U.S. President Donald Trump swept into office on the wings of a simple formula: He provided racists with a bottom-line excuse to cast their vote in his favor. On the campaign trail, he excoriated Mexicans and Muslims while promising to save coal jobs and “make America great again.” That promise of the Trump presidency had fallen flat before the COVID-19 virus hit the U.S., and it rings most hollow in the fossil energy sector as the nation struggles in the grip of the crisis.
All throughout the 2016 campaign cycle, Trump made bringing back coal jobs the centerpiece of his rhetoric. As coal employment is overwhelmingly white and male, the focus on coal covered both the racial and the bottom-line sides of Trump’s campaign coin.
The rhetoric appealed to a bygone era when structural racism, segregation and Jim Crow laws were considered acceptable by the white majority, but it had no footing in reality. When Trump took office in January 2017, the U.S. population was already trending toward a majority comprised of a diversity made up of ethnic and racial minorities. Meanwhile, the nation was steadily pivoting its energy profile toward renewable resources.
Trump did make some gestures that would seem to force a reversal of course for renewable energy. For example, in June 2017 he announced that the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
However, he ignored the 800-pound gorilla in the room. By the time Trump took office in January 2017, leading global businesses and popular U.S. brands were already advocating vigorously for taking action on climate change through renewable energy and a national net-zero goal. They have continued to leverage their influence all throughout the Trump presidency in their support of clean power trends.
In addition, at least two broadly influential federal agencies, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense, have continued to support and advocate for clean power throughout Trump’s time in office. To cite just two examples: The Energy Department is promoting a goal of making solar power affordable for all U.S. households by 2025, and the Air Force just announced a call to for public- and private-sector innovators to put the entire Department of Defense on a trajectory toward carbon-negative status.
Overall, the impact on coal employment has been devastating. The Trump presidency has presided over an era of coal power plant closures, mining company bankruptcies, and job losses, a trend that began accelerating even before the COVID-19 crisis gathered force.
Trump himself apparently saw the writing on the coal wall, as evidenced by his State of the Union address on Feb. 5, 2019. With barely more than two years in office behind him, Trump indicated he had given up on the idea of saving coal jobs. In fact, he didn’t mention coal at all.
“We have unleashed a revolution in American energy — the United States is now the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world. And now, for the first time in 65 years, we are a net exporter of energy,” Trump said.
If Trump’s track record on coal was any indication, oil and gas executives should have begun making alternative plans for the future.
For that matter, oil and gas executives could have taken a cue from the Defense Department’s continued commitment to renewable energy. After all, the agency is the single largest institutional user of oil in the world.
However, the damage is already done. Earlier this week, the news organization Politico drew a portrait of the once-great U.S. oil industry in a state of collapse.
Reporter Ben Lefebvre noted that a wave of bankruptcies began surging in 2019 as global oil prices softened, but that was just a hint of things to come.
“Though some of those industry woes were emerging last year as companies grappled with a glut of oil, people in the business say they were made worse by the president’s trade wars and mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic,” he wrote. “So far least 40 U.S. oil companies have sought bankruptcy protection in 2020 while dozens of others have slashed spending and cut tens of thousands of jobs.”
Ominous signs are also brewing for gas workers. Once touted as a cleaner alternative to coal, natural gas is beginning to lose its footing in the electricity generation market as the cost of wind and solar power continue to fall. The petrochemical market is also beginning to show signs of weakness. Bio-based alternatives, next-generation recycling, and consumer preferences are gathering force and influencing C-suite decision makers, including top executives at BP and other leading oil and gas producers.
In one recent red flag for U.S. gas exporters, the Trump administration’s rollback of regulations for methane emissions has compelled the government of France to question a 20-year, $7 billion liquid natural gas contract brokered by the firm Engie. As reported by Reuters, Trump’s trade policies were also a factor in the government’s reluctance to approve the deal.
At the beginning of the Trump presidency, U.S. business leaders responded forcefully to his anti-immigrant policies. Unfortunately, the lessons of those first months did not take hold.
Many business leaders have stepped up their voter participation activities during the 2020 election cycle, but aside from a few notable exceptions, they have been reluctant to advocate publicly for booting Trump out of office.
Meanwhile, with his bottom-line case for re-election fading to the background, Trump has doubled down in his appeal to racist voters. He has whipped up white supremacist violence while hurling accusations of widespread voter fraud and threatening to hold office regardless of the results of the election.
The ramped-up racial strategy marking the Trump presidency has also involved the full weight of the federal government under a new Executive Order that effectively halted diversity training among federal agencies and contractors.
The wall of silence may be about to break. Last week, Expensify CEO David Barrett fired off a public letter and emailed it to his company’s 10 million customers, calling out Trump by name and making a powerful bottom-line case for electing his challenger, Joe Biden.
The results of the election may help determine whether or not Barrett’s letter influenced any votes. What the Trump presidency has made certain, though, is that business leaders need to raise their voices more forcefully in support of the democratic process, not just in the run-up to Election Day but in the days and months following.
Image credit: Filip Urban/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.