Low Energy: Clinton Makes Some Sense on Powering America’s Future; Trump Makes None

Fact-checking a discussion of an actual issue at Sunday's debate.

Low Energy: At Debate, Clinton Makes Some Sense; Trump Makes None

Neither candidate seemed to appreciate how quickly the nation's energy future can and should move to renewable energy sources, like this solar panel in Monkton, Vermont. (Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As the most Jerry Springer-esque presidential debate on record wound down, the conversation swerved from questions like “did Donald Trump sexually assault a TV journalist or just brag about it on his way to a soap opera shoot” to energy policy, a realm most moderators avoid.

“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?” undecided voter Ken Bone inquired.

Because of climate change, the next president’s actions on these matters will have repercussions beyond our borders for decades if not forever. But the candidates’ answers grabbed less attention than Bone himself, who briefly became a sensation across Twitter and other social media.

Trump’s meandering response showed that he doesn’t understand how energy companies, industries and markets operate, what power the presidency exerts over the private sector, coal’s future viability and just plain math. He doesn’t, in other words, grasp how the world actually works. The Republican nominee, whose energy policy is built on his refusal to believe that climate change is either real or worth fighting, denied his own denial in the first debate. He ignored the phenomenon in the second one.

Clinton’s response, mostly consistent with her prior statements, called for government action to support a transition toward greener energy. Although she was cornered into virtually swearing off fracking during the primaries after Bernie Sanders took a stand against the environmentally damaging practice, she showed once more that she’s in no rush to inconvenience the natural gas industry. Clinton briefly mentioned climate change, but managed to disappoint climate activists anyway.

In case you missed the exchange or your mind had gone numb from processing such things as Trump’s menacing body language when Clinton had the floor, we’ve got the clip via C-SPAN, as well as a transcript of the exchange here.

Here are some highlights and lowlights in context.

Trump’s Take

Trump kicked it off by saying that “energy is under siege by the Obama administration,” with the Environmental Protection Agency “killing these energy companies.” The real estate tycoon didn’t define “energy,” but it sounded like he used the term as shorthand for coal and oil. Global prices for both commodities are in a long-term slump driven by market forces, not environmental overreach, that’s reducing domestic production and spurring a wave of bankruptcies.

Watch Trump respond

Video courtesy the Internet Archive

Then he muttered that “foreign companies are now coming in buying our — buying so many of our different plants and then re-jiggering the plant so that they can take care of their oil.” Huh? Most likely, Trump was complaining about Saudi ambitions to ramp up their investments in US refineries that convert imported crude into gasoline and other consumer-ready products by buying out investments belonging to Dutch-based corporations.

“We are killing — absolutely killing our energy business in this country,” the Republican nominee went on to say, even though the nation’s biggest oil and gas boom on record and a major uptick in renewable power generation coincided with the Obama administration.

“There is a thing called clean coal,” Trump said, without mentioning what should be done about the expensive, unproven and arguably pointless technologies that purport to make burning coal less polluting but don’t reduce pollution from mining. He also indicated we should keep burning coal for another “thousand years.” It’s a more likely proposition than you’d think, if you count underground accidents.

“Now we have natural gas and so many other things because of technology,” Trump said in what must have been his most accurate assertion of the evening. In crowing about natural gas production, however, he was fingering the competitor most commonly blamed for coal’s troubles. Utilities are replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas, wind and solar energy to save money. More coal means less gas and vice-versa. But the future of both fuels is problematic: Electricity demand is growing at a slower pace than the economy. That’s because of increasing energy efficiency and the fact that wind and solar power are becoming more economically competitive.

“We have to bring back our workers,” Trump added. Presumably he meant their jobs and not the people, who haven’t emigrated in droves. This statement suggested that he should be more excited about the energy sectors with robust job growth, namely power and the coal country “revitalization” that Clinton advocates.

He also made a string of promises no president could keep.

“I will bring our energy companies back. They’ll be able to compete. They’ll make money,” Trump said.

