Inside Clean Energy: Biden’s Oil Industry Comments Were Not a Political Misstep

Republicans thought they could use the Democratic candidate’s remarks to scare voters in states like Texas and Pennsylvania. Surveys suggest they were wrong.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debates U.S. President Donald Trump at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. Credit: Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden debates U.S. President Donald Trump at Belmont University on Oct. 22, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. Credit: Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images

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Inside Clean Energy

During the final presidential debate last week, Joe Biden said that he would “transition from the oil industry,” a statement immediately seized on by President Donald Trump and oil industry groups, who treated it as a political gaffe that would harm Biden in Texas, Pennsylvania and other battleground states.

It wasn’t a gaffe. And the reaction showed that Trump and others are out of touch with how public opinion has changed.

Before I get into the numbers that show that, you should know that I have some experience navigating the disconnect between perception and reality in the energy economy. I covered energy for about 10 years for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio and spent much of that time under the assumption that the coal industry was a vital source of jobs for much of the state.

So I was surprised to learn that the state had fewer than 2,500 coal miners in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s less than the number of florists, to name one of many examples of industries that have much less clout than coal, despite having more jobs.


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I came to realize that the idea of the coal industry’s importance had permeated the state in a way that far exceeded its actual importance, partly because of politically active coal companies like Murray Energy, whose founder and namesake died this week (more about him later).

The oil and gas industry has not yet declined to the extent of the coal industry, but oil and gas extraction jobs are down from the recent heights of the fracking boom of the mid-2010s, while clean energy jobs were growing before losses this year tied to the coronavirus.

An example of that is Pennsylvania: Last year, the state had 71,443 energy conservation jobs, in fields that included insulation and energy efficient lighting. This was far more than the 38,935 jobs in coal, oil or gas extraction that same year, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy & Employment Report.

“There is some misperception about who is and what is the typical Pennsylvanian,” said Berwood Yost, director of the center for opinion research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Often, this comes down to a stereotype that Pennsylvania is “a state full of blue-collar folks,” he said. The reality is that health care, education and professional services jobs have grown substantially in the last decade in the state, while mining has declined and manufacturing has been flat.

This shift in the job market is happening alongside a broader shift in which a majority of the public acknowledges the threat of climate change and supports the transition to clean energy.

Yost found this to be true in his office’s March 2018 Pennsylvania poll, in which 67 percent of respondents said the state should “definitely” or “probably” do more to address the problems associated with climate change.

More recent reports show similar results.

The nonprofit Resources for the Future issued a report on Monday showing that a majority of people across the country believe that warming will be a serious problem for the United States. The sentiment was strongest in Rhode Island, with 94 percent, and weakest in Idaho, with 60 percent (Alaska, Hawaii, North Dakota and Wyoming did not yield enough responses to show results).

Climate Change Is a National Concern

Gallup, which has polled about climate change for years, found last year that 66 percent of Americans believe global warming is caused by human activities, which is up from 55 percent in 2015.

Also, Morning Consult reported last week that 57 percent of the country’s voters support a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, while 28 percent oppose it.

Support for Energy Transition

Considering the trends in public opinion, Yost thinks Biden’s comment is unlikely to harm him much, if at all.

“When it comes to energy policy, I think the majority of citizens are a bit more accommodating to a transition to renewables than you might hear from partisan leaders,” he said.

The Cheapest (and Cleanest) Electricity Sources Are Getting Cheaper

One of the ways to trace the affordability of power plants is to estimate the “levelized cost of energy,” which takes into account the costs of building a new power plant and operating it throughout its expected life.

Lazard, the investment banking firm, this month released the 2020 update of its report on the levelized cost of energy and energy storage, showing that the global costs of wind farms and solar arrays both have ticked down since last year.

Utility-scale solar power now has an average levelized cost of $37 per megawatt-hour, which is down from $40 in 2019. Wind power has an average of $40 per megawatt-hour, down from $41.

Meanwhile, combined cycle natural gas plants are at $59, up from $56; coal is $112, up from $109; and nuclear is $163, up from $155.

Remember, these are averages. For example, the utility-scale solar number is the average of a range that goes from $31 per megawatt-hour to $42 per megawatt-hour.

Renewable Energy Costs Continue to Fall

At current costs, few investors are going to want to build a new coal-fired or nuclear plant unless they are heavily subsidized. The more important consideration may be how the costs of continuing to operate old plants compare to the costs of building and operating new ones.

The report shows that operating an existing coal plant costs an average of $41 per megawatt-hour, which is more expensive than the costs for wind and solar.

This is in line with what we’ve seen in the market, which is that owners of coal-fired power plants are finding that they can save money by closing those plants and building wind farms and solar arrays instead.

Looking back at 13 years of Lazard’s reports, the most remarkable change is how utility-scale solar has gone from the most expensive, at $359 per megawatt-hour, to the least expensive, at $37 per megawatt-hour.

Of course, we can’t run the entire power system on a technology that only works when the sun is shining. But the combination of wind, solar and energy storage can meet a large share of our electricity needs, and do it without a big increase in costs.

Not long ago, this idea would have been radical, but the energy economy is changing so quickly that 10 years ago feels like ancient history.

The ‘Last Coal Optimist’ Has Died

Robert Murray, the founder and longtime leader of the coal company Murray Energy, died this week of complications from lung disease.

It was a week after he retired as chairman of American Consolidated Natural Resources, the name his Ohio-based company took after it emerged from bankruptcy in September.

I knew Murray as a major player in Ohio energy policy, someone who took big and small steps to slow the growth of renewable energy because he saw it as competition for coal.  This was before he gained a national profile because of his support for Donald Trump along with his role in shaping the Trump administration’s promotion of coal and overall approach to energy regulation.

“It’s fair to say that Murray has been the last coal optimist in the country,” said Sandy Buchanan, the Cleveland-based executive director of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), speaking with me last year after Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy protection. She meant that he ran his business as if coal had a future, including buying other coal companies based on the idea that they were undervalued assets.

Robert Murray, President and CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, gives an early morning TV interview in Utah on Aug. 11, 2007. Credit: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Robert Murray, President and CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, gives an early morning TV interview in Utah on Aug. 11, 2007. Credit: Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Murray often forecast doom and gloom in criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Obama administration and others he saw as coal’s foes.

“Grandma is going to be cold and in the dark with what they’re doing,” he said at a 2014 coal conference, a statement that gives you a sense of his hyperbolic way of speaking.

My colleague Nicole Pollack wrote this week about one example of the small things Murray would do to fight clean energy, including paying for lawyers to represent residents who were trying to stop an offshore wind project in Lake Erie.

Murray was an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and held out hope that Trump could change federal policies in a way that would help to revitalize the coal industry. Murray went so far as to give Trump a policy wish list, which included actions that the administration later took.

But even with years of favors from Ohio and national political leaders, Murray couldn’t save the coal industry, whose decline has only accelerated during Trump’s presidency.

Still, Murray’s friends and colleagues are remembering the man for the enthusiasm he brought to his efforts.

“It’s a very sad day, not just for the Ohio Valley, but for coal miners all across the country,” Michael Shaheen, who was Murray’s personal attorney, told The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register. “He was a trend-setter, iconic in his field, and certainly unique personally and professionally. He was very passionate about those he cared for and what he believed in.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identifed the state with the lowest percentage of people who said that global warming will be a serious problem for the United States, according to a report by the nonprofit Resources for the Future. It was Idaho, where 60 percent of those surveyed held that view.

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