In June 2017, the Trump Administration rolled out “Energy Week,” one among several policy-themed weeks that included “Infrastructure Week” and “Made in America Week,” all of them drowned out by one more immediate story or another. This particular rollout was obscured by the fight over Obamacare. Thousands of health-care advocates made a human chain around the Capitol protesting repeal while people in wheelchairs staged die-ins. Needless to say, the media wasn’t heavily focused on the Trump Administration’s official approach to energy, which everyone already knew would be long on fossil fuels, coal in particular, and short on pretty much everything else.
During his campaign, Trump had spoken of “unleashing” the wealth under the ground. (Hillary Clinton, he said, would just “unleash the EPA.”) In his major speech on energy policy delivered the day he secured the Republican nomination in May 2016 in Bismarck, North Dakota, a region at the heart of America’s decade-long fracking boom, he spoke of “mak[ing] America wealthy again” by lifting regulations on the production and exportation of domestic fossil fuels. He touted the abundance of fossil fuels the US had beneath its lands compared to those of other countries. “We have more natural gas than Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, combined,” he said. “We have three times more coal than Russia! Our total untapped oil and gas reserves on federal lands equal an estimated fifty trillion dollars! Think of that. We’re loaded, we didn’t even know it! We’re loaded! . . . We’re richer than all of ’em, richer than all of ’em folks.”
Such comments were met with feel-good (or at least not feel-terrible) stories and op-eds in the mainstream media reassuring climate-concerned readers that, rhetoric aside, Trump could in fact do very little to stop the death of coal and the ascendance of renewables. Journalists and pundits in major news outlets strained to point out that Trump couldn’t exit the Paris Agreement even if he wanted to: its opt-out clause meant that the US would remain a party until 2020, one day after the next presidential election. Nonetheless, on June 1, 2017, Trump, in a style fit for a season finale of Celebrity Apprentice—would Pruitt (“let’s pull out”) or Tillerson (“no, let’s stay in”) win the show?—announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, which even if not wholly technically effective, would certainly have an impact on the global energy markets in both the short and—it would seem catastrophically—long terms.
In 2016, energy expenditures accounted for nearly 6 percent of GDP, according to the Energy Information Administration. But that statistic obscures how integral the sector is to the American standard of living. As the postwar European economist E. F. Schumacher, erstwhile economic adviser to Britain’s National Coal Board in the 1950s and ’60s, and later a foundational figure in the nascent environmental movement, put it: “There is no substitute for energy: the whole edifice of modern life is built upon it. Although energy can be bought and sold like any other commodity, it is not ‘just another commodity,’ but the precondition of all commodities, a basic factor equally with air, water, and earth.” In some sense, then, energy is the economy, at least as we now know it, and a materialist President like Trump who values wealth above all would naturally find fossil fuel energy—basically money found in unimaginably large quantities under the ground—impossible to resist.
In a speech he delivered as the capstone of Energy Week titled the “Unleashing American Energy Event,” which took place a few weeks after his announcement about Paris, Trump made it clear what kind of energy he favored, calling out workers who “break through rock walls, mine the depths of the earth, and reach through the ocean floor to bring every ounce of energy into our homes and commerce and into our lives.” He bemoaned America’s long-standing fealty to global energy markets and celebrated the recent increase in domestic fossil fuel production, which had been ushered in largely by an abundance of natural gas and recent advances in fracking technology. He announced six initiatives in the name of “this new era” of “American energy dominance,” all of which supported either nuclear or fossil fuel. Wind and solar were not even mentioned in passing. “The golden era of American energy is now under way,” Trump said in conclusion. “And I’ll go a step further: the golden era of America is now under way.”
Commentators were not sure what to make of the new slogan. Although Trump had used it as far back as the campaign speech in Bismarck, it now had the patina of a doctrine. Seeking sense and coherence, many likened it to a souped up version of “energy independence.” In 1973, in response to the West’s support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, OPEC instituted an oil embargo that nearly quadrupled the price of oil, resulting in infamously long lines at the gas pump and domestic political turmoil. Then-President Nixon first used the phrasing in his announcement of “Project Independence,” which aimed to achieve energy self-sufficiency in the United States by 1980, a baton carried forward by all subsequent Presidents from Ford to Obama, none of whom managed to achieve it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” and his abhorrence of the idea of other countries “using energy as a weapon” fit neatly—and comfortingly—into this interpretation of “energy dominance” as merely a continuance of long-standing doctrine, but his eagerness to export our fossil riches and leverage them aggressively in international relations didn’t tally.
Trump’s national security strategy, published as a sixty-eight-page booklet in December 2017, stated that one aim of “energy dominance” was to “help our allies and partners become more resilient against those that use energy to coerce,” in effect a realignment of the global energy order away from OPEC and Russia and toward the US. Though this policy rhetoric seemed to dovetail nicely with the call to consider “America First,” it was hardly isolationist. Economically, it was imperialist, encouraging dependence by smaller and developing countries, India in particular, on US fossil fuel supplies, and aiming to shore up our trade deficit with China, which has historically relied on others for their fossil fuels. When Trump recently opened the NATO conference—this even before the apparently meager breakfast of only cheese and pastries was officially served—by rebuking Angela Merkel for approving the Nord Stream 2, a proposed gas pipeline that would run from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany, he was in effect accusing her of betraying the alliance.
