In the last two years, North Dakota has lost almost half its jobs in the oil and coal industries.
The losses aren’t the fault of pesky environmentalists worried about groundwater contamination and global warming. They’re the result of collapsing world energy prices.
The story of the North Dakota oil and gas industry captures the absurdity of President-elect Trump’s plans to remove environmental restrictions on fossil-fuel production.
Apparently, he wants us to believe a boom in production would lead to massive job growth and plunging energy prices and no negative consequences. But the story of an energy boom just around the corner is an illusion.
As in North Dakota, it’s not environmental restrictions that are holding back the U.S. fossil-fuel industry. It’s the market. Oil is readily available on world markets for $45 a barrel, less than half its price of three years ago.
At this price, it is not profitable to drill for more oil or gas in most of the areas Trump wants to open up to the fossil-fuel industry. And removing such restrictions would have an unnecessary, negative impact on some of America’s most scenic sites.
The industry will always want to drill where it’s cheapest. This means that if Trump allows drilling in picturesque, historic areas that are now protected, and such operations prove slightly cheaper than already blighted sites in Texas or North Dakota, then Exxon-Mobil, Shell, and the rest will shift their operations to the lowest-cost area.
If we follow Trump and put a cheap price on preserving nature, then we can be assured there will be less nature to preserve. That will in no way make America great again.
The same goes for our drinking water. Fracking has been restricted in many parts of the country because of the risk to drinking water and the local environment.
If Trump is able to reverse state and local bans on fracking, he will in effect be giving oil and gas companies the right to pollute people’s farms and drinking water. Apparently, Trump and his followers don’t care about people’s property rights.
But the biggest tragedy in this story is damage done to the planet through increased emissions of greenhouse gases. We all know Trump says global warming is a hoax invented by China.
Who knows or cares whether he actually believes that rising Arctic temperatures, rising ocean waters, growing deserts in Africa, droughts in California, and other climate disruptions are all inventions of the Chinese. These are the problems that those of us who live in the real world have to confront.
And the problems facing our children will be much larger if we don’t take serious steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This damage is in many ways irreversible. The carbon we put into the atmosphere today will stay there for hundreds of years.
Perhaps the most painful part of this story is that we are not even getting anything in return for causing this damage.
Trump is not going to create millions of new jobs with his drill-everywhere policy. He is not going to put West Virginia coal miners back to work.
In fact, his policy will probably hasten the destruction of the coal industry as it makes natural gas even cheaper.
What we are talking about is a policy with potentially enormous environmental costs with virtually no economic benefits, unless you happen to own lots of stock in oil and gas companies.
Perhaps that makes it a sound like good policy for a Trump administration, but the rest of us probably care more about our kids and the planet.
This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.