What President Trump means for the future of energy and climate
President…Donald…Trump. For those on both sides of the aisle who vowed “Never Trump!,” that’s going to take some getting used to. On this morning after a stunning election, the first impulse may be to describe the future in apocalyptic phrases. Game over for the climate! Game over for NATO! Game over for the Clean Power Plan! Game over for Planned Parenthood!
While there are certainly extreme outcomes possible for these and many other issues that divide our nation, we may see some moderation, especially on matters where the divisions do not rigidly follow ideological fault lines.
Of course, the president-elect himself is famous neither for hewing to right wing orthodoxy nor for consistency between his various pronouncements. As he has said: “I like to be unpredictable.”
But make no mistake, in the energy and climate space Trump’s number one priority is to dismantle the Obama legacy as he sees it. And he sees it largely through the lens of organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, pro-fossil fuel organizations severely allergic to regulations.
Fossil fuel revolution
The Clean Power Plan, which sets limits on carbon emissions from power plants, has been stayed by the courts for the moment, but one should not forget that EPA’s responsibility to regulate CO2 emissions under the Clean Air Act was affirmed by the Supreme Court. This sets up a potential conflict among the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress may hollow out and handcuff the EPA, but EPA’s responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases will remain unless existing law is modified by Congress or by a Court returned to full strength with Trump appointees.
There are other parts of the Obama energy legacy on which President Trump will likely build, whether he admits it or not. Since President Obama’s election, domestic production of oil and gas has surged, making the U.S. the world’s largest energy producer and reducing oil imports from 57 percent to 24 percent of our consumption.
Trump would put fossil energy production on steroids, opening up or selling federal lands for exploration and production of oil, gas and even coal. He has called this an “energy revolution” that will produce “vast new wealth” for the country.
The only limitation to a policy of “drill, baby, drill” and “dig, baby, dig” evident in his past positions is an acknowledgment that local communities should have a say in whether hydraulic fracturing is permitted in their environs. Whether this respect extends to communities affected by other energy infrastructure projects, such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, remains to be seen.
Reviving coal through exports?
During the campaign, Trump promised to put coal miners back to work, touted the virtues of clean coal and pledged to make “energy dominance a strategic economic and foreign policy goal of the United States.” He criticized Hillary Clinton for encouraging China to develop its own natural gas resources to make it less dependent on energy imports (and therefore, on Central Asia and Russia).
Is energy nationalism a feasible path on which he will be able to lead the nation? Frankly, no.
As is widely known, the crisis in coal country owes far less to EPA regulations than to the abundance of cheap natural gas made available by fracking. Eliminating the Clean Power Plan is unlikely to decrease the rate of retirement of old coal-fired power plants in the US, or to induce utilities to build new coal plants. It’s a matter of economics, not regulatory burden.
Development of “Clean Coal” technology, even if it does not include sequestering carbon underground, would require more, not less, emissions control for power plant operators. Since these controls add cost, they would render investments in new or upgraded coal plants even less favorable compared to gas-fired plants.
If the solution to reviving the domestic coal industry is to dramatically increase exports, one can hardly expect the rest of the world to sit idly by while the U.S. attempts to establish “energy dominance.” Like oil, coal is a global commodity and there’s a limit to how much control one country can exert globally. In recent years, even OPEC has been unable to dominate oil markets sufficiently to successfully undercut the growth of U.S. oil production.
And, by the way, 75 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves are under the control of government-owned national oil companies. It is difficult to see how investor-owned oil giants like ExxonMobil can dominate this landscape.
Uncertainty on renewable energy
What about renewable energies in the Trump administration? The president-elect has sent a few mixed messages here as well.
Solar seems to be fine, but is not cost competitive in his eyes. Wind power has been suggested (with no small measure of hyperbole) to kill eagles and to leave rusting wrecks of obsolete turbines blighting the landscape. He believes neither deserves subsidies.
As a candidate, Trump said that he would protect the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates biofuel production, and corn-based ethanol. Yet he has criticized some elements of the RFS as benefiting “Big Oil” at the expense of smaller refiners.
Whatever his intentions as president, Mr. Trump will find sharply drawn battle lines within his own constituencies on these issues. Support for the RFS among GOP office holders breaks along state borders with the answer to the question: “Is the RFS of benefit or harm to the farmers and energy interests in my state?”
A host of conservative think tanks and energy industry organizations strongly oppose the RFS as well as any subsidies for or promotion of renewables. For example, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley has declared undying support for corn ethanol and for the production tax credit to promote Iowa’s wind energy industry.
The bottom line is that, even if President Trump figures out what he wants to do about renewable energy, his plan will be every bit as contentious as anything that President Obama has done.
Global climate implications
President-elect Trump’s “Energy Revolution” is based on unfettered expansion of American energy production, and opposition to anything that might limit it. This means more of the same fossil fuels that dominate our current energy supplies. And his proposed climate policies are entirely consistent with the view that any greenhouse gas controls should be eliminated.
He pledged as a candidate to withdraw the U.S. from the climate agreements forged at last year’s Paris COP21 meeting, even as there is a growing global consensus that even more must be done to limit global warming and climate change.
The Paris Agreement states that parties cannot withdraw for three years and that an additional one-year waiting period is required. Whether President Trump will feel constrained by this or other international commitments, including NATO, remains to be seen. The danger is not just that the United States will go rogue on climate matters (which would be bad enough), but that in doing so, it will bring down the growing global cooperation to curb greenhouse gases that has been 40 years in the making.
During the campaign it was abundantly clear that a core tenet of Mr. Trump’s business philosophy is sticking others with the cost of advancing his grand agenda, through bankruptcy or by stiffing contractors.
The legal and political constraints on the president may provide some inhibition as he steps into this role. Nevertheless, sticking future generations of Americans – and in fact people around the globe – with the bill for Trump administration energy and climate policies, whatever they turn out to be, would be, in my view, morally indefensible.