said.

And while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke dismissed the Obama Administration’s policies as “pixie dust”, the words “clean coal” are not magic words, and do not make technologies such as carbon capture and storage any closer to cost-effective commercialization.

Sanzillo noted the broad absence of demand on the part of utility companies and public service commissions for new coal-fired plants. And he said the coal industry’s gambit to promote “clean coal” technology is ultimately doomed by the reality that such schemes remain unproven and stand to remain economically unviable even if they ever to come to fruition.

All told, the executive order signed today will resume cut-rate federal leases of coal on public lands and bring the Clean Power Plan back to the drawing board. It will also end the use of the “social cost of carbon” metric by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – an agency which is now headed by a tool of the oil and gas industry.

It is difficult to know what else it will do, because while the Trump Administration is good at making up fantasies to dupe rural America, it is not good at posting documents to the White House website.

In the signing ceremony there was no mention of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, which shows that if the Trump Administration is not listening to basic science or the military, it is listening to its overlords in the oil companies. Exxon Mobil had sent a letter to the Trump Administration arguing that the United States should stay in the agreement, as to better influence it.

Blue states rebel

Even before the ink was dry on the document’s signature, pledges of resistance were being issued by leaders across the nation. A release by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and California Governor Jerry Brown promises to exceed the targets of the Clean Power Plan, while blasting the Trump Administration for its criminal irresponsibility:

“Dismantling the Clean Power Plan and other critical climate programs is profoundly misguided and shockingly ignores basic science… Climate change is real and will not be wished away by rhetoric or denial.”

Not to be outdone, Senator Edward Markey condemned the executive order last night as a “declaration of war on climate action, public health and clean energy”

Governors Cuomo and Brown note that together their states represent 20% of the nation’s economic output and population, and and the governors promised to “continue to work closely together – and with other states – to help fill the void left by the federal government.”

Unclear impact for solar

However, for all the conflict it is unclear what impact, if any, these rules will have on renewable energy and solar in particular. Even where there are no renewable energy mandates, in many states solar is cheap enough now to benefit from a 1978 federal law requiring that utilities buy power from independent producers if it is below their projected cost of generation.

And in many parts of the nation solar is not only the least expensive form of new generation, but given its additional edge over fossil fuels in price stability, many corporations are taking to directly buying power from solar and wind installations.

As such, the Clean Power Plan was a trend-following, not trend-leading policy, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance has described the impact of the policy as potentially “minimal” for the solar industry.

Update: This article was updated at 4:36 pm EST on 3/28/17 to include comments from Tom Sanzillo, director of finance for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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