Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz speaks at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last year. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

If you’re worried about climate change, it’s scary to think that the incoming Trump administration could reverse gains made in recent years. But a recent conversation with departing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz convinced me that the progress is probably irreversible.

“There’s no question that we are moving to a lower-carbon economy,” Moniz said in an interview in his Washington office. “What’s happening is largely a market-driven phenomenon. . . . There is no status quo ante.”

Moniz cited a range of economic and technological factors that will sustain the long-term move toward reduced carbon emissions, regardless of the policies adopted by Donald Trump, who has expressed skepticism about climate science and government efforts to cut emissions.

Clean-energy technologies have become much cheaper and more efficient, Moniz noted, and the global market for them will lure U.S. companies. Utility and manufacturing industry executives, who have to plan investments on 30-year time horizons, aren’t likely to make long-term bets on high-carbon projects.

Moniz is an example of the brainpower and expertise that will walk out the door when the Obama administration leaves office Friday. He’s a nuclear physicist for MIT who has been involved in government energy projects for two decades. His designated successor, former Texas governor Rick Perry, has no comparable educational or business background that would equip him for the job.

As Moniz prepared to leave his post, the Energy Department released several studies that underline his argument that climate-change progress is being driven by the market rather than government. Smart government policies have encouraged and reinforced this evolution, but it now has a life of its own, the studies suggest. Some Energy Department statistics drive home this point.

The coal industry, which Trump has promised to revive, is experiencing a long-term cyclical decline as other energy sources become cheaper. The industry shrank about 60 percent between 1985 and 2016, with a loss of more than 141,000 jobs. Oil and natural gas experienced a boom over that same period, adding more than 80,000 jobs from 2004 to 2014. Domestic oil production nearly doubled from 5 million barrels per day in 2008 to 9.4 million barrels in 2015, thanks largely to shale-oil production.

As natural-gas production rose and prices fell, utilities turned increasingly to this lower-carbon source of energy — sharply reducing carbon emissions. Energy Department data show that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the first six months of 2016 were at their lowest level since 1991. The department estimates that 61 percent of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the power sector from 2006 to 2014 came from switching from coal-fired plants to gas-fired ones.

A prime example of the changing pattern of energy production and employment is West Virginia. Coal production and jobs have fallen sharply in the southern part of the state. But Moniz noted that production and job growth in natural gas have risen significantly in northern West Virginia in recent years.

Coal has a future, Moniz said, but it will be shaped by the ability to capture carbon emissions. Utilities at home and abroad will want “clean coal,” so the advance of carbon-capture technologies will be crucial for the industry’s economic survival, regardless of federal policy.

Moniz argued that continuing declines in the costs of alternative energy sources are making them increasingly competitive. Since 2008, costs have fallen 41 percent for land-based wind power and 64 percent for utility-scale solar power. The cost of efficient LED light bulbs has fallen 94 percent since 2008. The cost of battery storage has declined 70 percent over that period, making electric vehicles more affordable. As of last August, there were 490,000 electric vehicles on the road.

Moniz contends that Trump and his supporters have wrongly argued that energy efficiency is a job killer, when the opposite is true. According to an Energy Department study released this month, the energy sector as a whole employs about 6.4 million Americans, with 2.2 million of that total employed in design, installation or manufacture of “energy efficiency products and services,” a sector that added 133,000 jobs in 2016.

(Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)

The study predicts that energy-related jobs will grow 5 percent in 2017, with the fastest rate of 9 percent coming in the energy-efficiency sector.

What the Trump administration will do in energy and climate policy is a mystery, as with so many other areas. But my takeaway from Moniz is that in terms of the underlying trends, even a Trump administration wrecking ball at the Energy Department wouldn’t significantly alter the long-term move toward a cleaner and safer planet.

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