National Petroleum Council member: The "Texas" case for clean energy

The other shoe has just dropped on the US coal industry. The latest blow came out of Texas, home state of an environmental fund called the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. The Foundation is also known for its work in reducing the impacts of shale drilling operations, and its vice president, Marilu Hastings, is a member of the National Petroleum Council for 2016-2017.

Hastings has penned an op-ed with the aim of persuading the incoming Trump Administration to adopt the Texas model for killing coal jobs. Her argument is pretty strong, considering that Texas is on track to meet its 2030 Clean Power Plan goals easily, even though the CPP is still in legal limbo.

The Texas Model For Killing Coal Jobs

Hastings is basically arguing for a carbon tax. That’s the same policy that Exxon Mobil has advocated, btw, in voicing the company support for the Paris climate agreement (more on them in a minute).

Hastings sets up her argument with an appeal to “conservative values:”

Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic if the Trump administration called for a well-designed energy policy that is consistent with conservative values so that he could claim global leadership in the fight against climate change?…

If that doesn’t strike a nerve with Trump (he is arguably not a conservative in the conventional sense), Hastings goes on to play the ego card:

…He could dominate the negotiation with other world leaders to set the terms of international climate targets.

Citing a recent report by The Brattle Group, Hastings emphasizes a point on which industry analysts concur: on a national basis, cheap natural gas has been pushing coal out of the power generating market. They also concur that renewables have so far played a much softer role, though they are beginning to gather steam as technology improves and costs drop.

Based on the Brattle analysis, Hastings assigns a much stronger role for renewable energy in her argument because she is using Texas as a model. In that state wind power — and to a growing extent, solar — are already forces to be reckoned with.

Here’s a snippet from the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, which commissioned the report. TEC is organized in support of the state’s natural gas industry as well as wind and solar:

As Texas expands its historic energy leadership into clean energy, blazing new trails in natural gas extraction methods, utility-scale solar PV and boasting the nation’s largest fleet of wind turbines, the new paper finds that market forces are largely driving Texas toward a cleaner electric grid.

That’s partly due to favorable state polices that date back to former President George W. Bush’s tenure as Governor of Texas. More recently, Texas invested in a massive transmission line to bring wind power from the thinly populated west to points east.

Texas is also deeply involved in foundational renewable energy and energy storage research, and it has become a center for algae biofuel development — a topic that is also of growing interest to Exxon Mobil.

What Climate Change?

Hastings also makes a case for clean energy — in her view, that includes natural gas — that even a climate change conspiracy theorist could get behind (she’s looking at you, President-elect).

Without talking about climate change itself, Trump could effectively address carbon dioxide emissions from the transportation, industrial and power sectors in ways that promote manufacturing job growth, technological innovation, economic and market efficiency, energy security and public health — especially for Trump’s constituents who live near and work in the industrial and manufacturing facilities he hopes to revive.

Did you see what she did there? Hint: the US Environmental Protection Agency is all over it like white on rice.

Hastings winds up her argument by pointing out that renewable energy continued to grow under conservative state leadership long after Bush left office, though she seems to forget that such growth was enabled by the same types of public support that have been accorded to the fossil fuel industry.

What Was The Other Shoe?

One of the most emotionally powerful and persistent campaign promises President-elect Donald Trump made was this one (cited here by Associated Press):

“We’re going to get those miners back to work … the miners of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which was so great to me last week, Ohio and all over are going to start to work again, believe me. They are going to be proud again to be miners.”

However, the rebirth of jobs for coal workers in the US is simply not possible considering the market forces arrayed against coal.

One primary force identified by industry observers is the availability of low cost natural gas for power generation, a result of the shale drilling boom of recent years.

One could argue that as a matter of personal practice, Trump failed to inform himself of the facts while on the campaign trail.

However, a key player in that trend is Exxon Mobil. The company has invested heavily in shale gas fields, even when the industry took a dive due to a glut of cheap gas.

CEO Rex Tillerson has been advocating globally for shale gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, on behalf of Exxon Mobil.

In that light, it looks like Trump took a deliberate poke at the coal industry when he nominated Tillerson to be his Secretary of State.

If Tillerson clears his confirmation hearing he will be in a strong position to ramp up his efforts on behalf of natural gas at the expense of coal.

Tillerson will also be in a good position to advocate for Exxon Mobil’s oil ventures in Russia, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.

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