'War on American energy'

Feb. 5, 2018
Factually challenged fact-checking helps explain why the news media have such trouble understanding US President Donald Trump.

Factually challenged fact-checking helps explain why the news media have such trouble understanding US President Donald Trump.

In his State of the Union speech Jan. 30, Trump declared, "We have ended the war on American energy." Under the headline "AP FACT CHECK: Trump inflates impact of some initiatives," the Associated Press web site, in three paragraphs labeled "THE FACTS," responded:

"Energy production was unleashed in past administrations, particularly Barack Obama's, making accusations of a war on energy hard to sustain. Advances in hydraulic fracturing before Trump became president made it economical to tap vast reserves of natural gas. Oil production also greatly increased, reducing imports.

"Before the 2016 presidential election, the US for the first time in decades was getting more energy domestically than it imports. Before Obama, George W. Bush was no adversary of the energy industry.

"One of Trump's consequential actions as president on this front was to approve the Keystone XL pipeline-a source of foreign oil, from Canada."

Botched story

AP's fact-checkers deserve forbearance for the time pressure under which they responded to a late-evening speech. With this supposed correction of the record, however, they botched the story. They also exposed biases of which the general media too often are guilty.

Surges in US production of oil and natural gas certainly occurred during the Obama administration. But they occurred in spite rather than because of it. The AP sharp-eyes were correct to note how advances in hydraulic fracturing contributed to the increases and how they preceded Trump's inauguration. But nothing about timing of production turnaround or the technologies that made it possible render accusations about a war on energy-energy from hydrocarbons, at any rate-"hard to sustain."

The Obama administration resisted leasing of federal land, annually proposed to increase taxation of the oil and business, imposed overly strict and usually unwarranted regulation of the industry operations, and submitted future work to what probably would have become legal jeopardy by jubilantly joining the Paris climate accord-which it insisted was not a treaty requiring Senate ratification it could not have won. This was a war on hydrocarbon energy.

Having missed or ignored this prominent feature of Obama's presidency, the general media lack the perspective to assess Trump's energy initiatives accurately or fairly. To be sure, those initiatives have been numerous and bold-perhaps, indeed, too much too soon. Mostly, however, they're corrective. The Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency, for example, became a constitutionally adventurous regulatory machine, designed and run largely by advocacy groups. It needed the humbling Administrator Scott Pruitt has imposed. He is not, as is sometimes reported, spoiling environmental regulation. He's making it legal.

The AP's fact-checkers displayed this failure to account for Trump's starting points when they called approval of the Keystone XL border crossing "one of Trump's consequential actions." That statement is factual as far as it goes. But the whole story is that Trump did what Obama should have done years earlier but would not.

Gambling with authority

The pattern doesn't confine itself to energy. Obama was a very liberal president willing to gamble with Executive Branch authority, especially in his second term. He wasn't the first president to test constitutional limits. But he did so regularly in pursuit of goals that seemed more aligned with the social democratic tendencies of Europe and Scandinavia than many Americans found comfortable. At least partly because his would-be successor promised more of the same, US voters elected instead a brash, impulsive tycoon with neither political experience nor steadying ideology. Many in the media have been wondering why ever since. They need to see Trump's election as a reaction. First, however, they must acknowledge the political excesses it reacts against.

Obama campaigned hard against hydrocarbon energy. He wanted Americans to think the magic of determined politics would enable them to switch to alternatives at little cost. Ending the fanciful siege is good for the US economy and good for Americans.