As Americans, we love our history, and in that sense, President Trump is no different. Oftentimes, however, his passion for America’s past makes it difficult for him to convey his vision for an American future. This stems in part from his misunderstanding of, or not knowing about, aspects of our history that lack the heat of battle or the thrill of victory but were nevertheless critical to our national military, economic, and democratic successes. Take for example, his policies on energy and climate science.
Forward, to the Past
A major feature of candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric on energy policy was a promise to “bring coal back.” Since taking office on January 20, President Trump has continued to embrace a fossil-fueled vision for the American future simultaneous with a denial of anthropogenic – human-influenced – climate change. He has signed executive orders accelerating the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota and invited a new application for the Keystone XL Pipeline that would connect tar sands in Canada to American Gulf Coast refineries from where it would then be exported. In the coming days, Trump is expected to direct the EPA administrator Scott Pruitt (who, as Oklahoma Attorney General sued the EPA 13 times) to roll back Obama-era restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and to undo the extension of federal protection of over 60 percent of the nation’s lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands under the Waters of the United States Rule (issued under the authority of the Clean Water Act of 1972).
Meanwhile, coal production continues to decline to levels not seen since 1978 and coal-fired power plants continue to close at home and abroad. As increasing numbers of Americans as well as foreign nations embrace renewable energy sources and electric cars, few expect the Trump administration to foster a forward-looking, post-hydrocarbon energy policy. The editorial board of the New York Times summed up the President’s fossil fuel insistence in historical terms: “Mr. Trump might as well have been signing a decree that the whaling industry was being restored to Nantucket.” While Moby Dick is not required reading, some understanding of previous energy transitions can help elucidate the potential pathways for a brighter American future.
The world has undergone two previous energy transitions on a global scale: from wood to coal, and from coal to oil. Neither has occurred quickly or without significant economic and social dislocation and profound environmental and health devastation. With the transitions to both coal and oil, the “legacy” fuel remained widely used for decades (in the case of coal, centuries). In these previous shifts, governments have been slow to realize the economic benefits of new energy regimes. But once they realize the pathway to prosperity is paved by scientific and technological innovation, states have been quick and substantial in their work to support new energy systems.
Pennsylvania has been at the forefront of energy transitions. The first shift, from wood to coal, was boosted by anthracite mining in northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1820s. But getting the coal to markets in Philadelphia required state-sponsorship and financial support to construct the canals and railroads necessary to fuel Philadelphia’s and the world’s industrial revolution. Early Americans were familiar with bituminous, cannel, and other varieties of coal. Mines around Richmond, VA as well as imports from Nova Scotia and Britain fueled iron forges and sometimes hearths when wood and charcoal were in short supply. Whereas these coals were relatively easy to light but also generated heavy smoke, anthracite was hard to ignite but thanks to its high energy density and low levels of impurities, generated little smoke. Eager to encourage use of a fuel uniquely found in the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania legislators passed legislation that encouraged anthracite use in iron forges without providing direct financial assistance, having encountered severe budgetary issues after investing in a statewide canal program. At a time when the legislature strictly controlled who obtained a corporate charter and for what purpose, the state passed a law in 1836 providing corporate privileges and protections to any iron producer who burned anthracite coal rather than charcoal. Where there was a will, there was a way. Anthracite proved the vital fuel for the industrialization of the United States, facilitated by the state’s interest in promoting its own economic privilege.
“In . . . previous [energy] shifts, governments have been slow to realize the economic benefits of new energy regimes. But once they realize the pathway to prosperity is paved by scientific and technological innovation, states have been quick and substantial in their work to support new energy systems.”
The second energy shift began in northwestern Pennsylvania, when in 1859 Edwin Drake successfully drilled the first well for petroleum. The subsequent abundance of the diverse hydrocarbon illuminated cities and farmhouses with kerosene and eventually revolutionized our entire way of life, from where we travel to how we shop to what we do on Sundays. Again, the transition from coal to oil was facilitated by state and federal construction of roads and highways and the safety regulations for those automobiles on those roads. The military was at the forefront of the transition. In 1911, the navy decided to switch from coal to oil for ships, thereby increasing range and speed–the British Navy switched in the same year. In 1919, Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower led a coast-to-coast caravan of military vehicles to demonstrate both the utility of automobiles to the services as well as the profound need for well-maintained roads. That trip from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco took two months, and its memory remained with General Eisenhower when as Supreme Allied Commander victorious over Nazi Germany he surveyed the Autobahn and when as President he advocated for the interstate highway system.
