Nov 3, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Making sense of Trump's energy era

Data: EIA; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Market forces have been in the driver's seat during President Trump’s first term, which means oil-and-gas kept growing (until the pandemic), he couldn’t revive coal, and the country stayed far away from policies that would drive steep future carbon cuts.

Where it stands: The administration launched a big deregulatory push to scuttle Obama-era climate policies and support coal, oil and gas. Here are a few snapshots of what happened over the last four years.

  • Carbon emissions haven't moved greatly in either direction, as the chart above shows. (Of note: It doesn’t show this year, which would display a steep decline due to the pandemic's effect on travel and economic activity.)
  • Oil production kept soaring to new records until the pandemic crushed demand and prices, reaching about 13 million barrels per day by the end of 2019.
  • Petroleum exports, especially crude, soared too. But, to underscore the way markets and policy both play a role, the crude export boom was enabled by a late 2015 law that lifted extremely heavy restrictions, which set the stage to ship surging U.S. supplies abroad.
  • Natural gas production, already at record levels when Trump arrived, generally climbed even faster until COVID-19.

But, but, but: Natural gas and renewables have kept squeezing coal out of power markets, despite Trump's pro-coal push, and don't look for that to change.

Between the lines: This serves to show how market conditions hold a lot of sway. That's also true of the oil-and-gas production boom, which began over a decade ago.

  • Coal production last year fell to its lowest levels since the 1970s, and is falling again this year.
  • The fuel's share of the power mix has kept dropping under Trump, and is now less than a fourth of U.S. generation.
  • Wind has continued its upward march under Trump, despite his anti-wind sentiment, while solar has grown even more sharply, albeit from a smaller baseline.

What they're saying: The Rhodium Group's Trevor Houser notes market developments in clean energy, like the decline of solar and wind costs, meant those sectors were "mature enough" that their trajectory continued despite Trump's pro-coal efforts.

  • The research firm's modeling shows that Trump's policies around vehicles, power, and oil-and-gas sites means future emissions will be higher than if former President Obama's policies had continued.

Yes, but: That's less important than what didn't happen under Trump, Houser says in an email."While those regulatory rollbacks had a measurable impact on U.S. emissions ... the real climate impact of the Trump Administration was the lost four years of additional federal policy action."

What we're watching: I mean, come on.

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