By William S. Becker, Executive Director
March 14, 2018
James Richard “Rick” Perry, best known to the American people as a former governor of Texas and contestant on Dancing with the Stars, has become one of the world’s more important people when it comes to energy. As Energy Secretary in the Trump Administration, he can influence the future of the world’s richest economy as well as the future of the world at large.
Perry’s influence derives from the fact that fracking technology has unlocked large supplies of shale oil in the United States. The U.S. produced more oil than any other country except Saudi Arabia in 2016 and far more natural gas than anyone else. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says the United States is at the center of a “sea change in the global oil trade” and on a trajectory to be a major fossil energy exporter by 2040.
Donald Trump would like that distinction to be larger and happen sooner. He has given Perry clear marching orders: The United States should achieve international energy dominance and assert global power by exporting oil, coal and natural gas. However, there is a big downside to this ambitious goal. It will accelerate and worsen the violent changes we are seeing in the Earth’s weather, a fact that both Trump and Perry reject but that is nonetheless real.
When global climate change is left out of the equation, Trump’s goal seems plausible. His Administration is busy relaxing environmental regulations and opening new public lands to oil, coal and natural gas production. Trump has visions of ending Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and undermining Russia’s influence in the EU. And one unintended benefit of Trump’s objective could be fewer coal-fired power plants around the world.
But Trump is blind to the bigger picture. He ignores that every other country in the world has signed an agreement to significantly reduce its emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases including the most important one, carbon dioxide. The United States would aspire to be the world’s biggest carbon merchant in a world that needs to use less carbon.
There are several dimensions to Trump’s goal: moral, legal and economic. There are lawsuits around in the United States and elsewhere in the world to challenge the liability of fossil energy companies and nations that have ignored or covered up how fossil fuels are destabilizing the Earth’s climate. Trump’s aspiration to pump more carbon fuels into the world’s energy mix borders on making the United States not only at outlier but also an outlaw in the global effort to fight climate change.
Perry’s culpability is that he has embraced Trump’s strategy rather than resisting it, even at risk of becoming the next Rex Tillerson, fired for disagreeing with the president.
What the United States should want is to become the world’s largest exporter of clean energy technologies. With future generations and the presently poor most vulnerable to the destabilizing consequences of global warming, that is the most ethical role.
It makes business sense, too, because clean and renewable energy is where global markets are heading. The world’s greatest demand in the years ahead will not be for oil or coal or even natural gas: it will be for zero-carbon renewable energy. The momentum is already underway in the United States and in many other countries. Advanced energy technologies are a $1.4 trillion industry worldwide. In the next five years, the growth in renewable power generation will be twice as large as that of gas and coal combined, the IEA projects.
The IEA projects that, “the way that the world meets its growing energy needs changes dramatically” in the next 25 years. Carbon merchants will find themselves pushing against hurricane-force headwinds in the global energy economy.
Yet, clean and renewable energy resources like solar and wind power are absent from Trump’s domestic and international plans. In fact, the president has asked Congress to slash the U.S. Department of Energy’s renewable energy research and development budget by 70%. Perry has expressed no public objections.
On the stump, Perry frequently uses bromides to mock the idea that renewable resources could be a major source of global energy. He told one audience recently that if the world shifted to renewable fuels, we would “go back to living like we were living in the late 1800s.”
He says that by selling our oil, coal and gas to other nations, we are “not just exporting energy, we’re exporting freedom”. The United States is a prominent example of why depending on imports is not freedom. Oil imports and the world oil market have abused the U.S. economy off and on for 50 years.
Perry claims that U.S. oil, coal and gas exports would help alleviate poverty. But in the countries where millions of people are off grid and energy poor, renewables are faster, cheaper, easier and cleaner than central station power. Because renewable resources can generate electricity locally, they do not require big central power plants or extensive investments in pipelines and electric grids.
There is nothing wrong with Trump’s aspiration to make the United States the world’s dominant energy supplier. He just wants to export the wrong kinds of energy. As the World Economic Forum says, “Our civilization stands at a critical juncture. We are on the cusp of adopting clean energy at a scale never seen before. But for renewable power to continue its rapid advancement, the right decisions need to be taken.”
Becoming the world’s biggest exporter of fossil fuels is not one of those “right decisions.”