This blog was co-authored with Jonathan Camuzeaux and is the first in an occasional series on the economics of President Trump's Energy Plan
Just 60 days into Trump’s presidency, his administration has wasted no time in pursuing efforts to lift oil and gas development restrictions and dismantle a range of environmental protections to push through his “America First Energy Plan.” An agenda that he claims will allow the country to, “take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”
Putting aside the convenient roundness of this number, the sheer size of it makes this policy sound appealing, but buyer beware. Behind the smoke and mirrors of this $50 trillion is a report commissioned by the industry-backed Institute for Energy Research (IER) that lacks serious economic rigor. The positive projections from lifting oil and gas restrictions come straight from the IER’s advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance. Several economists reviewed the assessment and agreed: “this is not academic research and would never see the light of day in an academic journal.”
Here is why Trump’s plan promises a future it can’t deliver:
1. No analytical back up for almost $20 trillion of the $50 trillion.
Off the bat, it’s clear that President Trump’s Plan relies on flawed math. What’s actually estimated in the report is $31.7 trillion, not $50 trillion, based on increased revenue from oil, gas and coal production over 37 years (this total includes estimated increases in GDP, wages, and tax revenue). The other roughly half of this “$50 trillion” number appears to be conjured out of thin air.
2. Inflated fuel prices
An average oil price of $100 per barrel and of $5.64 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas (Henry Hub spot price) was used to calculate overall benefits. Oil prices are volatile: in the last five years, they reached a high of $111 per barrel and a low of $29 per barrel. They were below $50 a barrel a few days ago. A $5.64 gas price is not outrageous, but gas prices have mostly been below $5 for several years. By using inflated oil and gas prices and multiplying the benefits out over 37 years, the author dismisses any volatility or price impacts from changes in supply. There’s no denying oil and gas prices could go up in the future, but they could also go down, and the modeling in the IER report is inadequate at best when it comes to tackling this issue.
3. Technically vs. economically recoverable resources
The IER report is overly optimistic when it comes to the amount of oil and gas that can be viably produced on today’s restricted federal lands. Indeed, the report assumes that recoverable reserves can be exploited to the last drop over the 37-year period based on estimates from a Congressional Budget Office report. A deeper look reveals that these estimates are actually for “technically recoverable resources,” or the amount of oil and gas that can be produced using current technology, industry practice, and geologic knowledge. While these resources are deemed accessible from a technical standpoint, they cannot always be produced profitably. This is an important distinction as it is the aspect that differentiates technically recoverable from economically recoverable resources. The latter is always a smaller subset of what is technically extractable, as illustrated by this diagram from the Energy Information Administration. The IER report ignores basic industry knowledge to present a rosier picture.
4. Lack of discounting causes overestimations
When economists evaluate the economic benefits of a policy that has impacts well into the future, it is common practice to apply a discount rate to get a sense of their value to society in today’s terms. Discounting is important to account for the simple fact that we generally value present benefits more than future benefits. The IER analysis does not include any discounting and therefore overestimates the true dollar-benefits of lifting oil and gas restrictions. For example, applying a standard 5% discount rate to the $31.7 trillion benefits would reduce the amount to $12.2 trillion.
5. Calculated benefits are not additional to the status quo
The IER report suggests that the $31.7 trillion would be completely new and additional to the current status quo. This is false. One must compare these projections against a future scenario in which the restrictions are not lifted. Currently, the plan doesn’t examine a future in which these oil and gas restrictions remain and still produce large economic benefits, while protecting the environment.
6. No consideration of environmental costs
Another significant failure of IER’s report: even if GDP growth was properly estimated, it would not account for the environmental costs associated with this uptick in oil and gas development and use. This is not something that can be ignored, and any serious analysis would address it.
We know drilling activities can lead to disastrous outcomes that have real environmental and economic impacts. Oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez have demonstrated that tragic events happen and come with a hefty social, environmental and hard dollar price tag. The same can be said for natural gas leaks, including a recent one in Aliso Canyon, California. And of course, there are significant, long-term environmental costs to increased emissions of greenhouse gases including more extreme weather, damages to human health and food scarcity to name a few.
The Bottom Line: The $50 Trillion is An Alternative Fact but the Safeguards America will Lose are Real
These factors fundamentally undercut President Trump’s promise that Americans will reap the benefits of a $50 trillion dollar future energy industry. Most importantly, the real issue is what is being sacrificed if we set down this path. That is, a clean energy future where our country can lead the way in innovation and green growth; creating new, long-term industries and high-paying jobs, without losing our bedrock environmental safeguards. If the administration plans to upend hard-fought restrictions that provide Americans with clean air and water, we expect them to provide a substantially more defensible analytical foundation.