Fossil Fuels Are Powering Trump’s Foreign Policy

Jul 31, 2017 by

By Michael T. Klare  THE NATION.COM

His decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, which obliged this country to reduce its coal consumption and take other steps to curb its carbon emissions, was widely covered by the American mainstream news media. On the other hand, the president’s efforts to promote greater fossil fuel consumption abroad—just as significant in terms of potential harm to the planet—have received remarkably little attention.

Bear in mind that while Trump’s drive to sabotage international efforts to curb carbon emissions will undoubtedly slow progress in that area, it will hardly stop it. At the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, 19 of the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris accord and pledged to “mitigate greenhouse gas emissions through, among other [initiatives], increased innovation on sustainable and clean energies.” This means that whatever Trump does, continuing innovation in the energy field will indeed help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and so slow the advance of climate change. Unfortunately, Trump’s relentless drive to promote fossil-fuel consumption abroad could ensure that carbon emissions continue to rise anyway, neutralizing whatever progress might be made elsewhere and dooming humanity to a climate-ravaged future.

How the two sides of the ledger—green energy progress versus Trump’s drive to boost carbon exports—will balance out in the years ahead cannot be foreseen. Every boost in carbon emissions, however, pushes us closer to the moment when global temperatures will exceed the two degrees Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels that scientists say is the maximum the planet can absorb without suffering catastrophic consequences. Those would include rising sea levels that could drown New York, Miami, Shanghai, London, and many other coastal cities, as well as a sharp drop in global food production that could devastate entire populations.

Spreading the Cult of Carbon

President Trump’s pursuit of increased global carbon consumption is proving to be a two-front campaign. He’s working in every way imaginable to increase the production of fossil fuels domestically, even as he engages in a diplomatic blitzkreig to open doors to American fossil-fuel exports abroad.

At home, he’s already reversed numerous Obama-era restrictions on fossil fuel extraction, including curbs on mountaintop removal—an environmentally hazardous form of coal mining—and on oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters off Alaska. He’s also ordered the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt—a notorious enemy of environmental regulations opposed by the energy industry—to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s program to sharply reduce the use of coal in domestic electricity generation.

These and similar initiatives have gotten a fair amount of media attention already, but it’s no less important to focus on another key aspect of Trump’s pro-carbon global initiative which has gone largely unnoticed. While, under the Paris climate accord, the other industrial powers are still obliged to help developing countries install carbon-free energy technologies, Trump has freed himself to sell American fossil fuels everywhere to his heart’s content. At that G-20 meeting, for example, he forced his peers to insert a clause in their final communiqué stating, “The United States of America states it will endeavor to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.” (The “more cleanly and efficiently” was undoubtedly his modest concession to the other 19 leaders.)

He added, “We are a top producer of petroleum and the number-one producer of natural gas. We have so much more than we ever thought possible, and we’re going to be an exporter… We will export American energy all over the world, all around the globe.”

In his urge to preserve the reign of fossil fuels, President Trump has already taken on a unique personal role, meeting with foreign officials and promoting cooperation with key American energy firms. Take the June 26th White House visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While the media reported on how the two of them took up the subject of future arms sales to India, it made no mention of energy deals. Yet Secretary of Energy Rick Perry revealed that this topic was crucial to their encounter. At a Trump-hosted dinner for Modi at the White House, Perry reported, “we talked about the three areas of which there will be great back-and-forth cooperation—deal-making, if you will. One of those is in LNG [liquefied natural gas]. The other side of that is in clean coal. Thirdly is on the nuclear side. So there is great opportunity for India and the United States to become even stronger allies, stronger partners—energy being the glue that will hold that partnership together for a long, long time.”

