Why US politics might not be ready for an energy transition
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Why US politics might not be ready for an energy transition

By Matthew Farmer 21 Jun 2021

In the US, politicians from all sides have passed laws and used their influence to slow the president's proposed energy transition.

Why US politics might not be ready for an energy transition
US Senator Joe Manchin, who has attracted criticism from his own party on climate issues. Credit: Senate Democrats.

President Biden aims to start the country on the path to energy transition, but US politics is a beast with many heads. With politicians from all sides standing against the president, what are they doing to slow the country’s energy transition, and what has made the US so slow to start?

US politicians love to lead or beat the rest of the world, but energy policy poses a problem. What exactly will the US lead in? The many discordant voices of US government, speaking from its different tiers with various priorities, have so far decided on one clear answer: ‘Nothing’.

Democracies are made to be divided, but recent US politics have been known to be… heated. The delicate balance of power between deeply contrasting energy policies has pulled the US in all directions at once. Overall, the country has stayed stuck in place. But on a smaller scale, massive change has come.

Currently, President Biden pursues plans for an energy transition in the US. This has catalysed further action across the country, both for and against renewables. Some states have passed unusual laws to protect their respective industries. Although the supreme court will almost certainly block at least some of these measures, they show the depth of feeling on both sides of the US energy transition.

The cold, coaled north: Coal in Wyoming and Montana

In May, state governors in Wyoming created a fund to take legal action against other states that choose renewables over coal. Governors devoted $1.2m of funds toward suing states that ‘discriminate’ against coal. A spokesperson for State Governor Mark Gordon said Wyoming is ‘prepared to bring litigation to protect her interests’.

The mountainous state mined 283 million tons of coal in 2018. Some of this generated 86% of the state’s power, while approximately 90% of it left the state. With more than one-third of all US coal production, Wyoming’s state legislature uses its power to boost the local coal industry whenever it can.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon.
Governor Mark Gordon, speaking in 2019. Credit: Wyoming National Guard CC BY ND 2.0.

Republican legislator Jeremy Haroldson helped introduce the law, saying it came in response to other states “trying to block Wyoming’s access to consumer markets to advance their political agenda.” Haroldson also attacked renewables, wrongly attributing Texas’ February power shortages solely to renewable generation.

In a state where energy and economy come from coal, phasing out the most polluting fossil fuel means rapidly throwing out a financial system that took decades to build. This would help prevent climate change, though the issue is not a high priority for politicians or citizens. Instead, politicians emphasise the importance of trade, and exporting the state’s mineral wealth.

US politics divided in fossil fuel and transition stance

Previously, Wyoming and Montana took the state of Washington to court, aiming to force Washington to issue permits for a coal export terminal. A statement by Governor Gordon spoke of ‘Washington’s unlawful discrimination against Wyoming coal’. He continued: “Ultimately, this suit is not just about coal – it is about a precedent that would allow coastal states to arbitrarily deny access to interior states.”

Politicians in Europe and Asia have targeted coal because of its status as the most polluting fossil fuel. Wyoming has heard this and seen the first hints of the decline of coal in the US. National coal extraction peaked in 2008 and has fallen at least one-third since then. Most coal cuts came elsewhere, but Wyoming’s industry has still fallen alarmingly fast.

As a result, the state legislature established a marketing programme in October 2020 to ‘protect and expand Wyoming’s coal markets. The scheme aims to ‘address impacts’ citizens experience ‘due to changes in the coal market’.

In October 2019, lawmakers proposed a ban on closing coal plants to maintain demand for the fuel. This state legislature comfortably defeated the move, which saw considerable support. Now, one of the state’s retired coal plants will symbolically become the first of a new design of nuclear reactor, funded by Bill Gates.

This was also welcomed by Wyoming state governors, now speaking of a ‘changing economy’, ‘well-paying and long-term jobs’, and their support of an ‘all-of-the-above energy portfolio’.