If it can be said, going one further from von Clausewitz’s famous apothegm, that energy is the continuation of war by other means, then from before he was even officially installed, Trump has aggressively mobilized fossil fuel production. According to the Global Energy Institute, the energy-focused arm of the US Chamber of Commerce, which is strongly pro-fossil fuel development, the Trump Administration has in his first eighteen months in office: repealed Department of Interior Regulations restricting the permitting of new and existing mining operations (Stream Buffer Rule); disbanded the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon and rescinded use of its guidance and support documents; revoked Obama Administration restrictions on offshore energy production and directed the Department of Interior to review how and where the US could expand development; reduced royalty rates to incentivize investment in Outer Continental Shelf lease sales; directed the Department of Interior to rescind the Obama Administration’s prohibition on coal leasing on federal lands; proposed the repeal of the Clean Power Plan; directed relevant federal agencies to promptly complete review of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline; and declared the Dakota Access Pipeline in the national interest. The latter two projects were the focus of sustained high-profile protests during the Obama era. But now—under our collective learned energy helplessness—they have been brought back online with surprisingly little fanfare.
Analysts from all segments of the political spectrum have pointed out that the opening up of export markets for American fossil fuels began before Trump came to power. In 2015, the forty-year ban on crude oil exports was lifted (though many fail to mention that this was sold as a concession to the Republicans for agreeing to a significant slate of renewable and other climate-friendly energy programs). The Obama Administration approved twenty-four of twenty-four proposed LNG export licenses and was, like Trump, against the construction of the Nord Stream 2 and in favor of LNG exports. Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy, apologetic as it may have been, at least in front of certain audiences, had hardly staunched the flow of fossil fuels from US shores.
Analysts also point out that the Trump Administration’s efforts to prop up coal and nuclear and ramp up extraction on federal lands has so far fallen short. In the summer of 2017, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry asked for a study of the stability of the national grid, claiming the influx of renewables and natural gas might be putting the country’s energy security at risk. His subsequent plan to stabilize the grid, which heavily favored coal and nuclear, was rejected by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or FERC, hardly a bastion of radical environmentalists. Auctions for permits to mine on federal lands have been underwhelming with vast hydrocarbon-rich regions like the Permian, Bakken, and Marcellus already active and open for investment. Market forces have made building new coal plants or extracting new oil off-shore economically unappealing. And yet to say the difference in the two administrations’ policy positions are in some senses superficial is to miss the longer-term gestalt.
If energy is war by other means, then the Paris Agreement, inadequate as it may have been to the challenge of ameliorating global climate change per se, was in fact an international peace treaty. Trump intuitively identified it as such, characterizing it in his Energy Week speech as a threat to our national sovereignty. Although we in the US tend to think of fossil fuels as a privatized commodity (albeit one aggressively protected by the military force of the state), only a fraction of oil extraction globally is privately owned; the majority is held by nation-states. Rosneft is Russia; Aramco is the Saudi royal family. For much of the world, hydrocarbon interests are the state; and as with so much else he admires about what dictators and strongmen can elicit—the fawning citizenry of North Korea, Xi Jinping’s lifetime presidential appointment—it appears Trump would like to get in on that power. After announcing the United States would re-impose sanctions on Iranian oil sales, domestic prices in the States shot up, threatening the very popularity he craves. By then tweeting out to Saudi Arabia and OPEC that he would like them to increase production, and by the Saudis quickly agreeing to do so, Trump was flexing his “energy dominant” muscles, in effect re-aligning the energy markets for explicitly geopolitical—and in his case narcissistically personal—ends.
From the invention of gun powder to our current endless war in the Middle East, war and peace has been materially determined by energy use and the ease of procuring supplies. It would be naïve to think any one President or sovereignty could unilaterally renounce the use of energy as a geopolitical tool or ready weapon. Whether or not both the Obama and Trump Administrations share particular policies when it comes to fossil fuels—the encouragement of exports or continuation of the occupation of major oil-supplying countries—the difference in the rhetoric of policy and diplomacy matters. It is to state the obvious that the “dominance” in “energy dominance” implies supremacy and will to power. What other country desires to be “dominated” by us? Not Germany and not Iran. Not China, particularly, even if it might have a mutual geopolitical interest with us in reducing its dependence on Russian supplies.
With the advent of renewables, which in many global regions have reached price parity with fossil fuels, we finally have the chance—hundreds of bloody, violent years in the making—to disarm. Even putting aside the overwhelming disaster that is climate change, fossil fuels, though incredibly powerful in a pure horse power sense, have been geopolitically destructive; their discovery and extraction a kind of arms race with no end in sight. Warships and commercial airplanes will not run on wind or solar anytime soon. It will take decades for the grid to remake itself in the image of renewable energy. Though it can be argued that to implement the Paris Agreement would have only a negligible effect on rising temperature in the future, and that, as the sine qua non of growth, at least historically, fossil fuels might be worth significant environmental trade-offs, it is hard to imagine that, if given the collective choice now to decide between two worlds—one run on locally sourced, air-pollution-free, and resilient renewables and one run on polluting fossil fuels mined from deep in the ground in some of the most geopolitically unstable regions in the world—we would choose the latter. The Paris Agreement was a chance to ratchet down—not simply in the sense of our global emissions, but also in the sense of the proliferation of fossil fuels and their use as geopolitical weapons. With Trump now in charge of the United States of America, the world’s historic leader in carbon emissions and expected to soon overtake Russia as the world’s biggest producer of crude oil, it seems we will have to wait until at least November 3, 2020 and a day to again seek our energy independence.