If you're going to talk about energy in the United States, you might as well do it in North Dakota. The western part of the state had the good sense to be situated above a gigantic shale formation known as the Bakken, in which an enormous amount of natural gas and oil was trapped. Trapped, that is, until people figured out how to drill holes sideways through the shale and break it all up, sucking the oil and gas up to the surface. That's fracking, and it has made North Dakota one of the brightest spots in the American economy — and the fastest-growing state in population year after year.
It is not a place where any politician, much less the Republican nominee for president, would disparage the use of fossil fuels. Donald Trump, who held a brief news conference there Thursday, would perhaps be less inclined than most to say bad things about the oil industry, especially since his friend Harold Hamm — energy industry titan and onetime Mitt Romney presidential adviser — was standing next to him.
So when asked about fracking, Trump took a lot of disparate threads of energy policy and politics in general and wove them together with his silver tongue.
Here is what he said, in its entirety.
Bernie is going to ban fracking.
Hillary is going to ban fracking. Hillary is going to abolish the Second Amendment. Okay? Just in case you have any questions. She's going to abolish your right to own guns; she's going to abolish the Second Amendment. And I'm exactly the opposite and I got the endorsement the other day from the NRA, which was a great endorsement and a great honor for me because they're great, amazing people. I'm a member of the NRA. My sons are members of the NRA.
But they want to absolutely knock out fracking. And you do that, you're going to be back into the Middle East and we're going to be begging for oil again. It's not going to happen. Not with me.
We're going to open it up. We're going to be energy independent. We're going to have all sorts of energy. We're going to have everything you can think of, including solar.
And I know a lot about solar. The problem with solar: It's very expensive. When you have a 30-year payback, that's not exactly the greatest thing in the world. But I know a lot about solar. I have gone solar on occasion, but it a very, very expensive thing.
Wind is very expensive. I mean, wind, without subsidy, wind doesn't work. You need massive subsidies for wind. There are places maybe for wind. But if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles.
You know if you shoot an eagle, kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. Yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles. One of the most beautiful, one of the most treasured birds — and they're killing them by the hundreds and nothing happens. So wind is, you know, it is a problem. Plus it's very, very expensive and doesn't work without subsidy.
Despite that, I'm into all types of energy.
By the way, while we are in North Dakota, I have to say this. I love the farmers. And the farmers are incredible. We have to remember this was largely a farm state. And they produce tremendous crops of tremendous different goods of which I eat a lot of them. And, and I just want to pay my respects to the farmers of North Dakota. Because they have done a great job.
Let's walk through that.
He starts off talking about the NRA, probably because he wanted to and it popped into his head. We can skip past that.
Trump's right that Sanders wants to ban fracking. As we explained before the New York primary — a state that also overlaps with a shale formation but where the process is banned — there's a subtle difference between the two Democrats' positions on it. Sanders wants a ban on the practice. Clinton doesn't, but she does support the right of locals to decide whether or not it should happen. (Clinton's also gotten flak from the left for having promoted fracking as secretary of state. Early in the fracking boom, the natural gas produced was embraced as a cleaner alternative than coal or oil for power production.)
Trump's also right that there's a link between the fracking boom and America's use of fuel from the Middle East. In fact, one reason gas prices are low is that producers in the Middle East have cut prices to try and drive American frackers out of business.
It's when Trump echoes the "all-of-the-above" mantra that's become politically popular of late that he gets into trouble. (Why's it politically popular? Because you get to say yes to everyone: Yes to more oil, yes to more wind.)
Trump's point about the expense of solar is misleading. His experience with solar is apparently in construction, adding solar panels to buildings he's making to reduce costs. One way in which solar is pitched to consumers is with a "payback" — they'll save on electricity bills over time and, eventually, the panels will have saved so much money that they pay for themselves. If that takes 30 years for the systems to which Trump is referring, that implies a higher up-front cost. (The payback period is not that long for most residential installations.)
But let's loop in wind and talk about overall production costs.
The financial services firm Lazard compiles regular assessments of the cost of producing energy in various ways. Its November assessment finds that wind and utility-scale solar "continue to be cost-competitive with conventional generation technologies in some scenarios." The production costs of each have dropped substantially during the past few years (by 80 percent in the case of solar and 60 for wind), with the cost of utility-scale (i.e., not roof-top) photovoltaic dropping 25 percent from 2014 to 2015.
"Wind power, including U.S. subsidies, became the cheapest electricity in the U.S. for the first time last year, according to BNEF," Bloomberg reported last fall. "Solar power is a bit further behind, but the costs are dropping rapidly, especially those associated with financing a new project." That subsidy is Trump's main point, but wind is on track to be cheaper than fossil fuel production within a decade.
The advantage that wind and solar have over fossil fuels is not only that they're cleaner (Lazard notes that its estimates don't include the costs of pollution from burning fossil fuels), but that they will trend downward in cost as the technologies behind them improve. Fossil fuel production relies on fossil fuels which can vary widely in cost over time. The coal industry has suffered in part because many of the easy-to-access seams of coal have been depleted — leaving harder-to-reach (read: more expensive) options.
Trump's experience with wind power is largely in the form of offshore wind, a much pricier option. For years, he battled an effort to build an offshore farm off the coast of a golf course he owns in Scotland, which may be where his sense of the cost of wind energy originates. After all, he said the same thing in 2012.
And those eagles. Trump's opposition to wind turbines, baked in several years ago during the Scotland fight, includes the argument that turbines kill birds. It's true; turbines are often situated in places with good wind currents, which birds also like to use. The Audubon Society estimates that between 140,000 and 328,000 birds die each year from turbines. Some of them are eagles — but not hundreds. One assessment published in 2013 counted 85 dead eagles over a span of 15 years.
But context here is helpful. Windows, like those in the skyscrapers built by Donald Trump, are responsible for the deaths of between 365 million and 988 million birds a year all around the world. Each skyscraper kills an estimated 24 birds per year.
Despite all that, Trump is into all kinds of energy. During a later scripted speech, he offered some more details about his energy plans. But this response was classic Trump, a combination of political posturing, semi-accurate data and broadly popular appeals.