Why Trump’s ‘Energy Dominance’ policy is ‘hugely’ bad for the country

Photo of Vladimir Putin and Fiona Hill, Moscow, November 2011
Vladimir Putin and Fiona Hill at 8th annual meeting of Valdai Discussion Club, Moscow, November 2011. Image: Brookings Inst.

Dr. Fiona Hill, former official at the U.S. National Security Council, specializing in Russian and European affairs, appeared as a witness in the November 2019 U.S. House hearings on the impeachment of President Donald Trump. During questioning from House members, the following exchange took place on the subject of hydraulic fracking:

Mike Conaway (R-TX): “Just that the fracking is a controversial issue within our nation. If we did away with fracking, the United States would not be in a position today to dominate the oil production within the world and would play into strengthening Putin’s hands with respect to the oil—”

Fiona Hill: That’s correct. And actually I’d like to point out that in November 2011, I actually sat next to Vladimir Putin at a conference in which he made precisely that point. It was the first time that he had actually done so to a group of American journalists and experts who were brought to something called the Valdai Discussion Club. So he started in 2011 making it very clear that he saw American fracking as a great threat to Russian interests. We were all struck by how much he stressed this issue and it’s since 2011, and since that particular juncture, that Putin has made a big deal of this.

Putin’s concern about hydraulic fracking was justified. By 2011 the U.S. had surpassed Russia to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas. By 2014 it had equaled and by 2017 surpassed Saudi Arabia to become the world’s largest producer of petroleum (See following charts).

Charts showing U.S. and Russian oil and gas production
Image credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Aug 20, 2019.

Donald Trump became U.S. President in January 2017. Speaking at a Dept. of Energy event (Unleashing American Energy) June 29, 2017, he told the crowd that “my administration will seek not only American energy independence that we’ve been looking for so long, but American energy dominance. . . . We will be dominant. We will export American energy all over the world, all around the globe.” (Whitehouse transcript).

To be clear, in Trump world, energy dominance means producing more oil and gas than any other country. It has absolutely nothing to do with renewable energy or the transition to it. Mr Trump’s speech was a message to the fossil fuel industry that Big Oil’s domestic and foreign concerns would be addressed. Here’s a partial list of what the administration is doing or trying to do to fulfill that promise:

♦ Eliminate regulations limiting pollution caused by extracting and burning fossil fuels. ♦ Open public lands to fossil fuel exploitation. ♦ Approve all oil and gas pipelines and criminalize opposition to them. ♦ Create new offshore oil leasing programs. ♦ Kill federal initiatives that promote energy efficiency. ♦ Use the power of federal departments and agencies to block or hinder the country’s transition to renewable energy. ♦ Use whatever means necessary to secure export markets for surplus natural gas and block foreign competitors accessing those markets.

Domestically, President Trump’s ‘Energy Dominance’ policy is a disaster in progress. The oil and gas industry’s mad scramble to ramp up production beyond market saturation (in defiance of environmental concerns) has nothing to do with sound business practices. Rather, it has everything to do with the industry’s fear of global warming — a problem of its own making — and the growing demands for limits on fossil fuel production. It follows that the industry’s real objective is to build into the economy as much infrastructure as possible (pipelines, gas-fired power plants, export terminals, etc.) in as short a time as possible, thereby delaying for as long as possible the inevitable transition to renewable energy.

As recently as 2016, official U.S. foreign policy was “to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community”. Today, according to the Dept. of State, America’s foreign policy is “to advance the interests and security of the American people”. This diminished vision of America’s role in the world brings it into line with President Trump’s indifference to foreign negotiations more complex than your basic quid pro quo. His gullibility on the international stage has led to a series of incredibly incompetent foreign policy initiatives. It also accounts for his apparent belief that ‘Energy Dominance’ gives America exceptional leverage in its international energy dealings. As U.S. attempts to hobble Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe have shown, it doesn’t.

According to a U.S. government white paper titled ‘Russian Strategic Intentions’ (approved for release May 2019 by the Dept of Defense), President Putin is “adhering to a global grand strategy” which aims to: “Reclaim Russia’s influence over former Soviet nations; Regain recognition as a ‘great power’; Portray itself as a reliable actor . . . in order to gain economic, military, and political influence over nations worldwide . . .Key to Russia’s ‘grand strategy’ is the exploitation of the country’s vast natural gas reserves. Proceeds from gas sales to Europe and elsewhere provide the Kremlin with the funds it needs to continue pursuing its foreign policy objectives.

