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What President Trump means for the future of energy and climate

Posted on 16 November 2016 by Guest Author

Mark Barteau, Director, University of Michigan Energy Institute, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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.

A prime target is the Environmental Protection Agency and its regulation of greenhouse gases via the Clean Power Plan and methane emissions measures, which are described as “job killers.”

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.

Drilling on public land: expect much more oil, gas and coal extraction on public lands under President Trump. Bureau of Land Management, CC BY

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.

Trump has promised to revive the U.S. coal industry even though its demise is due largely to low natural gas prices, not government regulations. AP Photo/Steve Helber

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.

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Comments 1 to 7:

  1. Trump may be susceptible to the idea that the US is going to lose its role as a leader in emergent technologies, such as solar and renewables. His views on climate amount to a few goofy one-offs ("Where is global warming when you need it" –- everybody in Russia and Canada has said that sometime in their life) and ignorance: He thinks that if the weather breaks a record that was last set in 1896 it proves that there is nothing novel about weather extremes (which is true — but not germane). If not completely beholden to fossil fuel interests or campaign promises there is some hope for a learning curve if he runs into advisors with an educational streak. He's also likely to be in for a surprise when calculating how many "hundreds of billions" can actually be squeezed from subsidies (and coal substitution). Further hope can be garnered from the fact that he is likely to favor States' and local autonomy, which means a lot of initiatives will carry on despite new policy. Just saying, the cause has not yet been completely lost.

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  2. Mark has written an exceptionally insightful summary of where we stand.  However, he does not address the impact of 4-years of inaction and back sliding on the part of the U.S.  As I write this comment from SW Missouri at 7:30 AM on November 17 the outside temperature is 60 degrees F and the trees in my yard still have green leaves on them.  Climate change is moving much more quickly than the models have predicted.  Measurable action on the part of the U.S. must be implemented yesterday.

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  3. The globe affected by global warming is mostly not the United States.  Yet one country has, more than any other, caused this calamity: the United States.  I should think people around the World are getting royally steamed over America's repeated intransigence.  I know my own country: if you're not hitting someone in his pocketbook, he can't hear you.

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  4. I am hopeful (naively) that with the GOP now fully 'on the hook' for the path forward that they will step back from their political obstructionism, re-calibrate their priorities and seriously evaluate the gamut of carbon cessation policy options so to unbiasly work out the best strategy for the most carbon emission reductions (nationally & globally), the least GDP-impact & the most equitable. An optium path that considers all 3 constraints (or more if required).

    Before, acceptance of CC & then CC action (via executive order type policies) was a politized gridlock. That political excuse (that political football) has now been taken away from the GOP. Maybe those in their ranks who aspire to true conservatism (a true sense of sustainability) & a true sense of fair skepticism can persuade the rest of the GOP to step back, and re-calibrate its old ways. This re-calibration might make them think about CC strategy like a business problem, with constraints as follows: 1) Meet set carbon reduction goals, 2) Do so in the least economic burdensome & most equitable way as possible, and 3) Assist the global nations (especially the highest emitters) to do the same through technology sharing & funding (if necessary).

    What is missing from this is the economic driving force to push toward the best solutions. Why? Because the cost of FF's today does not include the future cost of tomorrow's CC impacts. We are allowed to litter CO2 to the atmosphere for free. Because of this, wrong business decisions (based on cost vs return evaluations) are being made everyday all over the world by everyone. When the cost of energy is wrong, no one can escape these wrong decisions. Once the future cost of FF's is put into this price (on a ramped slope set so that technology development can keep up w/ demand), sustainable energies will start to florish, along with improvements in efficiency and reductions of discretionary  & other wasteful consumption practices (those which provide no improvement to the quality of life). All fueled by the switch-over of investor capital, thus spurring organic entrepreneurship, technological ingenuity & industrial drive. Ultimately, the best, most sustainable solutions will become the most profitable, and therefore the most pursued.

