In his first State of the Union address delivered Tuesday night, Trump didn’t offer many concrete details on how his administration had advanced the energy portion of his “America First” strategy. But in the few mentions he made of America’s energy landscape, the president suggested that in the year since his inauguration his agenda has seen more wins than losses.
The Trump administration has pushed forward on several energy-related Republican wishlist items, such as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s efforts to remake the Clean Power Plan and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s efforts to streamline oil and gas drilling approvals.
But the market forces most significantly impacting the American energy landscape, such as natural-gas dominance and the quickening pace of the uptake of clean energy, remain much the same as a year ago. The effects of one of the administration’s most consequential decisions, the Section 201 solar tariffs, still remain somewhat uncertain.
Trump did not downplay his administration's results in his address, however, instead favoring the kind of grandiose pronouncements that often pepper his rhetoric.
“We have ended the war on American energy,” Trump said from the podium. “And we have ended the war on beautiful, clean coal.”
"Clean coal" is a term often used to describe carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) from coal-fired power plants. But while the president could choose to make carbon capture a priority for his administration, Trump seemed to be referring to standard coal, with no CCS, which is one of the most polluting energy resources.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that coal is bouncing back from having been the target of a government attack. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coal employment increased by just 500 jobs between Trump's inauguration and December 2017. And while U.S. coal production in the second quarter of 2017 was 16.6 percent higher than in the second quarter of 2016, this quarter’s production was 5.1 percent lower than the first quarter of 2017.
Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s attempt to buoy coal through energy markets with a notice of proposed rulemaking on grid resilience was ultimately unsuccessful.
Along with his claims of reviving a coal industry in decline, Trump also promised to bring back energy jobs. But with his Section 201 tariff decision last week, the administration may have done just the opposite.
According to a January 2017 Department of Energy report, the solar industry accounted for 373,807 jobs, the wind industry for 101,738 jobs, and coal for 160,119 jobs. The Solar Energy Industries Association said tariffs could cost 23,000 solar jobs in 2018 alone, as they will effectively increase the price of the solar panels that installers rely on.
“It boggles my mind that this president -- any president, really -- would voluntarily choose to damage one of the fastest-growing segments of our economy,” said Tony Clifford, chief development officer at Standard Solar, in a release from SEIA after the administration announced the tariffs.
In his Tuesday address, Trump sidestepped the Section 201 backlash from the clean energy industry and stuck to his narrative of correcting “unfair” trade practices.
“America has also finally turned the page on decades of unfair trade deals that sacrificed our prosperity and shipped away our companies, our jobs and our nation’s wealth,” he said. “The era of economic surrender is totally over. From now on, we expect trading relationships to be fair, and more importantly, reciprocal.”
Those statements echoed Trump’s campaign promises to renegotiate trade deals and his recent framing of the newly announced tariffs. In a signing ceremony for the tariffs, Trump declared that “our action today helps create jobs in America for Americans.”
While several U.S. companies have indicated they will ramp up manufacturing, and some foreign companies have indicated an interest in exploring operations in the U.S., it’s unclear whether these benefits will outweigh the projected job losses throughout the industry.
In his last big claim about the U.S. energy picture, Trump said,“We are now, very proudly, an exporter of energy to the world.” But according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. has exported crude oil, petroleum and natural gas for a long time, with a pronounced spike in production that occurred before Trump took office.
At the same time, the U.S. still imports fuel and is not yet a net exporter. The EIA projects that the United States will achieve the status of net exporter sometime between 2020 and 2030, although it passed the threshold of becoming a net exporter of natural gas last year.
During Trump’s hour-and-a-half address, his few energy mentions made it clear that it wasn’t the focus of the day -- or of his administration. And while the Section 201 decision and an administration still interested in buttressing fossil fuels means 2018 will be an interesting political year for the industry, the infamously red-sweatered Ken Bone may have best summed up any actual shifts in a tweet during the speech.
“I work in the coal industry,” he wrote. “Very little has changed.”