Coal and oil revival? Six ways Trump could shift energy policy
Possible changes include slashing EPA regulations and opening more federal lands to fossil fuel extraction.
Marrakech, Morocco—If environmental and energy interests agree on one thing, it’s this: Donald Trump in the White House, armed with a Republican Congress, means the climate policies developed during President Obama’s two terms are on the line.
Everything from the United Nations climate agreement inked last year in Paris to battles over oil-and-gas pipelines now have a different calculus with the GOP in control come January.
President-elect Trump frames energy issues not through the lens of climate science, where researchers see an urgent need for reduced carbon emissions, but through the lens of the jobs he argues can be harvested from fossil fuels.
His 100-day plan calls for lifting restrictions on "job-producing American energy reserves." He also pledges to “cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America's water and environmental infrastructure.”
On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin sounded a similar note, promising “relief” to people like laid-off coal workers.
In practice, Republican control of the Senate is narrow enough that Trump and congressional Republicans have checks on their power. And where business groups see an opportunity to scrap top-down regulations they oppose, green groups and Democrats are gearing up for a fight against Trump, who has called climate change a hoax. Here are some of the key issues in play:
Clean Power Plan
Trump will take aim at the Obama administration regulation to limit power plant emissions. The rule, which calls on the electricity sector to curb nationwide emissions 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, is Obama’s top domestic climate achievement. But it’s also the most hated by Republicans, who call it a heavy-handed rule that they say could hike energy rates and interfere with state electricity choices.
The president-elect and the Republican Congress are “taking a look at all possible avenues to unwind” the Clean Power Plan, said Tom Pyle, president of the conservative Institute for Energy Research.
Right now, the rule is tied up at a federal appellate court. If it ends up in the Supreme Court, the policy may face a right-leaning bench once the late justice Antonin Scalia’s seat is filled. Other executive and legislative options exist to scuttle the rule as well, though those would invite more litigation and potential procedural hurdles in a tight Senate.
Whatever happens to the Clean Power Plan, environmentalists say the good news is that market forces are driving changes already. Solar energy prices have plummeted. Wind turbines are getting more efficient. Natural gas is eating coal’s share of the electricity mix, and electric utilities are making investments to solidify that shift. Many states are even in compliance with Clean Power Plan targets without even trying.
“It’s obvious that [the election] will have some impact by taking the federal government out of the game,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at a press conference at the United Nations climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco. “But it won’t stop the trend toward the clean energy economy.”
Trump has said he would “cancel” the United Nations deal struck last year. Advisers say he will submit the agreement through the Senate, where the GOP-held chamber would certainly vote against the deal.
“The Senate might very well have a say in this,” said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and head of Trump’s Energy Department transition team.
Legal experts, however, contend the Senate doesn’t have a say in the Paris agreement because its legally binding architecture was OK’d in an an earlier treaty. The pledge Obama made to curb US emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 is not legally binding.
That the emissions reductions aren’t enforceable presents its own problems for climate advocates. It means Trump doesn’t actually have to strive for the target Obama offered last year.
Climate advocates have said more aggressive federal policy is needed to reach the 26 to 28 percent goal. So, taking Trump at his word on the campaign trail, meeting that mark seems highly unlikely.
Still, though, environmental groups are hopeful that international pressure will keep Trump and the GOP engaged in the United Nations process. And even if the federal government isn’t a big player, state policies like California’s cap-and-trade and the Northeast regional carbon market known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative remain in place.
Congressional Republicans, along with Democrats with fossil fuel districts, have long complained the Obama administration kept too much federal land off limits to oil, gas, and coal production. The Trump White House will likely seek to change course.
Under Trump, the Interior Department could be freed up to offer more leases to develop fossil fuel energy.
Trump or the Congress also would probably make changes to Obama’s five-year offshore drilling plan, which would run from 2017 through 2022.
The plan hasn’t yet been finalized, but the draft has kept the Eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans offline. Environmental groups hope the end product also keeps the Arctic Ocean off limits. Republicans, however, have sought to open the coasts. They’ve long eyed the Atlantic coast from Virginia down to Georgia, despite opposition from coastal communities in those states.
"We hope he will recognize that offshore drilling is an extremely risky proposition, and in fact a bad business decision both for the companies involved and for the US government itself,” says Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana.
Even if Trump were to open offshore areas, low oil prices have forced even deep-pocketed oil firms to put those capital intensive projects on the back burner for now.
Nearly everything done at the EPA will be under the microscope, says Mr. Pyle of the Institute for Energy Research. “Any regulations currently in the pipeline should be looked at.”
More stringent limits on ozone pollution will be reevaluated. Fuel efficiency standards for vehicles will get another look. Even the “social cost of carbon,” the monetary value assigned to the benefits of reducing carbon pollution, will probably get another assessment. That would significantly affect the cost-benefit ratio for climate regulations.
“[Trump] has said he would 'revoke policies that impose unwarranted restrictions on new drilling technologies,' which may be an oblique reference to new restrictions proposed on methane emissions from oil and gas production,” says Scott Segal, a partner at the law firm Bracewell LLP.
Environmental groups and their Democratic allies in Congress will have to play defense on a number of these policies.
“If Donald Trump thinks he can launch a big polluter assault on our air, waters, wildlife and lands, we'll build a wall of opposition to stop him,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
Protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline that’s under construction near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota have galvanized native Americans and environmental groups.
The Obama administration shook the oil and gas industry in September when it halted the $3.7 billion project to review Energy Transfer Partners’ permits over concerns about water pollution and destruction of sacred sites. The construction area has attracted protesters from across the country and has become a symbol for the push against energy pipelines that began with the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, which Obama killed in 2015 on climate change grounds after years of delay.
The Dakota Access pipeline would probably get a quick green light from Trump. His administration could also throw its weight behind a number of other stalled pipeline projects, countering the green “Keep It In The Ground” campaign against fossil fuel extraction.
Clean energy funding
Environmental groups fear a more austere funding climate for research and development. Overall, they’re concerned federal dollars will shift toward fossil fuel research and away from renewable energy.
Republicans have long championed basic-research funding, so clean energy might still benefit in this way. And renewable energy still has pockets of GOP support in Congress, so scrapping tax incentives for wind and solar – which are already being phased down – may not be high on the agenda. The consulting group ClearView Energy Partners says it’s “bullish” on a continued solar and wind buildout with no change on incentives.