To put this in context, making deals to sell coal to India is like selling OxyContin to an opioid addict. After all, in 2015, that country overtook the United States to become the world’s second-biggest consumer of coal (after China). To keep up the pace of its rapid economic growth, India had plans to increase its reliance on coal yet more, which would mean a steady increase in carbon emissions. India now trails only China and the United States as an emitter of carbon dioxide and its share is expected to grow. However, it is also likely to suffer disproportionately from climate change, which its emissions will only accelerate. Given that future extreme heat events are expected to periodically destroy crops on which a large part of its population depends, Modi’s government has recently begun seeking ways to reduce the country’s long-term reliance on fossil fuels, in part by becoming a solar superpower. In other words, in pitching coal to India—a true case of bringing coals to Newcastle (or at least Mumbai)—Trump is functionally working to sabotage India’s struggle to free itself from the scourge of carbon addiction.

His first overseas trips have also featured versions of such pitchmanship. During his visit to Saudi Arabia in May, he evidently sought to promote cooperation between US and Saudi energy firms. Again, press coverage of his meeting with Saudi King Salman highlighted other topics, notably the war on terror, the regional divide between Sunnis and Shiites, and new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s hard line on Iran. But the two of them did, in fact, issue a statement affirming “the importance of investment in energy by companies in both countries, and the importance of coordinating policies that ensure the stability of markets and an abundance of supplies.” Where this might lead is anyone’s guess, but presumably to a commitment to the continued dominance of petroleum in the world’s future energy markets.

s, Louisiana, and plans to construct a new oil pipeline to Mexico—about which, he assured listeners, “It will go right under the wall, right?… You know, a little like this [gesticulating]. Right under the wall.”

And keep in mind that we are undoubtedly catching no more than a glimpse of Trump’s efforts to promote the sale of American oil, coal, and natural gas abroad. From what little has been reported on the subject in his meetings with Prime Minister Modi, President Moon, and King Salman, it’s reasonable to assume that the topic has come up in most of his conversations with foreign leaders and represents a far more significant aspect of his international policymaking than generally realized.

American Energy Dominance

Don’t imagine, however, that Trump’s fossil-fueled salesmanship is primarily driven by a desire to enrich American energy firms (though he would undoubtedly consider that a plus). It’s clearly motivated by a deeper, more visceral set of urges. Still trapped in his memories of his 1950s childhood when gas-guzzling American cars were a prominent symbol of national wealth and power, he has a deep belief in the capacity of fossil fuels to propel and sustain the country’s global dominance. He often recalls that formative period in his musings, describing it as a golden age when America won all its wars and was dominant on the world stage. For him, oil equals vigor equals national ascendancy, and no other countries—least of all an international community united behind the Paris climate accord—should be able to deprive the US of its carbon fix.

All this was implicit in that Energy Department speech, which offered a genuine window into his thinking on the subject. Here’s the crucial passage, delivered in his usual extemporaneous style:

Our country is blessed with extraordinary energy abundance… We have nearly 100 years’ worth of natural gas and more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal… We have so much more than we ever thought possible. We are really in the driving seat. And you know what? We don’t want to let other countries take away our sovereignty and tell us what to do and how to do it. With these incredible resources, my administration will seek not only American energy independence that we’ve been looking for so long, but American energy dominance.

Trump’s personal fascination with symbols of excess—think of those giant golden letters over his properties—is evident in that monologue. It’s clear that he’s been especially taken with breakthroughs in the enhancement of American energy abundance, especially the success of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. That process has liberated vast quantities of oil and natural gas from previously unusable shale formations. Prior to the introduction of fracking, oil and gas production in the United States had been in decline, but thanks to what’s been termed the “shale revolution,” production has soared. In July 2017, at 9.4 million barrels per day, US crude oil output was up 68% over six years earlier, when production was running at just 5.6 million barrels per day. Natural gas has registered a similar leap. All this, in turn, generated—at least for a time—a feeling of euphoria in the oil and gas industry, with some pundits even dubbing this country “Saudi America” and portraying it as a new energy El Dorado.

As this sense of euphoria took hold, American energy analysts began viewing the explosion of domestic hydrocarbon output as a crucial source of geopolitical clout. The immense flood of cheap natural gas has “boosted US economic competitiveness,” said Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council, typically enough, “and by extension, US comprehensive national power, and US capacity for global leadership.” Think of it as Viagra for Washington policy-makers.

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