How can he not get that every oil company on earth is in trouble due to a prolonged oil-price slump that began in the summer of 2014? Or that low prices, and massive debts, are what’s driving smaller producers and operators to go bankrupt by the dozen?

Energy companies will “pay off our national debt,” Trump said, his oddest line of all. “They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits.”

The notion that these companies, large or small, could pay off our debt or close budget gaps is bizarre. They don’t even see themselves as being “ours,” let alone as pawns to be bossed around by the president of the United States. And they aren’t rich enough.

The nation’s oil industry is dominated by multinational corporations. The ones based here answer to shareholders, not the state. They have such global identities that Platts, which ranks the top 250 companies, indicates this distinction by region. Four of the 10 biggest ones are located in the “Americas” region, led by ExxonMobil — the world’s largest private-sector oil company. The other three are Philipps 66, Valero and Marathon.

More importantly, these outfits lack the ability to perform the patriotic fiscal feats Trump is promising.

ExxonMobil’s profits totaled $16.2 billion in 2015, half of what it raked in a year earlier and less than a tenth of a percent of the nation’s $19 trillion debt. The oil major dwarfs its competitors and peers. Phillips 66, next on the Platt’s list, had $4.25 billion in profits last year. Even if the government were to seize all energy-company profits, speaking hypothetically of course because profits aren’t fungible that way, it wouldn’t make a dent. The federal government will run an estimated $590 billion budget deficit this year. Tremendous indeed.

Under what circumstances does Trump believe that energy companies could and would fork over that much more money in taxes to Uncle Sam? To bring them back suggests heavy subsidies. To have them pay our bills, indicates the opposite.

Tucked into this tirade was his claim to be “all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar, et cetera.” And he said “We need much more than wind and solar.”

That’s where Trump’s energy policy, if you can call it that, overlaps with Clinton’s.

Clinton’s Comments

The Democratic nominee made more sense than Trump overall, with two exceptions.

Watch Clinton respond

Video courtesy the Internet Archive

First, she cheered the fact that this country is “producing a lot of natural gas,” and she called that fossil fuel “a bridge to more renewable fuels.”


Natural gas is a leading source of the pollutants that cause climate change. And, it’s not a given that an intermediate step between coal and gas is in order for industrial reasons. Furthermore, the best alternatives for natural gas are solar and wind technologies, which aren’t “fuels.”

Citing findings by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Union of Concerned Scientists says that renewable energy will be able to meet most of our power needs by 2050 — even barring new technological breakthroughs. If that’s true, there would be no need for any coal by then and only a weak rationale investing in pricey natural gas infrastructure today.

“While natural gas has a role to play in our future electric mix, a natural gas-centered energy pathway would also carry significant economic, environmental, and public health risks,” the Union of Concerned Scientists says. That’s why it recommends a shift toward more renewable energy and great attention to efficiency, which neither candidate mentioned. Making more out of every watt and BTU could cut energy demand by 30 percent in 2050.

Here’s Clinton’s other strange pronouncement: “We are now, for the first time ever, energy-independent.”

The Associated Press’s fact checkers called this remark an overstatement, but it’s hard to say. What did she mean by “energy”? Politicians often mean oil when they use this term and if that’s what she was talking about she was closer than you might think. We could stop importing oil, other than small amounts from Canada and Mexico, as soon as 2020, according to some estimates.

If she meant something more broadly defined, then she was perhaps right but was not saying something widely understood. The US is a net exporter of coal and ethanol and will soon become a net exporter of natural gas. We import uranium to power nuclear reactors, but a little of it goes a long way.

Whatever Clinton meant, it’s a reminder that kicking the fossil-fuel habit altogether will guarantee energy independence. All the sunshine, wind, water, and other renewable energy currently generating a fifth of US electricity requires no foreign suppliers or middlemen.

Emily Schwartz Greco

Freelance writer Emily Schwartz Greco is the former managing editor of the OtherWords editorial service. She covered Latin America for the Bloomberg and Dow Jones news services. Follow her on Twitter: @ESGreco and learn more at ESGreco.com.