10 December 2018

Donald Trump marched through the Republican presidential primary field this year on the strength of a focused message: America used to be great. It isn’t anymore. And that’s mostly the fault of the Obama administration. On Thursday, Trump applied that same thesis to American energy production. “America’s incredible energy potential remains untapped,” he told a North Dakota audience in what was billed as a major policy address. “It’s totally self-inflicted. It’s a wound, and it’s a wound we have to heal.” The problem with Trump’s analysis: It comes at a point when, judged solely on production numbers alone, American energy production is, well, pretty great. Every year since 2012, the United States has produced more oil and natural gas than any other country. And it’s not just fossil fuels that are on a roll; the amount of electricity generated by wind and solar energy has also soared in the past decade. The domestic oil and gas boom has been powered by hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling technique that uses water, chemicals and sand to blast oil and natural gas out of shale rock deep below the ground.

While the oil and gas industry has seen a steep decline lately — which has led to industrywide layoffs and retrenchment — it’s largely a victim of its own success. A glut of domestic oil and gas has caused prices to drop, leading to a slowdown in production. Still, Trump said American energy production can do much better. He promised to scale back federal regulations, lease more federal land for drilling and revive the struggling coal industry. “We are going to turn everything around,” he told the Bismarck crowd. “We are going to make it right.” Fracking is largely regulated on the state level, but the Obama administration has attempted to tighten rules for the procedure when it occurs on federal lands. Trump promised to scale back energy regulation on all fronts. “Any future regulation will go through a simple test,” he said. “Is this regulation good for the American worker? If it doesn’t pass this test, the rule will not be approved.” He warned that Hillary Clinton, by contrast, would “escalate the war against the American worker like never before, and against American energy. And she’ll unleash the EPA to control every aspect of our lives, and every aspect of energy.”

In a press conference before the speech, Trump said Clinton would “ban fracking.” That’s not true. In fact, her Democratic opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, has run ads against Clinton blasting her for supporting the drilling technique. Like Obama, Clinton has embraced natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that, while flawed compared to wind and solar energy, is cleaner to burn than sources like coal. During Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, the State Department tried to drum up support for American drilling technology overseas. As a presidential candidate, she has taken a much more cautious approach, calling for increased regulation of fracking. During a debate this spring, Clinton said she would support the technique only when local governments approve, when the drilling isn’t leaking methane and when companies disclose the chemicals they are using to frack. “So, by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place,” said Clinton. PolitiFact has the full details on Clinton’s history with fracking. Trump blamed the Obama administration for a drop in drilling rates. It’s true that drilling has fallen off lately and there have been widespread layoffs in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation and other regions where fracking had taken off over the past decade. But again, that recent downturn is due largely to supply and demand, not regulation. As prices for oil and natural gas have plummeted, energy companies have slowed production.

Trump bills himself as a savior of the coal industry. “We’re going to save the coal industry, believe me, we’re going to save it,” he said. Coal production has dropped precipitously in recent years. Major coal companies are declaring bankruptcy. For years, Republicans have blamed the industry’s problems on what they call the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” There’s no question the White House has been tough on coal. A central part of the country’s plan for the Paris Climate Accords — more on those later — involves shifting energy production away from coal-fired power plants, and toward natural gas plants and renewable energy. The EPA has made it harder and harder to build new coal-fired plants. But coal’s main enemy, from an economic standpoint, has been natural gas. It’s cheaper for energy companies to get out of the ground, it’s cheaper to transport, and it makes it much easier to run a power plant.

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