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

Sea Level Rise and how you can track it in real time

Washington DC
On checking the weather, we see a day-old Coastal Flood Warning issued for the District of Columbia which says: “more than a third of Roosevelt Island will be covered by water and back water flooding of Rock Creek in Georgetown will begin.” An unusual occurrence? Not any more. Most low-lying coastal cities, including Washington DC, have begun to experience a new phenomena: High Tide Flooding during quiet weather days, the result of a gradual increase in sea level over the past one hundred and forty year.
Climate experts say that the the rate of sea level rise is speeding up and that the long-term effects could be dire. It’s a challenging subject and we’ve decided to find out more about it, starting today.

Our first stop is Washington DC’s tide-gauge station on Pier 5 near the south end of Water Street, one of the many tide-gauge stations operated by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Map of Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage
Washington DC showing location of NOAA Tide Guage

It’s a cloudy, not-too-hot September day. From Independence Avenue we walk ten blocks south on 4th Street to where it ends at P Street, then eaby a short footpath to the Washington Channel shoreline. The Titanic Memorial (a large granite statue of a man with arms outstretched as if in flight) stands at that point. Pier 5 lies a few hundred yards to the north. We approach it by the waterfront footpath. We can see the tide gauge from the shore but cannot inspect it closely. The DC Police Harbor Patrol have their headquarters on the pier and they refuse to allow unauthorized access. No matter; we’ll look into how tide gauges work later.

NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC
NOAA Tide Gauge, Washington DC. Image: NOAA

Knowledge about sea level is based on information generated by a global network of about 2000 tide-level stations. A British organization called the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) is responsible for the collection and publication of the data produced by the network.

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From: PSMSL website (psmsl.org > data coverage)

There are two trends that give climateologists nightmares: global warming and sea level rise, the second the result of the first. The trend line for the rise in sea level is based on the data generated by the global tide gauge network since 1880. Here’s an example, one of many available on the web.

From: EPA website published 2016

The graph shows that since 1880, sea level has risen by about 9 inches, an average of about 1/16th of an inch per year. However, since 1993, the rate of rise has speeded up to about 1/8th of an inch per year, twice the rate of the long term average. What do the experts say will happen next? Many suggest 1.5 to 3 feet higher by the year 2100. Others, pointing to increasing global warming and the potential for rapid melting of the polar ice sheets, talk about six feet and up by the year 2100, enough to put southern Florida under water and swamp most of the world’s major cities.

Predictions that imply 2100 is the year the rubber hits the road, are not useful. Why? Two reasons: (1) predictions that are safe from being proved wrong within the lifetime of the predictors, are not impressive and easily ignored; (2) the year 2100 is eighty years in the future, much too long a time frame to be of practical use to most people. We need predictions that focus on the near term. We also need a way to keep track of the situation in real time and without having to depend directly on experts for information on which to base personal decisions, such as where to live, for example.
Help is at hand in the form of a paper titled ‘Sea level rise drives increased tidal flooding frequency . . . ‘ published Feb. 3, 2017 in the ‘open access’ journal PLOS ONE. Here’s an excerpt:

“. . . because the general public often perceives climate change as a temporally distant threat, we have chosen to focus on two time frames (15 and 30 years into the future) that are easily comprehensible within a human lifetime.”

In the paper, the authors have predicted the severity of tidal flooding at 52 locations along the U.S. east and gulf coasts by the years 2030 and 2045. They did this by first establishing a correlation between tide-gauge measurements and Coastal Flood Advisories (CFAs) issued by the U.S. National Weather Service. They then show that the number and frequency of CFAs for any  given location can substitute for tide-gauge measurnts as a predictor of future flooding severity.

This is great. We, or anyone else with access to the web, can easily keep track of the number and frequency of CFAs affecting coastal property. A daily check on the Coastal Flood Advisory section of the National Weather Service takes little effort. After two or three years we can crunch our numbers and decide for ourselves whether or not sea level rise is a threat to take seriously. We won’t have to depend on media reports about climate change to be in the know.

Here’s an example from the PLOS ONE paper. By 2015, the number of tidal flood events affecting the shore area of Annapolis, Maryland, had risen to about 35 per year. Based on the CFA record for Annapolis, the authors predict that that number will rise to 145 by the year 2030 (only 11 years from now) and to 180 by the year 2045. If those predictions become fact, who is going to put up with streets and shop fronts that get swamped by sea water every second or third day of the year? The report paints a similar near-term future for the waterfront areas of Washington DC and other cities.

Since we intend to keep track of the Coastal Flood Advisories issued for Annapolis, we decide to visit the city to see for ourselves how tidal flooding has affected it so far. Annapolis lies about 30 miles from DC on a different branch of Chesapeake Bay. We retrieve our car from its parking spot and head east out of Washington, aiming to connect with Route 50.

Map of Annapolis MD waterfront area
Annapolis MD waterfront showing area affected by intermittent tidal flooding
Map showing Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay
Washington DC and Annapolis MD in relation to Chesapeake Bay