The White House has branded this week “energy week,” rolling out a buzzword, “dominance,” and replaying lines from last year’s Trump campaign in an effort to portray the United States as a global energy superpower — and to label previous administrations as obstacles to energy growth.
President Trump is expected to sound these themes Thursday in an address on energy, picking up from Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who said Tuesday: “We’re ending the bureaucratic blockade that has hindered American energy creation.”
But analysts say that many of the administration’s claims about American “dominance” are overstated and that authoritative energy statistics do not line up with those cited by the administration.
One example: The White House asserted that the United States has 20 percent more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia. But according to the Energy Information Administration, the federal authority on such matters, the United States had proven oil reserves of 32.3 billion barrels as of Dec. 31, 2014. That’s a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves of about 268 billion barrels.
“This is false,” Frank A. Verrastro, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the White House claim. “They’re building a narrative on false premises. I’m disappointed that messaging has overtaken substance here.”
Setting ambitious energy goals has been a presidential ritual for decades. Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, noted that energy independence has been a goal ever since President Richard M. Nixon launched Project Independence after the oil embargo by Arab members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.
The Trump administration’s new buzzword comes with similar aspirations. An op-ed article in the Washington Times appearing under the names of three Trump Cabinet secretaries — Perry, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior’s Ryan Zinke — said that “dominance” means being a “self-reliant and secure nation, free from the geopolitical turmoil of other nations that seek to use energy as an economic weapon.”
“An energy-dominant America will export to markets around the world, increasing our global leadership and influence,” they said. “For the first time in four decades, the energy story in the United States is about becoming an energy exporter and no longer about peak resources or being beholden to foreign powers,” they wrote. “For years, Washington stood in the way of our energy dominance,” the Cabinet members continued. “That changes now.”
Verrastro said dominance comes with “a negative connotation. If you’re dominant, someone else is subordinate.”
Bordoff, who served in the Obama White House, warned that while the United States is in a stronger position thanks to a boom in shale oil and gas over the past decade, it remains one of the world’s largest net oil importers. Last year, the United States imported a net 4.8 million barrels a day of crude oil and refined petroleum products.
A White House fact sheet issued Tuesday did not mention that figure; it only pointed to the 1 million barrels a day of crude oil exported recently thanks to the lifting of the oil export ban in December 2015. If oil prices spike, Americans will still feel it.
“Energy development here has always supported and balanced environmental objectives, economic needs, and foreign policy and national security objectives,” Verrastro said. “We’ve always operated in that space. If we’re going to use energy dominance to persuade other countries to do things this seems like a ham-handed way to go about foreign and diplomatic policy.”
But energy week has been marked by a campaign style rather than a policy analysis. The White House statement ticked off a handful of actions, including pushing through the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, removing protections for streams near mines, and vowing to shelve the Clean Power Plan.
The three Cabinet members asserted that dominance “is about becoming an energy exporter,” but that isn’t happening right away, if it happens at all. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast that the United States will become a net energy exporter by 2026 — although it could be earlier if oil prices rise, and later if oil prices fall.
The White House also claimed that the Keystone XL pipeline would “support” 42,100 jobs, even though the State Department says nearly 4,000 construction jobs would be created, at least temporarily. Since the pipeline construction company has already bought and stockpiled steel pipe, very few jobs would be created down the supply chain. On a permanent basis, fewer than 100 jobs would be created.
Behind the debate over energy dominance lies the tremendous increase in shale oil and shale gas production over the past decade. The technology of fracking combined with horizontal drilling began at small levels when George W. Bush was president and soared during the Obama years. Shale oil production increased tenfold during Obama’s presidency.
As a result of the boom in domestic oil production, the country’s net petroleum imports in 2016 were half the level seen in the first year of Obama’s administration. Although Obama didn’t do anything to bring that about, he didn’t try to “blockade” it either, as the secretaries’ letter suggested. While the oil and gas industry complained about regulations to reduce methane leaks, market conditions dictated the booming level of activity, Verrastro said.
There were other disputed claims in Trump’s “energy week.”
The Trump secretaries’ op-ed noted that the United States will soon become a net exporter of liquefied natural gas, and said that “we have also authorized LNG export permits.” But the Trump administration has not yet issued a final export permit. The Obama administration, by contrast, approved permits to 11 LNG export terminals and turned down only two, according to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission.
It’s possible that Trump could see one of those decisions reversed on his watch. But the final say on the LNG export terminals rests with the FERC, which is an independent agency.
Perry, Zinke and Pruitt also heralded the launch of the Petra Nova plant in Texas, which captures carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and then uses it to help push additional oil out of largely depleted oil fields.
“Innovative technology like this is what will clean up the environment, not bad deals for the American people like the Paris agreement,” they wrote. “We will build on that success. Instead of preaching about clean energy, this administration will act on it.”
The Petra Nova plant, however, was built in significant part thanks to the Obama administration, which promoted research into carbon capture and storage technology. Overall, Petra Nova received $ 190 million from Obama’s Department of Energy.
Meanwhile, Perry’s Energy Department is proposing to slash funding for research on carbon capture and storage science and technology. Carbon-capture research funding would decline from $100.8 million in 2017 to just $16 million in 2018 in the administration’s proposed budget, and carbon storage research dollars would similarly fall from $105.8 million to $15 million.
The Sierra Club argued that Trump’s energy plan was focused on “the dirtiest, most outdated” energy sources, and would cede dominance in renewable energy to other nations.
Perry, in a briefing for journalists at the White House, said the Trump administration would push harder on nuclear energy. Perry has made finding a central nuclear waste storage site a priority, and the department’s proposed budget would revive work on the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada.
Perry said reviving American nuclear power plant construction companies was important. “It’s about America maintaining, or regaining may be a better word, our leadership role in nuclear energy,” he said. He mentioned Westinghouse, the nuclear construction firm that has been part of Toshiba and that recently declared bankruptcy.
“It’s a lot bigger than just making sure that Westinghouse continues to be a stable American company,” Perry said. “This is a massively important issue for the security of America and the security for America’s allies.”
However, once again, the Energy Department is seeking to slash funding for nuclear energy research by 28.7 percent. A price on carbon emissions, the policy that would most help nuclear compete against natural gas and coal, is not on the Trump table.
As for what substantively the administration might do to rescue Westinghouse, Perry was mum. That was not a question for this week.