Starkly different visions for how conservatives view energy were on display at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) The Future of Energy Summit in New York City last week.
Right-wing speakers seemed pulled in opposite directions by the twin realities of a changing climate, which is beginning to hit gas companies’ bottom lines, juxtaposed against the raw political power of a Trump administration packed with climate change deniers of different stripes.
Some on the right are calling for supporting a transition to a decentralized power grid, fueled by wind and solar energy, but not for the usual reasons.
“There is nothing more vulnerable to a terrorist attack than our centralized power grid,” Debbie Dooley, founder of Conservatives for Energy Freedom, told the crowd of energy industry financiers and top executives. “Decentralized energy like rooftop solar helps keep us safe.”
“I believe that we need to remove the barriers that prohibit alternative energy or renewable energy from competing on a level playing field,” Dooley, who also serves as chair of the Atlanta Tea Party and was a two-time Republican National Convention delegate, added.
“Individual freedom and liberty, clean air, clean water — we need to leave future generations of America with a clean world,” she said. “We need to protect them. We have an obligation to protect them.”
In contrast, Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), supported a greater reliance on fossil fuels, which would require a very different set of policies.
“CEI as a free market group opposes all mandates and subsidies and we have opposed CAFE going back to the 1980s, because CAFE kills people.” Ebell said, referring to federal rules that the Trump administration aims to repeal that would require U.S. automakers to build cars and trucks that burn less gasoline per mile.
Some have argued CAFE could “kill” because they worry automakers will build lighter cars that could be more at risk in auto crashes. While smaller cars fare less well in crashes, the data shows that regardless of size, newer and more fuel-efficient vehicles are less likely to crash than older ones, according to Edmunds.com, which found that, for example, a small car from 2015 is safer than even a mid-size SUV built in 2005.
Keeping CAFE standards would not only cut climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions, they’d save drivers money at the pump and reduce America’s demand for oil.
Dooley argued that no matter what one thinks about climate change, burning more oil puts national security at risk. “We need to reduce the dependence on foreign oil,” she said. “I have an eight year old grandson, and the reason I’m so passionate about this is, I’m thinking about his future.”
Infighting Among Trump’s Allies
When it comes to world politics, Ebell, who was in charge of the Trump administration’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency, lashed out not at foreign oil companies, but against Trump’s newly appointed Secretary of State, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.
“The fact is that the people who voted for President Trump are not the CEOs of ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, and Conoco Phillips,” Ebell said at The Future of Energy summit. “The people who voted for Trump and elected him think that those CEOs are part of the problem.”
Ebell previously attacked Tillerson over his support for the Paris accord, the international agreement meant to curb climate change, arguing that Tillerson’s refusal to reject Paris meant that the Trump administration still included “swamp creatures.”
Fossil Fuels Hitting Real-World Barriers
Another Trump cabinet member, Rick Perry, recently appointed Secretary of Energy by Trump, praised the prospects for so-called “clean coal,” where coal-fired power plants would capture their carbon dioxide-laden exhaust and use it to help pump more oil out of the ground.
Perry described his recent visit to the Petra Nova plant in Houston, Texas. “It’s taking a field — an oilfield 80 miles away that was making 300 barrels a day and the projection is it will make 15,000 barrels a day.”
“Now I will tell you, I happen to think that is a good thing,” Perry said. “And obviously it will work.”
Others on the right weren’t so sure that “clean coal,” which relies on a process known as “carbon capture,” can deliver on those projections.
“Carbon capture is total bullshit,” said billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who formerly served as New York City’s Republican mayor but is now registered as an independent. “This is a figment of imagination.”
At the summit, Ebell also called evidence that the climate is warming “either exaggerated or made up” and said he thought climate change was “fairly mild.”
But another energy CEO, Tom Ward, founder of Mach Resources, cited warming temperatures as part of the reason that low demand for gas to heat homes has driven many American drillers into bankruptcy.
“Three of the last five years have been the warmest winters since 1950,” Ward said. That “demand destruction” was a large part of the reason he said that gas prices need to go up roughly 30 percent from their current levels to make drilling in many parts of the U.S. viable.
Amid all of the clashes, some on the right still tried to call for unity. “Unfortunately, special interests have poured tons of money into different groups to put out information that is not true and they’re trying — they don’t want us to come together,” said Dooley.
“I don’t care why someone wants to advance renewables as long as they want to advance renewables,” Dooley told the crowd at the BNEF summit.
“Energy freedom, energy choice,” she said, “that is a message that resonates across political boundaries.”
Main image: Donald Trump speaking at a drilling industry conference. Credit: © 2016 Laura Evangelisto