For Russia, competition from the gusher of American fracked gas, and U.S. efforts to export the surplus to Europe, translates into lost sales, depressed prices, and the need to extract and sell even more gas so as to stay ahead. Russia’s Nord Stream 2, a second 1,200 km pipeline linking Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, is intended to help the country do just that. The project is a joint venture between Russia’s Gazprom and several European energy companies. Allegedly concerned about Russian influence over Europe, the Trump administration has been trying to convince the European Union to pull out of the deal. For example, Bloomberg Dec. 17, 2019, reported that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, during a visit to Poland earlier that year, said that Nord Stream 2 “funnels money to Russians in ways that undermine European national Security.” More to the point, Trump sees the pipeline as an obstacle to his dream of massive liquid natural gas (LNG) exports to Europe, never mind European security.

Map showing route of Nord Stream 2 pipeline joining Russia to Germany via Baltic Sea
Route of Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany. Source: Gazprom

Unimpressed by Trump’s ‘Energy Dominance’ policy, the Europeans have stuck with the Russian project (on the basis of price and convenience). Trump, in a fit of pique, imposed sanctions 21 Dec. on companies involved in laying the pipeline. But since the project is about 90% complete, sanctions will only delay the project, not stop it. Russia plans to finish the job with its own pipe laying ships.

Photo of Pioneering Spirit, Swiss Co. pipelaying vessel
Allseas (Swiss Co) pipe laying vessel ‘Pioneering Spirit’. The ship quit work on Nord Stream 2 following imposition of U.S. sanctions Dec. 2019. Image credit: Allseas

When the pipeline is finally completed, Putin will likely consider it a win. He’ll be wrong. Here’s the thing about dealing in fossil energy: while producers and users are dependent on each other, producers are more dependent on users than visa versa. Producers do all the heavy work. Users have options. They can stop using one fuel in favour of another on the basis of cost, or efficiency, or politics. Or they can switch from fossil energy to renewable energy whenever it becomes available. Producers on the other hand are stuck with what they can pull from the ground. More importantly, they must now contend with a fast approaching and overwhelming horror, the thing oil companies executives hate to talk about in public — global warming.

Atmospheric CO2 continues to rise unabated (see NOAA graph below). It reached a spring peak last year of 414.7 ppm, a record. The highest level reached during 800,000 years preceding the industrial revolution was 300 ppm. Any country that ties its future to the fossil energy business is making a big mistake. The U.S. and Russia are like two kids on a beach, each claiming to have built the biggest sandcastle, each trying to smash the other’s construction, both oblivious to the incoming tide.

Trump’s ‘Energy Dominance’ policy has done nothing to advance “the interests and security of the American people.” Rather, it has exacerbated global warming — an existential threat to all Americans — and turned the country into a fossil fuel pusher, one of many, all privately worried that renewables are going to put them out of business. Of course, as the old adage puts it, ‘it’s an ill wind that blows no good’ — Oil Company executives are laughing all the way to the bank.

Image from Keystone Cops film
Incoming Tweet. President Trump’s foreign policy team. Image credit: Keystone Cops

Corruption is also a product of the Oil & Gas Industry

Cartoon about manipulation of science by special interests
Image from UCS Blog – Union of Concerned Scientists

“[T]he norms and expectations that once ensured that our government was guided primarily by the public interest rather than by individual or partisan interest have significantly weakened. There are now far fewer constraints to deter abuse by executive branch actors.”

The above understatements of the year are from a report released October 3, 2019 by The National Task Force on Rule of Law and Democracy, a group formed under the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law to figure out how to restore trust in government. The report focuses on the politicization of government science and research. It lists over a hundred specific occurrences of political manipulation of scientific findings. Examples from the list follow (numbers refer to the report’s itemization system):

#453 – The Dept of the Interior’s top climate change scientist was reassigned to an accounting role, despite no training in accounting, after he highlighted the dangers climate change poses for Alaska’s Native communities. Washington Post July 19, 2017

#448 – After Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researchers produced a study showing economic benefits to protecting wetlands from pollution, aides to the agency’s administrator told them to produce a new study showing no such benefits. NYTimes August 11, 2017

#482 – Chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) questioned studies that connect serious human health problems to air pollution and accepted research funding from the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry lobbying group that reviewed his findings before publication. ScienceMag (American Association for the Advancement of Science) December 10, 2018

#493 – The news that the EPA stoped updating its climate change websites in April 2017 is confirmed. The agency removed its climate change subdomains from public access, and removed links to its searchable web archive for any past information on the subject. Newsweek November 2, 2018

#485 – Chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) wrote a letter to the EPA administrator criticizing the agency’s use of science to set air pollution standards and questioned the long-established scientific view that fine particulate airborne matter is linked to early deaths. Scientific American March 29, 2019. 

