Trump’s Promises for Coal Will Hurt Texas Clean Energy
Bringing back coal is not in Texas’s best interest.
Despite President Donald Trump’s claims that investing in climate action is a waste of money or that reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels would be job-killing, Texas has proved the opposite.
The state has helped the nation reduce its carbon footprint and has earned a lot of money along the way. As the world chooses a path of reducing carbon emissions, we will deploy our vast expanses of cheap, flat, sunny, windy land and extensive reserves of natural gas trapped in shales to sell consumers the low-carbon energy they desire.
The biggest impact on Texas in recent years was from the shale revolution, which has helped the nation wean itself from coal and has reduced emissions dramatically along the way. Shale production created an abundance of affordable natural gas, which is cleaner to burn than coal. New natural gas plants are also about twice as efficient as decades-old coal plants, compounding the benefits of switching from coal to gas.
Combine that fuel substitution of coal to gas with the rise of renewables such as wind and solar along with efficiency standards for autos and appliances, you get the remarkable trend that is afoot: U.S. carbon emissions have been dropping even as the population and economy have grown.
And the state’s leadership helped make it so.
The shale boom in many ways is Texan in origin. Its modern incarnation took root in the Barnett Shale outside the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. If Texas were a country, it would be the third-largest natural gas producer in the world.
But shale production invited environmental conundrums: Although dropping emissions is a desirable goal, and it’s satisfying to see how affordably and quickly emissions could be cut by market competition between coal and natural gas, doing so through propagation of fossil fuel use isn’t what many environmentalists had in mind. This is Texas for you: getting to the right answer whether it meant to or not and with a pathway that wasn’t obvious beforehand.
Although Texas’ role as an international leader in oil and gas is part of its reputation, don’t overlook our leadership in the renewable power sector, too, and how that helped the nation reduce its carbon emissions. Texas is the top state for installed wind power capacity, with as much wind power as the next three states (Iowa, Oklahoma and California) combined. If Texas were a country, it would be the sixth-largest wind power generator in the world. The lesson of Texas is that when we move forward, we do it at a global scale. We did it with natural gas and wind, and we’re about to do it with solar.
We also lead the world in industrial efficiency. Our refineries are the world’s cleanest and most efficient primarily because of the widespread implementation of combined heat and power, which cleverly uses waste heat from on-site power plants for refining and chemicals manufacturing.
Trump’s campaign promises are confounding for Texas. One of the most specific policy pledges he made on the campaign trail is to bring back coal. That is not in Texas’ interest.
Although it is a common talking point that Barack Obama’s “war on coal” caused coal’s decline, in reality, it was fierce competition from cheap natural gas that doomed its fate. If the Trump administration intervenes to directly benefit coal — via mandates or subsidies — then that will be bad for natural gas. We need the opposite: The tighter the rules are for reducing emissions, the more we benefit. The nation will turn to us to sell them clean gas, wind and solar.
The lessons offered by the shale and wind booms are many. When we work together, we get great solutions. If we invest in our infrastructure, we enable affordable energy production. If we build out markets sensibly, we get the cleanest, cheapest, most reliable forms of energy. But, it’s not clear that these are lessons some politicians are ready to learn. And maybe that’s the most important outcome from Trump’s arrival into power: His policies look so erratic and jarring that they have the net effect of undermining trust in the federal government. That means the future of energy will run through Texas, not Washington, D.C. In that case, the state has a bright future, and we can hope for more reductions in CO2.
Michael E. Webber is the deputy director of the Energy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin.