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Why Trump’s energy plan makes no sense

Why Trump’s energy plan makes no sense


Forget energy independence, Trump’s for energy incoherence

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When Donald Trump revealed his energy plan in North Dakota last week, he framed it as a jobs issue. Environmental regulations put in place during the Obama administration led to job loss among hard-working Americans, he said — and a Clinton presidency would only make things worse. "She wants to shut down the coal mines. And if Crooked Hillary can shut down the mines, she can shutdown your business too," Trump said. His own energy plan, on other hand, will create "trillions in new wealth."

But in the days since the speech, many experts have pointed out that the US is actually producing more oil domestically than it has in the last 40 years. In addition, it’s incorrect to blame environmental regulations for a decline in coal demand because the real driving force is the low cost of natural gas. And so, for energy policy experts, Trump’s speech was a demonstration of the candidate’s fundamental misunderstanding of what drives demand for various energy sources. But the biggest problem surrounding Trump’s energy plan isn’t that it makes no sense; it’s that it doesn’t actually exist — at least not out in the open.

Trump says his plan will create "trillions in new wealth."

With the November elections just five months away, the Trump campaign hasn't released a policy paper showing that Trumps plan can, in fact, reform the current energy policies in the US to create "trillions" in new wealth. (In contrast, Clinton and Sanders have both published climate and energy plans.) Because of this, practically every expert I spoke with had to first tell me that evaluating Trump’s plan is nearly impossible. "It’s not a plan; it’s a speech," says David Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California at San Diego. "It’s not just that [the Trump campaign] is vague on details. It’s that we have actually no clue where this came from and how they did the basic analysis." Still, there’s some meat in Trump’s speech to dissect. So, here’s a list of the many, many things Trump got wrong:

Trump thinks making the US "energy independent" would be good for the economy

Because Trump gave too few details in his speech, it’s hard to tell exactly what he means by energy independent. For most people, this would mean relying solely on domestic production to power the US. But given that Trump also called for a renewal of the Keystone XL Pipeline project — a project that would bring Canadian oil into the US — he clearly doesn’t actually want to cut out all foreign oil sources. So, let’s just operate under the assumption that Trump wants to stop importing oil from countries outside North America.

First, the US is the largest oil producer in the world. That means that even though Trump is trying to paint the US as a country that’s trapped under the weight of foreign oil markets, Americans are actually doing pretty well for themselves.

"It is this diversity of supply that reduces risk"

Furthermore, relying on a single source of energy — the US’s own supply — is risky. If something were to happen, like a devastating Hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, then the US wouldn’t have other, reliable sources to turn to. "You've got all kinds of economic shocks that can occur in the United States and globally," says Brian Murray, interim director of the Duke University Energy Initiative. "The more sources of supply that you have, the less likely you are to be affected by supply and demand shocks throughout the world." Robert Stavins, director of the environmental economics program at Harvard University, agrees: "It is this diversity of supply that reduces risk and that provides security, not reliance on a single source."

Trump thinks wind farms kill more than 1 million birds each year

In his speech, Trump blamed "government misconduct" for fast-tracking wind projects that "kill more than 1 million birds a year." It’s not clear where that number comes from, but either way, it's completely inaccurate. In 2014, researchers estimated that 368,000 birds are killed each year when they collide with wind turbines — a little over one-third of Trump’s estimate. The Fish and Wildlife Service, on the other hand, says that wind turbines kill somewhere between 140,000 and 573,000 birds each year.

Trump’s argument is a classic and dubious line of attack on wind energy. By some estimates, coal mining kills close to 8 million birds each year. And oil and gas kill between 500,000 and 1 million. So claiming that wind turbines are killing American birds is ridiculous in comparison. But the argument is especially disingenuous coming from Trump, who recently mocked endangered animal protections in California.

Trump thinks environmental regulations are killing the coal industry

Environmental regulations, like restrictions on federal land use, have had an effect on the coal industry, but regulatory impacts are nothing compared to the effect that the natural gas industry — coal’s main competitor — has had on energy production in the US. The truth is the natural gas is a lot cheaper right now, so coal is being left behind.

