By Robert Weissman
(Originally published in the Houston Chronicle)
Even in the face of the worst public health crisis in a century, the Trump administration sees fit to move full steam ahead in its campaign to put the interests of dirty energy barons over the environment.
With economic damage from the coronavirus crisis mounting, President Donald Trump’s personal friends in the energy industry are using their relationships to obtain bailouts, special favors and environmental rollbacks, while ignoring the existential threat of climate change. Trump’s oil industry pals include Oklahoma billionaire and campaign donor Harold Hamm, the founder and executive chairman of Continental Resources Inc., labeled “Trump’s energy whisperer.” And Trump friend Carl Icahn is a major investor in another major U.S. oil producer, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum Inc.
In recent weeks, Occidental has been pressing lawmakers for a bailout, while Hamm and other oil producers are pushing the White House to examine whether Saudi Arabia has been unfairly selling cheap crude oil, thus pushing down prices and squeezing debt-laden U.S. producers.
With oil prices taking an unprecedented drop into negative territory this week, Trump tweeted on Tuesday that his administration would extend a lifeline to battered domestic oil companies with no place to sell their products as storage tanks fill up amid plunging oil demand.
“We will never let the great U.S. Oil & Gas Industry down. I have instructed the Secretary of Energy and Secretary of the Treasury to formulate a plan which will make funds available so that these very important companies and jobs will be secured long into the future!,” Trump’s tweet said.
The sensible thing to do amid a plunge in energy prices and a supply glut would be to stay away from rescuing the dirty energy companies of the past and shift focus at both the federal and state level to encouraging the development of more clean energy. Texas leads the nation in production of wind energy, and the segment now accounts for more than 25,000 jobs in the state, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Texas is also a national leader in solar power.
But it’s hard to imagine sensible policies emerging under this administration. Trump and the former corporate lobbyists who run his administration such as Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette already have offered favors galore to corporate cronies. They’ve waived penalties for owners of factories and power plants that break environmental laws. They are pushing to weaken automotive fuel efficiency standards and rules limiting coal power plant emissions.
One of the Trump administration officials’ most jarring decisions is continuing with their policy of opening up public lands and public waters for as much oil and gas drilling as possible, even though low energy prices mean the federal government will earn far less from auctioning off drilling rights.
Doing so makes little sense given that oil prices are at historically low levels, drilling rigs are shutting down and numerous energy companies are teetering on the verge of collapse. In Texas, the pro-industry Railroad Commission that regulates oil and gas is even considering halting some production in the state for the first time in 40 years. The only possible explanation for the Trump administration’s oil leasing binge and head-in-the sand attitude about the climate consequences is the administration’s fealty to the energy industry. Otherwise the decision to keep drilling makes no sense, even if you’re a climate
Instead, Trump’s Interior Department, led by Secretary David Bernhardt, conducted an online sale of oil leases in Wyoming, Nevada and Montana, producing weak results. A federal lease sale of offshore energy experienced the weakest demand since 2016. It makes little sense to sell off public assets into a market where there’s no prospect for a fair return to taxpayers. So why is the Trump administration doing so? The revolving door between Trump’s Interior Department and the energy industry provides the most likely explanation.
Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, had to recuse himself from specific issues involving former clients, but those recusals ended last year. And Bernhardt’s former clients have been actively engaged: A Public Citizen analysis found that former lobbying and legal clients of Bernhardt spent about $30 million lobbying the federal government since the start of the Trump administration. Further research found that Bernhardt and his top deputy held 12 times as many meetings with executives from the oil, gas, electricity, coal and mining industries as with conservation and renewable energy interests.
When dirty energy meetings dominate the calendars of Interior Department officials, advocates for conservation and renewable energy don’t stand a chance. It’s a safe bet that, given the chance to prop up dirty energy companies over ordinary people, the Trump administration will pick the powerful over the public.