Op-Ed: Energy independence or dominance? What’s missing from Trump’s vision

Source: By Carolyn Kissane, The Hill • Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2017

Coming off President Trump’s Energy Week and declaration of U.S. energy dominance, it’s a good time to assess exactly how far we’ve come in achieving what so many presidents have talked about for almost half a century, energy independence. Trump is the first president to move America’s energy narrative from one of seeking independence to achieving dominance. Is there a difference?

A little history matters. In November 1973, President Nixon launched Project Independence and pledged to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil. Many may remember President Carter’s fireside chat, wearing an argyle sweater and calling for Americans to conserve energy. The Department of Energy emerged under the Carter administration, and the White House installed solar panels. Were we getting closer energy independence? The easy answer is no.

By 1994 the U.S. imported more oil than it produced and was moving further away from any semblance of energy independence. Between the ’70s and early 2000s our dependence on foreign supplies of oil, especially from the Middle East was on the rise.Under President George W. Bush in 2007, Congress enacted the Energy Independence and Security Act and by the summer of 2008 oil prices topped off at $148 a barrel, and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin branded “drill, baby, drill,” which went down as one of her most remembered campaign slogans. We still hadn’t achieved the ever-elusive independence that politicians and pundits believed could be a reality — but that was about to change.

The energy landscape dramatically shifted in 2009. While not the result of any coherent U.S. energy policy, or specific federal government initiatives the U.S. commenced an energy renaissance that continues today. Even the most astute forecasters didn’t predict the turnaround in U.S. oil and gas production.

The shale oil and gas revolution is the result of extraordinary ingenuity on the part of nimble, entrepreneurial oil and gas developers, innovative and efficient horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, and above and below ground flexibility. To date, only the United States has been able to effectively crack the shale code. China and Argentina aspire to replicate what the U.S. has accomplished but geological and policy constraints remain a challenge. Many contend U.S. shale oil and gas is responsible for creating a “new oil order.”

According to the most recent Energy Information Administration report, U.S. crude oil and petroleum product exports have more than doubled over the past six years. U.S. oil exports have grown from 2.4 million barrels per day in 2010 to 5.2 million per day in 2016. U.S. exports were more than three times larger than the level 10 years ago. Natural gas is no different.

While many believed, the US would be a net importer by this point, the opposite is true. Today we are exporting liquefied natural gas to places like China, Japan and even Europe. We are producing abundant gas to support domestic demand driving down electricity prices in the process.

Trump’s narrative shift from energy independence to dominance matters. Anyone who understands energy markets and trade knows energy independence was an inspiring sound bite but it could never be a reality. We still import oil but are now importing more from our northern and southern neighbors Canada and Mexico than we are from the Middle East, and specifically Saudi Arabia. Translating energy dominance into U.S. grand strategy is also different than it would be if we focused on energy independence. We can use oil and liquefied natural gas exports for leverage and influence. Our newfound energy cushion allows us to engage in different ways with old and new allies.

What is blatantly missing from Trump’s theme of dominance is the important role of renewables. During Energy Week Trump stated, “The golden era of American energy is now underway … the golden era of America is now in progress, believe me.”

This is true, but he fails to credit the critical role of renewables, and this missing link is part of a larger problem Trump has in understanding what it means for the U.S. to be an energy leader. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, his intention to strip funding from energy R&D and the complete absence of any reference to renewables in his comments suggest he’s ignoring the significant role renewables play in today’s energy landscape.

The U.S. is a dominant player in energy, and exerts power and influence but not from oil and gas alone. Wind, solar and other clean energy advancements are a critical part of U.S. energy and should be an integral part of how the president brands the U.S. as an energy superpower. Fossil fuels are not going away tomorrow, but just as disruption upended the dynamics of global oil and gas, renewables are playing an increasingly larger role in power generation. Today, wind and solar account for 13 percent of U.S. electricity and only going higher in the years ahead.

Trump’s energy vision is stuck in the past and not in the energy realities of today and tomorrow. The United States is rich in energy resources, both hydrocarbons and renewables, and it’s time for the president to tell the full story.

Dr. Carolyn Kissane serves as the academic director of the graduate program in Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs and is a clinical associate professor where she teaches graduate level courses examining the geopolitics of energy, comparative energy politics, energy, environment and resource security, a regional course focusing on Central Asia.