    Once the cost of unsustainability is included in the consumption of energy (increasly so until the use of FF's is eventually reduced to sustainable rates), then carbon cessation will start to take care of itself, on the best solution path possible. Of course, like today, business regulations will still be required to maintain just & equitable business practices (this is a piece of the policy negotiations but should not stalmate all movement toward significant and abtainable reductions in carbon emissions). A revenue-neutral carbon tax (fee & dividend, or an equitable offsetting of state sales tax, etc) is a good way to insert the future cost of FF's into their price. Once done (& ramped up at a rate that businesses would use in their capital plans), then business decisions will move away from today's wrong ones toward the right (sustainable) ones.

    I am hopefully (again naively) that now that the GOP has the entire football and that some in the ranks are reasonable and with growing political & economic pressures from the rest of the world, that those in power will have a serious re-think, re-calibration on this whole issue. I am not sure that pressure from within their ranks is enough, but pressure from the rest of the world might cause them to totally re-think their strategy.

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  5. Sauerj @4, everything you say makes plenty of sense. Part of me wants to take that optimistic view as well. However as you say lot of this issue depends on what the world says, and the pressure they put on America.

    And it all depends on how people advise Donald Trump to do better on climate change. I would say do a lot of ego stroking and flattery because Trump has the sort of personality that responds to that. However add a bit of shouting at him as well, because he wont respect people who are timid. This guy has to be handled properly.

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  6. Sauerj @4: The problem with conservative types is that they reject a revenue neutral carbon tax as one more Washington trick to increasing the regulatory and tax burden, and to decide what happens to your income and spending. It will be difficult to think of a strategy to change this perception which has been assiduously inculcated by politicians and the media since Jimmy Carter.

    It is important to realize that for well-intentioned conservatives, loyalty is their strongest value, and it is possible to leverage this in favor of renewable practices. Demeaning them, criticizing them for being backwards or anti-science, etcetc., will not sway them but harden them. However if you can frame it in terms of loyalty to future generations and the fertility of the earth/creation, not squandering the "farm" that nature/God has given as an inheritance, it is possible to create strong allies — if you can persuade them. If the economics of local sustainable energy makes sense, conservatives (with the exception of the zombie army of the captive corporate lobby) will naturally favor local self-reliance over centralized coporate grid dependance. Above all, it is important not to marry climate change mitigation to other left-wing/progressive causes or political color — that will trigger a whole host of active loyalty conflicts.

    Conservatives are more likely to be persuaded by examples of credentialed conservatives (or the pope, or other leaders) than by scientific facts. Like the fact that the US Air Force was forced to include the basics of infra-red re-radiation in their heat-seeking missile technology to avoid being blinded. Or that Navy admirals are already anticipating on the likely effects. Most ordinary people find it difficult to evaluate reams of scientific facts against competing disinformation claims that are regularly fed them by the media. For conservatives it will be very important to establish which sources of competing claims in the public sphere are more trustworthy: To this end it is very important to give maximum coverage to how co-opted and error-prone most Anglo-Saxon disinformation "experts" are, and how little money or ulterior motive is actually driving frontier scientific inquiry by basically humble, ordinary, plodding science researchers who are being true/loyal to the facts thrust upon them. It is therefore incumbent on experts in the field to address this "political" divide continually, especially since most are naturally geared towards sticking to the scientific discourse and staying out of political frays and other such "BS".

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  7. Would go a long way to AE costs to cut the FF handouts or even invest them in the right direction. When externalities are included, as in a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund, the unpaid costs of fossil fuels are upward of $5.3 trillion annually – which works out to a staggering $10 million per minute.

    Oil Change International’s most recent reporting looks at money for fossil fuel production only (including exploration, and extraction, and development) in the G20 governments – which includes many of the world’s most developed countries. These governments are providing support to oil, gas, and coal companies to the tune of $444 billion per year, between direct national subsidies, domestic and international finance, and state-owned enterprise investment.

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