A Long Time Coming: A Third Energy Shift
The third shift has been ongoing for several decades, arguably since the oil crises of the 1970s and President Jimmy Carter’s installation of solar panels on the White House in 1977 (they were removed in 1981 by the Reagan administration). It incorporates multiple streams of energy production–wind, solar, nuclear, tidal, and natural gas. The Reagan administration dealt the third transition a devastating blow by reversing Carter’s policies and funding initiatives, but in the last eight years, renewable energy appears to have crossed important price point and consumer thresholds. Over half a million fully electric cars roam American roads already, while the number of hybrid vehicles is far higher. Oil-rich Texas has invested billions to connect its windy western plains to its cities through a program called Competitive Renewable Energy Zones which has helped make it the nation’s leader in wind energy production. 29 states and the District of Columbia have established requirements a percentage of their overall electricity generation to come from renewable sources. California, a leader in renewable energy investment and infrastructure innovation, is considering modifying its clean-energy production goals from 50 percent of all electricity by 2035 to 100 percent by 2045.
Supporters of fossil fuels often resist renewable energy commitments by citing the choice between economic growth or environmental protections. This, however, is a false choice. Solar energy, in particular, is a job creator and a job maintainer. According to the Department of Energy, the solar industry employs more workers (43 percent) in the Electric Power Generation sector than fossil fuels combined. While more workers are currently employed in the extraction of fossil fuels (1.1 million), future jobs will undoubtedly be found in renewables and natural gas. In 2016 alone, employment in the solar sector increased by 25 percent in 2016 and wind power saw a 32 percent increase. After all, those sectors are where the electricity is coming from. Over the last ten years, electricity production from natural gas has risen 33 percent while electricity from solar increased a whopping 5,000 percent.
“Companies like Tesla are already transforming corporate and individual thinking about energy, but national public leadership is also essential. A renewable energy infrastructure portends economy-wide modernization and construction projects that will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.”
Supporters of pipelines, and particularly the Keystone XL pipeline, often cite its economic benefits in terms of construction jobs. The President claims 28,000 jobs would result from the pipeline, while most experts estimate the number of temporary construction positions to be around 4,000 full-time jobs for one year. To this argument, consider the construction potential in building a renewable energy infrastructure. We will need new long-distance transmission lines to carry solar energy from areas of mass production (like the Southwest) to areas of mass consumption (like the Northeast), similar to Texas’s Competitive Renewable Energy Zones program. We will need to convert some (not all at once) gas pumps to electric charging stations. The assembly and installation of home- and industrial-scaled batteries and solar panels will continue to boost small business and manufacturing jobs nationally. Companies like Tesla are already transforming corporate and individual thinking about energy, but national public leadership is also essential. A renewable energy infrastructure portends economy-wide modernization and construction projects that will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
Energy and Democracy
Scholars of energy, transitions, and politics have observed that the nature of a fuel source and its related technological systems often have political repercussions. Both Timothy Mitchell in his study of the relationship between coal, oil, and democracy and Bruce Podobnik’s study of global energy shifts conclude that the nature of coal mining, heavily reliant on manpower in the nineteenth century, lent itself to a broader political participation and labor power. Oil naturally flowed (and often gushed from wells under high pressure, eliminating the need for pumping machinery) and thus required less work by human muscle, thus negating much of the worker’s opportunity to leverage his labor to political ends. By typically keeping geographically separate the sites of extraction and refining, the oil industry further limited its vulnerability to strikes and nationalization (in international oil fields, that is).
The social and political differences between coal and oil extraction are profound. Whereas coal mines typically begot towns in which workers and their families resided for as long as work was available in the mine, oil field work appears to have been much more masculine and transient. Particularly after workers successfully established a well and connected it to a pipeline (developed first in the mid-1860s for short distance transportation near Pithole, Pennsylvania), the work required changed dramatically. Oil flows; coal doesn’t. While coal and oil in the nineteenth century shared similar destinations–engines, lamps, and furnaces, the laboring societies they created were strikingly different.
