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Trump’s Pro-Energy Industry Policy Excludes Clean Energy

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As he runs for re-election, President Trump is portraying himself as the man who turned around the American energy industry and rescued it from a hostile Obama Administration that strangled energy innovators with regulations.

“The previous administration waged a relentless war on American energy,” Trump said during a July 8 speech on the environment at the White House.  "They can't do that. They sought to punish our workers, our producers, and manufacturers.”

The Trump Administration has been good to energy innovators?  Tell that to Hans Wittich.  He’s a Baltimore area businessman, president of the Solar Gaines solar panel installation company based in Hunt Valley. In part because of technological advances and falling prices of solar panels, under the Obama Administration, Wittich’s business grew from two employees in 2009 to 45 in 2017.

Then President Trump imposed tariffs on solar panels manufactured in China – raising their prices to Wittich’s customers and undermining financial support for his industry. Wittich was forced to cut his workforce by more than 40 percent, from 45 employees down to 25.

“You know, as a business owner, we never anticipated those layoffs, and you feel badly about it,” Wittich said.  “I mean, these are people whose families depend on the income, so we’ve been very careful about re-hiring.  We’ve looked to subcontract some stuff so that we don’t over hire.”

As part of Trump’s escalating trade war with China, more recently the President threatened another round of even higher tariffs on imported solar panels. At risk in the U.S. solar industry are hundreds of thousands of jobs. That’s more than everyone in America who works in the coal mining and natural gas extraction industries combined, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think there are 260,000 jobs in solar across the U.S. right now,” Wittich said. “And they’re in jeopardy, yeah.”

Saifur Rahman is Director of the Center for Energy and the Global Environment at Virginia Tech. He said it is wrong for President Trump to claim that Obama waged a war on the U.S. oil and gas industry, which boomed during the Obama administration to become the most productive in the world. This was in part because of a technological innovation called hydraulic fracturing, which Obama supported, Rahman said.

“The previous administration helped to grow the fracking market in the U.S. by encouraging fracking and, in some cases, they were helping companies to deal with local regulation,” Rahman said.

President Trump promised to save the coal industry. But at least 50 coal-fired power plants have closed during Trump’s term in office, more than under a comparable period under Obama. 

Cutler Cleveland is a professor at Boston University and author of the book Energy and Climate Change: A Primer.

“The long and the short of it is that the market is moving away from coal,” Cleveland said. “And there’s nothing – short of some draconian executive movement, which is very unlikely to happen – that’s going to save coal.”

The wind energy industry grew rapidly under President Obama.  But the Trump Administration has been making it harder for offshore wind projects to obtain federal approvals, said Professor James Von Nostrand, Director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development at West Virginia University.

“There is a huge role that the federal government is going to have to play if we’re going to get offshore wind projects,” Van Nostrand said. “And it’s troubling if the Trump Administration is not doing all it can to enable that source of energy.”

The truth is, it’s President Trump who’s been hard on the energy industry – the clean energy industry, that is. Just as he inherited many things, Trump inherited a booming oil and gas industry and a rising economy from President Obama.  And Trump made a lot of promises to a dying coal industry that he cannot keep.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.