#502 – The Dept. of Agriculture withheld a news release and sought to prevent dissemination of the findings by the department’s research partners concerning a groundbreaking discovery that rice loses vitamins in a carbon-rich environment — a potentially serious health concern for the 600 million people worldwide whose diet consists mostly of rice. Politico June 23, 2019

#441 – High-level Department of the Interior officials altered an environmental assessment for seismic surveying prepared by career scientists in order to underplay the potential impact of oil and gas development on Alaska’s coastal plain. Politico July 26/19

The ill effects of a corrupt executive branch go much deeper than the subversion of scientific findings. President Trump has packed his administration with fossil-fuel friendly officials willing to put Big Oil interests ahead of the public interest. The decisions made by these unelected officials, anxious to do the bidding of their bosses in and out of government, are helping to destroy the environment and cripple the country’s economic prospects. For example, here’s how this top-down rot is working to hobble the country’s nascent offshore wind energy industry:

Vineyard Wind, a $2.8 billion, 800-Megawatt offshore wind power project planned for waters south of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, has been put on hold by the Trump administration. Vineyard had submitted its Construction and Operations Plan (COP) to the Department of the Interior (DOI) in December 2017 and had expected to receive the go-ahead last month. The map below shows the proposed wind turbine layout submitted to DOI by the company.

Map to show location of Vineyard Wind offshore project

So what is the government’s  excuse for delaying the project? In an August news release, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) — the agency under DOI responsible for managing development of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf — provides two excuses:

(1) “Comments received from stakeholders and cooperating agencies [have] requested a more robust cumulative analysis.” 
(2) “Because . . . 
a greater build out of offshore wind capacity is more reasonably foreseeable than was analyzed in the initial draft EIS [Environmental Impact Statement], BOEM has decided to supplement the Draft EIS and solicit comments on its revised cumulative impacts analysis.”

Excuse (1) is the Trump administration’s way of saying that the delay is open ended and that it doesn’t have defensible reasons to justify it.

Excuse (2) refers to the fact that the wind energy industry has shown great interest in building wind farms off the East Coast (an estimated $70-billion in wind industry investments over the next decade). The claim that that interest was not “reasonably foreseeable” by DOI, is nonsense. The following is from TheHill June 4, 2013:

“Interior announced on [June 3, 2013]  that it would hold an auction on July 31, 2013 for 164,750 acres off the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, which has the potential to generate 3,400 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1 million homes. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the pending lease sale — which has drawn interest from nine firms — “history in the making.” 

If former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was able to foresee, in 2013, the potential for “a greater build out of offshore wind capacity”, then you can bet current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was able to foresee it too. It’s just that Mr. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil industry, doesn’t like the view. David Halperin, writing in Desmogblog March 26, 2019, says: “Bernhardt is . . . more skilled [than his predecessor Ryan Zinke] in the ways of law and government. But in terms of the ways that money corrupts politics and policy, his record is even more concerning. David Bernhardt is the ultimate swamp creature.”

U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-MA) is quoted by WBUR Boston, Aug 9, 2019: “When it comes to the nation’s first major offshore wind project — which has gone through years of extensive study, public comment and mitigation plans for impacted communities — they are trying to delay it to death. . . . Worse still, they are threatening the future of large-scale renewable energy development at a moment when the price of our oil and gas dependency becomes more obvious — and more terrifying — by the day.”

Six hundred thousand (600,000) U.S. wind energy jobs by 2050: that was the prediction made in a March 2015 report from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. According to the Environment & Energy Study Institute, the wind industry now (July 2019) supports 111,000 direct jobs. To Oil & Gas Industry executives, those figures are the stuff of nightmares. The shift to renewable energy is an existential threat to their industry. They need people like David Bernhardt to help slow it down.

Aerial photo of Wind Farm, North Sea UK
Offshore wind farm, North Sea UK