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What Trump Gets—and What He Doesn't—About U.S. Energy

Walter Russell Mead

Donald Trump gave us our first hints at what his energy policy might look like if he’s elected in a speech last week in Williston, North Dakota, appropriately located in the middle of one of cradles of the shale boom that has fundamentally remade the American energy landscape over the past decade. His remarks, predictably focused on fossil fuels, were laced with the expected barbs against the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton, but they shed light on how Trump sees energy in America. He was part right, and part wrong.

He’s right that fracking is important to American energy security, and he’s right that U.S. national interests require a supply side approach to fossil fuels. Decoupling the U.S. economy—and the peace of the world—from the unstable Middle East and disempowering irresponsible petrostates is as the Donald would say, Yuge. Greens too often forget that any kind of progress on climate requires a peaceful world and a stable world order: anything that increases the risks of great power war or even the kind of cold war which makes geopolitical competition the inevitable and inescapable center of national strategy in the world’s great powers is terrible for climate policy.

But as laid out this week the Trump approach isn’t enough either for economic security or energy management. For one thing it’s problematic on its own terms: fracking needs regulation in order to be politically as well as environmentally sustainable. Even if you were a fracking enthusiast who didn’t give a rat’s patootie about the dismal croaking from the green camp, you’d want to make sure that fracking technology was on a path to being safer and cleaner. Otherwise voters will hate it and its full potential would never be reached. The sweet spot here is between those who just squawk “frack! frack! frack!” without regard to environmental consequences and political sustainability and those who use regulating as a way to destroy rather than enable one of the most important industries of the 21st century.

We need unconventional hydrocarbons—and plenty of them—if we are going to have world peace and economic prosperity in this century. We won’t get them if we regulate to death, and we won’t get them if we don’t regulate them intelligently and moderately. Trump would be more credible on this subject, and more likely to be successful in office, if he took note of this.

But there’s a bigger truth that Trump missed. Whether it’s because he’s making a political calculation that serving as a mouthpiece for climate change skepticism does more for his political brand and electoral chances than any other course, or whether he’s genuinely speaking from conviction, he is painting himself into a political corner here and, more importantly, missing the chance to actually address some of the big questions about the future of energy use, the American economy and the health of the global environment.

So what should Mr. Trump, or anyone else running for President of the United States be saying at this time? Decoupling is the big idea, and it comes in two forms: first, decoupling the U.S. and the world system from the whims of the petrostates by smart supply side strategies to diversify the world’s sources of energy, including fossils, renewables and clean alternatives like energy while investing to make all of these sources less costly and dangerous to generate and to use; and second, decoupling the human economy from its dependence on energy by a variety of measures that over time will dramatically reduce the amount of energy required per unit of GDP.

What goes into the second kind of decoupling? This is where the world’s greens put on their Malthusian hair shirts and rant about restrictions and rationing and a war against growth. This is, for the most part, wicked claptrap. It’s wicked, because it would condemn hundreds of millions to lives made wretched by want, and it’s claptrap because it doesn’t make sense. There are all kinds of alternative measures that work better than the bureaucratically driven world of mandates and prohibitions that current green thinking would bring.

Fortunately for politicians, the elements of a new green agenda are popular, even populist. For example: the government should step up investment in scientific research aimed at everything from making batteries better and more efficient to making power grids more efficient and more secure to continuing to develop technologies that give us better appliances that use less energy. The goal of all this would be twofold: on the green side, it helps to reduce the link between economic growth and environmentally problematic uses of energy. On the populist side, it is about cutting your energy bills, not punishing you for being a modern person living a modern life. These policies would result in lower fuel costs for motorists, lower heating costs for homeowners, lower utility bills for everyone. these lower costs will promote new business formation and create jobs rather than destroy them: it’s a non-Malthusian approach to climate change and energy policy, and people can like it whatever their views of climate change may be.

But there are lots of other things we can do that will reduce our environmental and climate footprint while making ordinary peoples’ lives better rather than worse. the government should be supporting research into self driving cars and creating a regulatory framework that promotes the deployment of new tech as it comes on line. This will reduce traffic congestion and pollution, allow more families to live complicated lives while not having to sink so much of their income into buying and maintaining cars, and of course dramatically reduce the terrible human and economic costs associated with our epidemic of traffic deaths—which exceed deaths caused by gun violence, by the way.

Government by its research and regulatory policies can also do a lot to accelerate the arrival of social changes that will help the planet and help ordinary people. Overall this is about substituting the organization and movement of information for the organization and movement of physical goods so far as this is possible: people who download books onto e-readers instead of driving to a brick and mortar bookstore in a mall are submitting the movement of information for the manufacture and production of physical goods. so are people who telework from home or from a nearby location rather than commuting—at great inconvenience and cost and with massive loss of leisure and family time—to downtown hubs. So are farmers who grow GMO sunflowers and soybeans that need less pesticide, weedkiller and water than conventional varieties.

These are all measures that are good for ordinary peoples’ lives and tend to raise living standards rather than reduce them. And they are also things that will reduce our longterm dependency on imported fuel and fossil fuel more broadly.

There is a lot of room in America for innovative policy ideas around which more of a national consensus could build. From a policy standpoint there are hundred dollar bills all over the sidewalk; perhaps because they are in such a rush to their next million dollar fundraising event, not many politicians seem willing to take the time to pick them up.

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