“If history teaches us only one thing, it is that we cannot return to it, only learn from it and move forward. Previous shifts in energy have produced incredible economic transformations–coal and the Industrial Revolution, oil and the modern interconnected global economy. By ignoring the potential and inevitability of renewable fuels, by threatening federal research funding, and by shirking the opportunity to build the energy infrastructure of the future, President Trump makes our past a prison of complacency.”
This third major energy transition, like the previous two, portends significant social, political, and environmental changes, some by design and some inevitably unexpected. As solar panels cover houses, factories, and fields, the means of electricity production will be dramatically dispersed. The modes of energy production will continue to be diversified–solar, wind, hydroelectric, tidal, and natural gas will overlap at both large-scale public utility electricity generation sites and at homes and offices. New dependencies between sunny and windswept states and dark and calm ones may emerge. And, as business historian Alfred Chandler tied the rise of the modern corporation to the emergence of coal, railroads, and later oil, we might also ask whether the multinational corporate model evolves the transition to decentralized energy production. Many more questions remain, but we can only begin to answer them if we acknowledge the reality and inevitability of change.
When governments support energy transitions, the benefits are widely enjoyed, for labor and industry, for consumers and producers. The Trump administration has the opportunity to advance the revolution in how we power our way of life. Silencing climate and energy scientists and threatening future funding for innovation are not the ways to do this. Wishful thinking cannot change the evidence.
If history teaches us only one thing, it is that we cannot return to it, only learn from it and move forward. Previous shifts in energy have produced incredible economic transformations–coal and the Industrial Revolution, oil and the modern interconnected global economy. By ignoring the potential and inevitability of renewable fuels, by threatening federal research funding, and by shirking the opportunity to build the energy infrastructure of the future, President Trump makes our past a prison of complacency.
Tom Foley is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University. He can be contacted here.
 Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, “Trump to roll back Obama’s climate, water rules through executive action,” Washington Post, February 20, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/02/20/trump-to-roll-back-obamas-climate-water-rules-through-executive-action/?utm_term=.e5c589f4b55f.
 Short-Term Outlook: Coal,” Energy Information Agency, February 7, 2017. https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/report/coal.cfm; Benjamin Storrow, “Coal plants keep closing on Trump’s watch,” E&E News, February 21, 2017. http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060050333.
 Paul Hockenos, “With Norway in Lead, Europe Set for Surge in Electric Vehicles,” Yale Environment 360, February 6, 2017.
 Editorial Board, “President Trump Takes Aim at the Environment,” New York Times, February 23, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/23/opinion/president-trump-takes-aim-at-the-environment.html
 Sean Patrick Adams, Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 78.
 Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (New York: Free Press, 1991), 207-208.
 Anthony Cuthbertson, “Electric Car Sales Pass Half a Million in U.S.,” Newsweek, December 26, 2016. http://www.newsweek.com/electric-car-sales-pass-half-million-us-536331.
 Robert Fares, “Texas Sets New All Time Wind Energy Record,” Scientific American, January 14, 2016. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/texas-sets-new-all-time-wind-energy-record/.
 Jocelyn Durkay, “State Renewable Portfolio Standards and Goals,” NCSL, December 28, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/energy/renewable-portfolio-standards.aspx.
Chris Megerian, “California Senate leader puts 100% renewable energy on the table in new legislation,” Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2017.
Niall McCarthy, “Solar Employs More People In U.S. Electricity Generation Than Oil, Coal And Gas Combined,” Forbes, January 25, 2017. http://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2017/01/25/u-s-solar-energy-employs-more-people-than-oil-coal-and-gas-combined-infographic/#3d4c16b7d27f.
 Glenn Kessler, “President Trump’s Inflated Estimate of Keystone XL Construction Jobs,” Washington Post, January 25, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/01/25/president-trumps-inflated-estimate-for-keystone-xl-construction-jobs/.
 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso Books, 2011); Bruce Podobnik, Global Energy Shifts: Fostering Sustainability in a Turbulent Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005).