"We all know the coal industry has been largely devastated because of natural gas," says Charles Ebinger, senior fellow in the energy security and climate initiative at the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit organization. Because of this, any attempt at bringing back coal would probably have an adverse affect on natural gas production, he says.

Supporting fracking would lose more jobs for coal workers

But that’s not even the weirdest part of Trump’s position on coal. In his speech, Trump referred to using "untapped reserves of natural gas" on federal lands. This is clearly a reference to fracking. But if he removes the regulations that prevent fracking on these lands, that would probably lower the cost of natural gas even further — effectively stabbing the US coal industry in the back. "Trump’s promised support of greater natural gas fracking would actually have the effect of lowering demand for coal, causing more mines to close, jobs to be lost, etc., of the US coal industry," Stavins says.

Trump thinks the Paris Climate Agreement gives "foreign bureaucrats" control over how much the energy the US consumes — so he wants to cancel it

The Paris Climate Agreement definitely doesn’t give "foreign bureaucrats" control over how much energy the US uses. The agreement clearly states that countries can determine their own plans for cutting emissions. "I don’t know if he is ignorant of the facts or intentionally lying, but either is terrible for a presidential candidate," Stavins says.

As for "canceling" the agreement, the US doesn’t have the power to make that happen. So far, more than 190 countries have approved the agreement. But Trump might be able to pull the US out of the agreement before it’s ratified. This would be a very bad move from a foreign diplomacy standpoint, however. "With the Paris Agreement, nearly two decades of US climate diplomacy has finally won the day. And now the US would protest and drop out? Just one more way in which a Trump presidency would be an embarrassment, and a terrible threat to the welfare of the United States and the world," Stavins says.

Trump thinks the oil and gas industry support "10 million high-paying Americans jobs"

The oil and gas industry isn’t a big player when it comes to jobs in the US. In January 2016, 181,000 workers were directly employed in oil and gas extraction, while the coal industry employed another 69,000 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Trump didn’t mention climate change — but his denial shines through

Even though Trump talked about getting rid of the Paris Climate Agreement and environmental regulations, he failed to mention climate change during his energy address. In fact, the closest he came was to say that, as president, he would "deal with real environmental challenges, not the phony ones we’ve been hearing about," presumably a nod to climate change, which he’s said is a lie.

Trump is a well-documented climate change denialist and conspiracy theorist, claiming it’s a hoax orchestrated by the Chinese. Failing to mention climate change might actually be a strategic move for him. Diving into that subject would have turned an already terrible energy speech into a farce.

Based on this speech alone, Trump comes off as both ignorant and intentionally deceptive. But he didn't stop there. In California last week, he told an audience that the state’s devastating drought is a fabrication. "They’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea," he said, before adding that he knew how to solve the problem. All it would take would be to redirect water to Central Valley farmers, while ignoring concerns about endangered fish. Trump’s denial of a very real problem is scary. But as The Grist point out, his position didn’t come out of nowhere; republicans have been blaming the drought on bad environmental policies for some time now.

"He'll try to make himself in favor of everything."

Because Trump has yet to publish an energy policy paper, debunking his "plans" is a mostly futile practice. Holding back means that he can tailor his speeches to his audience without having to worry about making sure that what he says aligns with his proposed policies. "Trump has this way of taking credit for all sides of an issue," Jeremiah Bohr, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh told me. "He'll try to make himself in favor of everything."

So what does presidential candidate Trump stand for? In the last month, we learned that Trump wants to kill California’s smelt, but save birds from wind turbines. He’s also fine with denying climate change publicly while citing it as a reason to save his Irish golf course. And when he’s dealing with fossil fuels, it’s totally fine to expand fracking while somehow reviving the coal industry. The contradictions are so abundant that it’s hard to keep track. Of course, each of these positions could be entirely different tomorrow.

Update June 20th, 2016: This article was updated to include a video by Miriam Nielsen.