Politics would not be politics without some propaganda camouflaged as fact. But there are some topics on which we need straight talk. One of them is how we should keep our lights on and industries humming in the modern world. The formula for energy security today is not the same as it was just a few decades ago.
Unfortunately, we’re still waiting for straight talk from our current Energy Secretary, Rick Perry. Parroting his boss, Perry recites ideas that might have made sense in the last century, but that have little relevance now. In fact, the Trump Administration’s energy policies are so retrograde, they are holding the United States back from the largest global market opportunity in history. That is badly out of sync with the President’s rhetoric about creating more jobs in manufacturing.
I’ll elaborate on that, but first let’s fact-check a talk (video here) that Perry gave recently during a conference in New York. His topic was the future of energy:
1. “Rather than punishing fossil fuels by regulation,” Perry said, “we support making them cleaner through innovation.”
There are three loaded words in this one sentence. First, government agencies are not “punishing” oil, gas and coal companies with regulations. In fact, as I explained in a previous post, many companies want regulation to weed out the bad actors in their industries. If there were no bad actors in the fossil energy sector, or if the sector policed itself, government rules would not be necessary.
It is the American people who would be “punished” if pollution and other potentially harmful industrial activities were not regulated. The highest priority for industry is not public health or environmental quality; it’s profits for shareholders. But reasonable regulation can keep an irresponsible company from gaining competitive advantage by not mitigating its environmental or social impacts.
The American people understand this. Earlier this year, Gallup found that most Americans don’t think of themselves as environmentalists, yet 59% want environmental protection to be a higher priority than economic growth or producing oil, gas and coal. For the first time since Gallup began tracking the issue, most Americans are not happy about the state of the environment today and 60% of us feel that this Administration is doing a poor job on environmental protection.
As head of EPA, Perry knows that regulations are not made in a back room without industry’s involvement. Agencies are required to consult with citizens and affected industries before they issue rules. For example, the Clean Power Plan the Trump Administration is trying to scrap was issued only after the Obama-era EPA solicited and considered more than 1.6 million comments.
The second loaded word in Perry’s sentence is “cleaner”. All energy resources, even solar and wind, use natural resources and have potential environmental impacts when they or their hardware are produced. That is especially true for fossil fuels, however. All fossil fuels emit carbon pollution when they are burned and all require extraction and processing methods that involve potentially harmful byproducts.
The hydraulic fracturing process that allows oil and gas companies to achieve record levels of production today have been linked with groundwater contamination and even earthquakes. The ash produced by burning coal and the wastewater from coal processing, called slurry, are among the largest industrial wastes in the United States. There are nearly 600 coal ash and slurry impoundments where millions of gallons of the toxic wastes are stored. Catastrophic failures of impoundments have killed hundreds of people in years past as the slurry, like toxic mudslides, inundated communities. A federal study found in 2013 that many of the man-made ponds in the United States have dangerously weak walls because of poor construction.
During the Obama Administration, EPA finalized a regulation to improve the safety of these impoundments. Now, the Trump Administration wants to modifiy the rule to give industry “more flexibility” and, in the view of environmental watchdogs, to relax the protection of water resources.
The third loaded word in Perry’s sentence is “innovation”. He implies that we must choose between regulations or new technologies to make energy cleaner. In reality, innovation often is inspired by regulation, and innovation by itself may not be quick enough to solve an urgent environmental problem.
For example, the U.S. Department of Energy has spent billions of dollars since 1997 trying to develop and commercialize the technology called carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is the fossil energy industry’s big hope for remaining relevant in a world that must rapidly reduce its CO2 pollution. But after 20 years of research and failed demonstration projects, CCS is still not ready for commercial use. When the need is urgent and an adequate technical fix is not available, regulation may be necessary.
3. Perry and the President, like Obama before them, preach an “all of the above” energy policy. In other words, we need to produce all forms of energy to meet our needs. But the most responsible energy policy is the “best of the above”. If the government is going to get involved in energy markets, it should support the fuels that provide the most economic, social and environmental benefit at least cost to the American people. Carbon-free forms of renewable energy increasingly pass that test. Fossil fuels do not.
4. The Administration’s plan to make America the world’s largest fossil fuel producer is “energy realism”, Perry said. No, it’s not. What’s realistic, but denied by Trump, is that fossil fuel emissions are changing the climate and making weather disasters more deadly and destructive. It is also realism to acknowledge the warnings from scientists that the pattern of catastrophic weather will become irreversible unless we stop carbon pollution as soon as possible.
In response, all of the world’s nations have signed the Paris climate agreement, which commits them to work toward zero-carbon economies. This is why clean energy is history’s largest market opportunity. But Trump intends to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, making us the only nation to reject it. Worse, Trump wants to make the U.S. the largest producer of fossil fuels just as the world is moving away from them.
I would be guilty of my own falsehood if I suggested that we can switch immediately from a carbon-intensive to carbon-free economy. The transition will take decades and will involve disruption, as change always does.
What must happen now is collaborative work between industry, government and investors to create a clearly defined and realistic down-ramp for fossil fuels and an up-ramp for renewables. So far as I know, we’re still waiting for Perry to talk about that.