State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

EPA’s Pruitt Promotes Fossil Fuels but Can’t Stop Renewable Energy

Just when you thought that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt couldn’t possibly be as corrupt as he seems to be, it just keeps getting worse. In a report filed on June 2, New York Times reporters Steve Eder, Hiroko Tabuchi and Eric Lipton discussed Pruitt’s close relationship with coal billionaire Joseph Craft III. The story discussed Pruitt and his son’s attendance at a University of Kentucky basketball game seated in Craft’s university donor’s season seats. The piece documents Pruitt’s pattern of frequent interaction with Craft and concludes that unlike Pruitt’s relationships with other fossil fuel industry leaders, this one is quite low-key. According to these reporters:

“Mr. Pruitt’s mostly behind-the-scenes relationship with Mr. Craft is emblematic of his unorthodox approach to leading the E.P.A., where he often blurs the lines between personal and official relationships and has created the impression at times that he does the bidding of the industries the agency regulates. As administrator, he has become the subject of a dozen ethical and other investigations, including several focused on his ties to lobbyists and others with business before his agency.”

It would be out of character for the President to express concern about Pruitt’s attraction to the high life, since clearly Trump loves luxury as much as the next billionaire. And Pruitt’s lifestyle is less of an issue than his policy preferences.  Even if he gets booted due to some ethical breach, EPA’s Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler shares his policy perspective, and unlike Pruitt has more DC experience and a deeper knowledge of how the system works. Wheeler would simply pick up where Pruitt left off.

The point is that Pruitt is not the point. Trump is responsible for the policy of pushing fossil fuels. In the year since President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, he and his cabinet have worked overtime to promote fossil fuels. It is unfortunate that Trump and the U.S. national government keep trying to prop up the past, because the rest of the world, many corporations and a large number of American cities and states are moving in the other direction.

The move by American corporations was the subject of Brad Palmer’s June 1 New York Times piece entitled: “A Year After Trump’s Paris Pullout, U.S. Companies Are Driving a Renewables Boom.” Palmer notes that:

“Last year in the United States, 19 large corporations announced deals with energy providers to build 2.78 gigawatts worth of wind and solar generating capacity, equal to one-sixth of all of the renewable capacity added nationwide in 2017, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Business Renewable Center. (Power companies themselves added much of the rest, often in response to state mandates.) That trend appears to be accelerating. Corporations have already announced deals for another 2.48 gigawatts of wind and solar in the first half of 2018, as companies like AT&T and Nestlé join the search for cleaner power to fulfill their sustainability goals and take advantage of the rapidly declining cost of renewables.”

The fossil fuel industry is using every means possible to translate their still considerable economic power into the political power needed to slow the growth of renewables. But they are literally tilting at windmills. Unfortunately for the fossil fuel industry, renewable energy is not the imaginary enemy of fossil fuels (apologies to Don Quixote) but their technological replacement. Fossil fuels will not go away quickly but they will go away. Those fossil fuel companies that redefine themselves as energy companies and use their market knowledge and technical know-how to lead the transition to renewable energy will survive and thrive. The companies that remain wedded to the past will go broke. President Trump’s recent idea of requiring power utilities to buy coal and nuclear power to prevent the “national security threat” of power grid unreliability is an indication of this industry’s desperation. If this ends up as Administration policy, the law suits to stop it won’t be far behind.

The energy story is simple. Fossil fuels must be extracted from the planet at great financial and environmental cost. They must then be transported to the place they are burned and, when burned, cause additional environmental damage—and the cost of that damage must be paid. While the technology of extraction, transport and burning is improving, the basic cost of the fuel will rise because it is a finite resource that will grow increasingly scarce with time. In contrast, the fuel for renewable energy, the sun, is for human purposes, infinite. Its cost is zero and will remain at zero. Meanwhile the technology for capturing and storing that energy will continue to improve and the cost will continue to go down. Renewables already compete with fossil fuels on price. We are only a few technological breakthroughs away from the day they will drive fossil fuels from the marketplace.

The large companies getting into renewable energy are certainly happy to get good PR. Millennials consider sustainability a core value and companies that take climate change and other forms of pollution seriously are better able to compete for the best and brightest workers. But the real driver behind renewable energy is not climate or greenwashing but cost. The tipping point has been reached for the fossil fuel industry. The issue is not if the transition to renewables will happen, but how and when. The process can be smooth and productive, or difficult and wrenching. Trump and Pruitt think that government regulation has harmed the fossil fuel industry, and the industry “unleashed” will beat back the threat from renewables. Certainly, that’s what the industry and its lobbyists believe. But they are wrong. The advantage enjoyed by renewables has just begun.

Fossil fuels will persist for a while because of the trillions of dollars we have all invested in machines that are powered by fossil fuels. We aren’t all about to turn in our cars or hot water heaters for equipment that can only be powered by renewable energy. But over time we will replace our outmoded technology. The big companies with the financial muscle to benefit immediately from renewable energy are investing in renewables now. Walmart is putting solar arrays on many of their large flat roofs. Google and Apple are leading the charge to renewable energy-powered computing. It is a shame that the U.S. government has abdicated its leadership in the move toward renewable energy. They are backing a loser that will slow down the transition a bit. But not for long.

While renewable energy is unstoppable, the corrosion of values, myriad conflicts of interest, and capture of our regulatory agencies by industry need to be stopped. The pursuit of profit, comfort and the finer things that money can buy are perfectly appropriate goals for all Americans, with the exception of public servants. Government officials serve the public interest. They shouldn’t take luxury boxes at ball games and shouldn’t profit from hotels within sight of the White House. Trump and Pruitt are not the only government officials accepting hospitality and favors from rich people. Pay for play can be found throughout America. The excess is bipartisan and is corrosive to our nation and its values. When corruption is coupled with ignorance of global economic and technological realities, we have reason to be concerned about the future of our democracy and economy.

In the final analysis, I do not believe the American character is corrupt or delusional. The reality of climate change, the importance of innovation, diversity, and public-private partnership remains clear in our communities and one hopes they will return to our national government. To get a clear picture of that America I recommend a close read of Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America, by James and Deborah Fallows. It is a wonderful book that details how America’s small towns and cities are self-generating a stunning economic, cultural and political revival. Fallows and Fallows provide insight into the real America that the media seems to miss and provides a cleansing corrective to the corruption of Trump and his cronies.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Brian Campbell
Brian Campbell
5 years ago

You are NOT an Engineer == “for the fossil fuel industry, renewable energy is not the imaginary enemy of fossil fuels” = RFK Jr Sez Utility based RE, are really GAS =CH4 Bern==EMISSION Producing E-GEN. YOU condemn Real HI TECH NUCLEAR POWER, humanities ONLY HOPE of truly mitigating climate change. DO THE MATH! The Present Closed US Nuclear Power Plants == all the installed Solar in USA. President Trump’s recent idea of requiring power utilities to buy coal and nuclear power to prevent the “national security threat” of power grid unreliability is an indication of this industry’s desperation. If this ends up as Administration policy, the law suits to stop it won’t be far behind. Bring on the Lawyers == Bring on the Yellow Shirts