Trump’s unserious ‘America First’ energy plan

More than 37,000 solar panels gather sunlight at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center, in Merritt Island, Fla.
More than 37,000 solar panels gather sunlight at the Space Coast Next Generation Solar Center, in Merritt Island, Fla. Associated Press file

“An America First Energy Plan” popped up on the White House website within hours of President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The plan lays out the White House’s direction for how the incoming Cabinet will approach the all-important energy sector.

The plan misses the mark. Badly. Rather than laying out a serious energy policy road map, the White House regurgitates two familiar, dubious claims from the Trump campaign: that “burdensome regulations on our energy industry” have significantly “held back” its growth; and “embrac(ing) the shale oil and gas revolution” and “reviving” the coal industry will open up of vast “untapped domestic energy reserves” and drive the U.S. energy economy forward.

These are the usual pro-coal, pro-oil-and-gas talking points. Remarkably, however, the plan ends there. It ignores the “America First” story about our nation’s world-class wind and solar resources that are generating clean energy in every region of our country. Nor does it acknowledge that the U.S. renewable energy industry now accounts for most of the new supply being added to the electricity grid, and most of the new jobs in the energy industry.

The plan has another big blind spot. It ignores the other major economic driver in today’s energy economy: the rapidly changing power sector. Energy consumers want a smarter grid that can provide access to new clean energy generation, storage and efficiency products. A serious America First energy agenda would be pushing for infrastructure investments and regulatory innovations in the U.S. utility sector. But not Trump’s plan.

Instead, the energy plan looks to fossil fuels as America’s energy future, if only pesky environmental regulations would get out of the way and more areas would be opened up to drilling.

There is no evidence, however, that unreasonable safety and environmental rules are stunting domestic coal, oil and gas development. Inconveniently for the argument, the Clean Power Plan – the centerpiece of Obama’s Climate Action Plan that is most often blamed for the coal industry’s troubles – has yet to go into force. Meanwhile, market forces have been in full flower. Low cost, efficient burning natural gas is badly outcompeting coal.

The other rules most frequently identified as retarding coal, oil and gas growth are equally innocent of the charge. Congress seems intent, for example, on nullifying the Interior Department’s stream protection rule and inviting companies that still mine coal via “mountaintop removal” to destroy local streams. No industry gets a pass on this type of basic environmental obligation. Likewise, undoing the department’s new rule targeting the wasteful flaring and venting of natural gas on public lands will require a more disciplined extraction of oil and gas resources, not less of it.

The old argument that public lands restrictions are keeping down domestic oil and gas production is equally vacuous. Millions of acres of already-leased public lands remain undeveloped, waiting for oil and gas prices to rise. Meanwhile, the most prolific oil and gas plays are in shale formations that include relatively little, or no, public lands.

The Trump energy plan’s wholesale adoption of the coal, oil and gas industry’s blame-the-feds playbook is disappointing, but predictable. Also predictable, unfortunately, is the climate denial behind a plan that would tie America’s energy future to its carbon-polluting past.

But the Trump administration’s apparent cynicism about clean energy produces the real jaw-dropper: the plan’s complete disregard for the competition, innovation and job growth accompanying the explosion in renewable energy and utility reform. Rather than being at the center of the administration’s energy plan, these economic drivers are missing entirely from it.

This is not a good start.

David J. Hayes, former deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior in the Obama and Clinton administrations, is a visiting lecturer at Stanford Law School. Follow him on Twitter @djhayes01.