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Last night, the Trump administration unveiled its replacement for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which gave states targets to reduce the greenhouse-gas pollution emitted by their power plants. The Trump policy is designed to freeze in place the rapid changes in energy of the previous eight years. Trump is promoting his new policy in a speech in West Virginia today. But the most revealing explication of his policy came in little-publicized remarks to donors a few days earlier.
In his comments, which drew appreciative laughter and applause, Trump ranted bizarrely against wind energy, which he associates with his liberal elitist enemies, and in favor of coal, which he sees as infused with MAGA-ness. The short rant reveals more about the energy agenda of the new administration, and the diseased mind of its leader, than any other manifesto.
Coal, Trump told his audience, is “a tremendous form of energy in the sense that in a military way — think of it — coal is indestructible,” he declared. The president continued:
You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills. You know, the wind wheels, [mimics windmill noise, mimes shooting gun] “Bing!” That’s the end of that one. If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds. You look underneath some of those windmills, it’s like a killing field, the birds. But uh, you know, that’s what they were going to, they were going to windmills. And you know, don’t worry about wind, when the wind doesn’t blow, I said, “What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?” Well, then we have a problem. Okay good. They were putting him in areas where they didn’t have much wind, too. And it’s a subsidary [sic] — you need subsidy for windmills. You need subsidy. Who wants to have energy where you need subsidy? So, uh, the coal is doing great.
Trump has frequently mourned the birds murdered by wind turbines, which in fact account for approximately one tenth of one percent of all unnatural bird deaths per year. But to this very strange obsession, which also happens to be the only context in which Trump expresses concern for wildlife of any kind, the president added several additional points against wind power (which Obama-era policy has supported) and in support of coal.
To this familiar and obviously disingenuous argument, Trump added several more, each of them bizarre even by Trumpian standards. Begin with his claim that coal has the advantage of being “indestructible.” What can Trump possibly mean by this? Coal is obviously not indestructible. It can be destroyed by, saying, burning it in a power plant. In fact it destroyed in such a fashion every day. Every ton of coal that you burn is destroyed forever.
By contrast, wind actually is indestructible. There is no possible way to destroy wind. What’s more, even if you use it as a power source, the wind will continue to blow. This is why it is called “renewable energy.” It literally cannot be depleted.
Trump might be trying to argue not that coal itself is indestructible, but that the energy infrastructure associated with it is. He is correct that it is possible to blow up a windmill, which is needed to harvest wind. However, it is also possible to destroy a coal mine. Coal mines have been known to collapse or explode. There is no sense in which indestructibility provides an advantage for coal over wind.
Trump proceeded to claim that wind turbines can be destroyed by birds. (“If the birds don’t kill it first. The birds could kill it first. They kill so many birds.”) Notice that Trump is arguing not only that wind turbines kill birds, but that the reverse holds true as well. Perhaps he imagines the birds are retaliating for the deaths of their comrades by destroying wind turbines, through some method he does not specify. In any case, he imagines wind turbines and birds to be engaged in a mortal struggle with high casualties on both sides.
Trump is correct that wind power receives a subsidy, but his complaint was odd coming after his government decided to literally order power grids to purchase coal. Coal is rapidly losing market share to forms of energy that pollute less — i.e., all of them — and also cost less.
One of the conceits within the Republican Party elite is that Trump as a man amounts to little more than a sideshow. His cringe-inducing public remarks fire up the base, and outrage liberals, but have no real bearing on the underlying agenda, which are controlled by responsible conservatives. In some cases that is true. This is not necessarily one of them. Trump’s plan to deregulate electric energy sources largely tracks his personal beliefs: climate change is a hoax, coal is “clean” and good, and the only important public goal in energy is preserving the coal sector.
Notably, neither Trump’s policies to date nor the expectation of his policies to come have actually succeeded. Production and employment in the coal sector have leveled off, and are projected merely to hover at the same rate. The number of coal jobs in Kentucky declined slightly over the course of this year. This is not to say Trump’s policies are having no effect. Coal has been in a state of collapse, and Trump’s aggressive support has probably kept the industry on life support and staved off continued rapid decline of the dirtiest possible fuel source.
This year, green energy worldwide crossed an important symbolic threshold: It has installed a terawatt of wind and solar power. After the first terawatt took the entire course of human history, Bloomberg analysts expect the second terawatt to take just five years:
The world is racing to decarbonize, and while the pace is not yet fast enough to avert the worst consequences of climate change, the course of the change is historically impressive. The architects of the green-energy revolution have worked through scientific, technological, and political barriers to build a worldwide movement.
What Trump aims for is something much less ambitious than the green-energy revolution that began with President Obama and other world leaders. It is energy policy as the performance of cultural reaction, translating the profit margins of a swindling handful of coal firms, clinging to their influence in the science-denying Republican Party, attempting to persuade struggling white working-class voters in Appalachia that Trump is the instrument of their salvation.