When representatives speak about the industry, they often emphasise the state’s right to sell coal and the idea of self-sufficiency. Notwithstanding the need for an out-of-state export terminal, representatives believe these ideas resonate with their electorates, whose lives still depend on a coal economy.

The Southern Powerhouse: Texas and Louisiana

The US South loves oil and oil loves the US South. Texas, the self-proclaimed ‘energy capital of the world’, exported $329bn of oil in 2019, one-fifth of the US total.

Since 2005, the expansion of the fracking industry has brought new wealth to shale gas states. When oil export bans were lifted in 2015, petrochemicals delivered a new wave of benefits to the South. The state reintroduced this ban temporarily in 2021, when Texas struggled for power following a winter storm.

Satellite image of north-west Texas covered in snow.
Snowfall across Texas drove power shortages and blackouts. Credit: NASA.

Last week, Texas’ state governor signed a new law making investment firms ineligible for state funds if they refuse to invest in oil and gas companies. Environmental investment funds have expanded massively in recent years, but from September these firms would have 90 days to stop perceived boycotts. If they do not, state agencies will divest their funds and add the investors to a no-trade list.

Analysis submitted by the bill’s proposers stated: “The burgeoning fossil fuel discrimination movement is denying capital to our responsible, hard-working energy businesses, which means the energy we need will be less affordable and less secure.”

‘Discrimination’ also featured in the legislative text of a bill signed into Texas law in May. This bill now prevents cities from stopping their citizens from joining utility networks. Essentially, this targeted the city of Austin, which had considered preventing new buildings from joining the state’s natural gas network.

Pelican state creates a sanctuary for fossil fuels

Around the same time, Louisiana lawmakers proposed a bill to make the state a ‘fossil fuel sanctuary’. This would, according to draft texts, ‘protect its fossil fuel energy sector from being restricted’, a growing concern for southern states under Biden. While President Trump instructed authorities to remove restrictions on oil developments, Biden quickly reversed these actions and has instructed the agency to include climate considerations in their actions.

Political observers traditionally associate areas like Texas and Louisiana with conservatism, the Republican party, and individualism. This is the legend of the lone, star state.

But after years of slow change, these stereotypes no longer define the political landscape. Parts of the US South turned away from Republicans in the 2020 presidential elections, although small majorities mean these votes will likely soon change back. Texas continues to hold the attentions of political pundits, as its changing demographics have slowly moved it away from its isolationist ideals.

Texas flag by oil derrick
Texas is known for its oil exports, but the energy transition threatens the state’s trade. Credit: Shealah Craighead.

Oil exports have brought huge benefits to the southern states, and politicians have taken note. For Texas, the energy transition would mean decreasing oil production and processing in favour of power generation. This would mean greater isolationism in a way that many Texans do not want, despite the stereotypes.

While the state has some of the world’s greatest oil infrastructure, it has no such advantage in power generation. Energy companies cannot use oil infrastructure for exports, and while Texas has one international interconnector with Mexico, its transmission grid is otherwise separated from the rest of the US network.

Underpowered, overseas: Eastern states influence Western leaders

In his leadership campaign, President Biden pledged to ‘integrate climate change into foreign policy’, encouraging world leaders to cut carbon. This was first seen at the recent G7 summit, where leaders of the richest democratic nations resolved to end support for coal use.

Later, it emerged that the US and Japan had prevented this deal from making specific mention of coal or setting a hard end date.

Several news websites pointed to the voting record of coal-friendly Democrat senator Joe Manchin, representing West Virginia. Manchin has previously shown his willingness to defeat his own party’s motions that, he says, would threaten the state’s coal industry. With Biden’s party currently holding a tiny majority in the US senate, the president cannot afford to lose any votes. This allows individual states to hold disproportionate influence on US policy, at home and abroad.

Manchin told The New York Times that he welcomed the president’s push for greener technology, but said that “projections showing that fossil fuels, including coal, will be part of the global energy mix for decades to come”.