Donald Trump has sold himself as a different kind of Republican, but in his first energy policy speech on Thursday, he adopted the same tired, old energy ideas that have been trotted out by the GOP establishment for years. The only difference: Trump doesn’t actually understand the issues at play, so he avoided specifics and made absurd, impossible-to-keep promises.
Trump was not the fossil fuel industry’s preferred candidate. Primary opponents who had proven their deference to big business, such as Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, were considered a safer bet by the oil, gas, and coal barons. Trump, with no real ideology and a tendency to flip-flop, was seen as more of a wild card. Still, I predicted in March that if Trump locked up the nomination, he would adopt the traditional Republican energy agenda, just as once-moderate Mitt Romney had in 2012. And that’s exactly what Trump has now done.
We got a hint that Trump was headed in this direction when he brought on oil-loving Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) as his energy policy advisor earlier this month. Cramer has an extremely anti-environment record, including a lifetime voting score of 1 percent from the League of Conservation Voters.
Then, last week, Trump met with and sucked up to Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, a coal mining company. Murray is such a staunch Republican that he is alleged to have pressured employees to donate to Romney’s 2012 campaign. Murray emerged from that meeting to say he was backing Trump, but that even he thinks Trump’s grandiose promises to bring back coal are impossible. (Trump also revealed that he doesn’t know what liquefied natural gas is.)
Saying all the right-wing stuff, sorta
In his speech at an oil industry conference in heavily fracked North Dakota on Thursday, Trump called for much less regulation and much more drilling, fracking, and mining.
But, in typical Trump fashion, he took things a step further than most Republicans do. In 2012, Romney called, nonsensically, for “North American energy independence.” Trump, though, doesn’t want Canada intruding on his effort to make America great again, so he said, “Under my presidency, we will accomplish complete American energy independence.” Never mind that “energy independence,” North American or otherwise, is impossible as long as we depend on fossil fuels that can be sold on the global market. Trump said he would ensure that we are “no longer at the mercy of global markets,” but more domestic drilling won’t free us from the tyranny of international markets unless we nationalize all of the oil companies and force them to sell only to Americans. Otherwise, rising demand in Asia or supply disruptions in the Middle East will continue to affect the price of gasoline.
Trump put his own spin on the Keystone XL issue too. He got the party line right when he said that he would “absolutely” approve the pipeline, but then he added that he would negotiate “a better deal.” The U.S. should get a “piece of the profits” from Keystone, he said. “That’s how we’re gonna make our country rich again.” That sort of kickback scheme may have worked when Trump was allegedly cutting deals with mafia-run construction outfits as a New York City developer, but there is no current mechanism for it under U.S. law.
He also promised “energy reform that creates trillions of dollars in wealth.” However he came up with that ridiculous number, he might as well have pulled it out of thin air. The only source he cited for the huge economic benefits of environmental deregulation was the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative advocacy organization founded by Charles Koch and run by a former Enron executive.
Trump’s pledge that in his first 100 days in office he would “rescind all the job-destroying Obama executive actions including the Climate Action Plan” also offered political talking points rather than thoughtful policymaking. The Climate Action Plan is not an executive action, but a collection of actions, some of which are EPA regulations, like the Clean Power Plan, that enforce laws passed by Congress. Repealing a regulation requires a new rule-making process and a public comment period, which can’t be completed within 100 days. And it’s not clear which agency would repeal those rules if Trump abolished the EPA, as he proposes. Plus revoking those rules would trigger lawsuits unless Congress first got rid of the Clean Air Act and other legislation that requires the government to regulate pollutants.
Trump’s new energy agenda is all Republican politics without even the patina of policy seriousness offered by some more experienced politicians.
Playing to two wings of the party
Trump’s energy speech was all about holding the Republican coalition together: reaching out to the fossil fuel lobby while continuing to appeal to his rural, white, Christian base. In the primaries, Trump was the candidate of the party’s unwashed masses. Now he has to win over the elite business wing, especially now that he is raising money from them for his general election campaign. In a press conference before his speech, he gave repeated shoutouts to Harold Hamm, a North Dakota businessman who has made billions in oil and gas drilling and donated heavily to Republican campaigns.
Then he made his overture to the white working class by praising coal miners and their way of life. “The miners, they’re incredible people. I asked a couple of them, ‘Why don’t you go into some other profession?’ And they said, ‘We love going after coal.’” Trump’s pro-coal stance is so transparently political rather than based on any serious policy engagement that he just says coal is great because miners are great. And miners are great because they “love going after coal.” It’s circular logic. And like Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” it defines America’s past as its peak.
Likewise, Trump’s vow to undermine international climate negotiations — “We’re going to cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs” — is as much a statement of nationalist, anti-U.N. resentment as anything to do with energy or environmental policy. It doesn’t matter that he wouldn’t be able to unilaterally pull the U.S. out of the deal.
Trump’s energy speech on Thursday demonstrated two things: He’s trying to reassure the GOP establishment that he will be a team player and adopt their economic agenda, and yet he still has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to energy policy. If he becomes president, he’ll find out the hard way that we can’t drill our way to “energy independence.”