Before heading to his private golf club at Bedminster, N.J., for the weekend, President Trump flew to the Hamptons on Long Island for a roundtable and a fundraiser hosted by the chairman of Nathan’s Hot Dogs.
Trump’s comments during the fundraiser include an extended and revealing riff on energy production. To the layperson, much of it probably seems generally incomprehensible. This is, in part, because energy is one of the issues that has been central to Trump’s political rhetoric since even before he decided to run for president, and he has a way of speaking about it that’s been smoothed down to eliminate explanatory nuance.
Here it is in its entirety.
“We have — clean coal exports have increased, 60 percent last year — clean coal, which is one of our big assets that we weren’t allowed to use for our miners. You remember Hillary with the coal, right, sitting with the miners at the table? Remember? That wasn’t so good for her. So the people of West Virginia and all over, you look at Wyoming, you look at so many different places where they just, Pennsylvania, where they loved what we did, and it’s clean coal and we have the most modern procedures. But it’s a tremendous form of energy in the sense that in a military way — think of it — coal is indestructible.”
“You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills. You know, the windmills, boom, boom, boom [mimicking windmill sound] bing [mimes shooting large gun], that’s the end of that one. If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds. You look underneath some of those windmills, it’s like a killing field, the birds. But you know, that’s what they were going to, they were going to windmills. And you know, don’t worry about — when the wind doesn’t blow, I said, ‘What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?’ ‘Well, then we have a problem.’
“Okay, good. They were putting them in areas where they didn’t have much wind, too. And it’s a subs — you need subsidy for windmills. You need subsidy. Who wants to have energy where you need subsidy? So, uh, the coal is doing great.”
Let’s walk through it.
“We have — clean coal exports have increased, 60 percent last year — clean coal, which is one of our big assets that we weren’t allowed to use for our miners.” In 2017, the United States exported 97 million short tons of coal. In 2016, it exported 60 million short tons, an increase of about 61 percent. But there are two important caveats.
The first is that this was partly a function of how coal exports had dropped in 2016. In 2014, for example, the United States exported slightly more coal than in 2017. In 2012, it exported 126 million short tons — about 30 percent more than in 2017. One reason the 2016 figure was so low was a slump in global coal prices.
The bigger issue is that this is in no way “clean” coal.
“Clean coal” is a descriptor used to refer to a process in which burning coal produces less or no greenhouse gas and other pollutants. There’s no coal that doesn’t release carbon dioxide when burned; the idea behind clean coal was often to capture those emissions instead of releasing them into the atmosphere, where they contribute to global warming.
Saying that the United States exported clean coal is like saying that the United States is shipping bathrobes overseas each time a shipping container full of cotton leaves an American port. Maybe it will be a bathrobe, but that’s not what we’re sending.
“You remember Hillary with the coal, right, sitting with the miners at the table? Remember? That wasn’t so good for her.” This is presumably a reference to a town hall meeting hosted by CNN in West Virginia in March 2016.
Talking about the transition to renewable forms of energy to address climate change, Clinton was asked about how she would pitch her campaign to poorer white voters.
“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country,” she said, “because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”
Her point was that transitioning away from coal would do to the coal industry what transitioning away from horse riding did to farriers. But, obviously, that’s not a good argument to make to people whose incomes rely on shoeing horses.
“But it’s a tremendous form of energy in the sense that in a military way — think of it — coal is indestructible.” One of the reasons that the coal industry has been struggling in recent years is precisely that it’s a form of energy production (burning to generate electricity) that can contribute to pollution and global warming. The boom in fracking in the United States drove down the price of natural gas and prompted many electricity producers to switch from burning coal to burning gas.
But Trump promised to aid the coal industry during the campaign. So the administration announced in June that it would use a Cold War-era law to protect coal-burning power plants on national security grounds.
“You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills.” The argument is that, unlike other energy production methods, coal and nuclear were impervious to military and cyber attacks because their fuel is stored on the premises. You can bomb a natural gas pipeline that feeds a production plant. It’s harder to keep a plant from using coal that’s already in its warehouse.
To keep coal plants open, a draft plan from the Trump administration mandated that energy buyers purchase enough energy from those facilities to keep them from going out of business. Hold that thought.
“You know, the windmills, boom, boom, boom [mimicking windmill sound] bing [mimes shooting large gun], that’s the end of that one. If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds. You look underneath some of those windmills, it’s like a killing field, the birds. But you know, that’s what they were going to, they were going to windmills. … They were putting them in areas where they didn’t have much wind, too.” All of this, every part of it, starts in Scotland.
Trump purchased land in that country for a golf course on the coast. He soon discovered that the idyllic ocean views he thought he was getting were going to be spoiled (in his estimation) by an offshore wind farm. So he spent years waging a political fight to prevent the wind farm from being built, targeting wind energy on Twitter and disparaging Scottish politicians who pushed back.
Among the arguments he used on Twitter were that the sound from wind farms (“boom, boom, boom”) was harmful to people’s health.
That was based on one scientist quoted by a group against wind energy.
He also repeatedly warned that wind turbines were hazardous to birds, given that turbines are often placed in windy areas — areas where birds also often look to take advantage of wind currents.
It’s a little weird how he gets there in the riff above. He goes from arguing that birds kill turbines through some inexplicable process to arguing that turbines kill birds, which is true. But far more birds are killed annually by skyscrapers like Trump Tower.
Trump isn’t wrong that energy production from wind turbines depends on wind, of course. As the Energy Department’s page on wind power notes, though, “all forms of power generation may sometimes not operate when called upon.” The electrical grid includes power from a variety of sources and production methods to protect against that.
“[Y]ou need subsidy for windmills. You need subsidy. Who wants to have energy where you need subsidy? So, uh, the coal is doing great.” During a campaign stop in Iowa in November 2015, Trump was asked how he felt about subsidies for wind energy by a voter whose husband worked in that state’s growing wind industry.
“Well, I’m okay with it,” he said to that voter in that state three months before its caucuses, though he said that you need subsidies because wind production is more expensive than other sources, such as coal.
While it can be tricky to compare the costs of electricity generation across methods, the financial advisory firm Lazard each year creates an index of the costs of production without subsidies. The 2017 iteration of that report found that wind power was less expensive than producing energy by burning coal. The long-term trend has been a drop in the cost of wind production, while coal production costs have been fairly steady.
Remember, too, what Trump said about those coal plants that are essential to national security: His administration wants to mandate purchases from them to ensure their viability. That’s a subsidy in its own right.
There’s no question that Trump pledged to prioritize the coal industry as a candidate and that, as president, he has tried to do so. But the rhetoric he uses, often picking up well-worn threads he’s been offering for years, can often be inscrutable. It can also often be wrong.