The Future of Clean Power under the New Administration
In a letter published earlier this month, a coalition of 19 states and municipalities have appealed to President-elect Donald Trump to protect the Clean Power Plan, a rule that "reasonably limits emissions from fossil-fueled power plants". The Plan is a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration and is projected to eliminate 870 million tons of harmful gases by 2030-- equal to the yearly emissions of about 160 million cars, and 30% of carbon pollution.
The legislation covers 1,000 plants, implementing state-specific reduction targets that would collectively lower power plants' carbon emissions to 2005 levels by 2030.
Their concern isn’t without reason, as the soon-to-be 45th U.S. President has demonstrated a divisive stance in terms of energy generation.
As a private citizen, Trump vehemently opposed the construction of a wind farm within eyesight of his luxury golf course in Scotland. And though the Aberdeen Bay wind farm is now under construction, following his election win in November, Trump met with and urged conservative British politician Nigel Farage to oppose the construction of similar wind farms that would interfere with profitable views.
He also famously dismissed climate change as a "hoax perpetrated by the Chinese" to render the United States less competitive in a global market; while the tweet has been erased, his rhetoric regarding the subject has remained largely unchanged.
During his campaign, the president-elect pushed for American energy independence, a goal held dear by both political parties. Yet he placed shale oil, "clean coal", and natural gas at the forefront of his message, only mentioning renewables as an aside during a May address in West Virginia. Citing President Obama's environmental protectionism as a barrier to success, Trump pledges to "lift the Obama-Clinton roadblocks [to] allow vital energy projects, like the Keystone Pipeline" and "cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs" within his first 100 days in office. The latter refers to the 2015 COP 21 Paris Climate Deal, widely considered a landmark example of collective sacrifice and collaboration. In 2014, Obama announced the intended American contribution to the Green Climate Fund to total $3 billion dollars by 2020, to aid developing countries to adapt and innovate in response to climate change; in 2008 alone, President Bush committed $2 billion to the same cause.
Also included amongst the "job-destroying" legislation subject to elimination are the Roadless Rule (Clinton's 2001 protection of 58 million acres of national forest from mining), a law limiting methane leaks in gas/oil extraction, a stream/wetland protection bill, a coal moratorium, and regional restrictions to offshore drilling, such as those in the Arctic and national parks.
In the time since the upset electoral college win, Trump has not reiterated any specific plans to execute his intended climate and energy goals. Following an extensive debriefing with current president Barack Obama, his successor expressed a newfound and tentative willingness to reconsider repealing the Paris Agreement. In December, hopes were dampened when the incoming administration launched a "political witch hunt" in the form of a 74-part questionnaire that sought to identify "civil servants sympathetic towards policies designed to reduce climate change" under the Obama presidency's Department of Energy; under legal protections, federal staffers have refused to disclose the information. Fearing an upcoming change to the availability of public climate data, an independent "guerilla archiving" supported by scientists, lawyers, and investors was conducted to preserve online EPA publications on secure outside databases.
But perhaps most concerning are his choices for delegates who will be directly in charge of energy issues.
His pick for the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, currently has a standing lawsuit with the same government body. Pruitt has sued the Agency multiple times, insisting it has pushed an "activist agenda" regarding issues such as mercury, cross-state pollution, and the Clean Power Plan. Hailing from a state known for its ties to natural gas and oil production, Pruitt is a known climate change denialist and ally to fossil fuel giants, going so far as to base one of his lawsuits upon a letter ghost-written for him by top energy lobbyists. The transition to Pruitt from current EPA administer Gina McCarthy will be guided by Myron Bell, a climate skeptic with no degrees or qualifications in the environmental science space.
Though Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson acknowledges the existence and gravity of climate change, he doesn't see it as an "imminent national security threat", as the U.S. military does. Tillerson also spent the entirety of his 40-year career at oil giant ExxonMobil, holding the CEO position for the last decade. When confronted during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the former executive skirted questions regarding the decades of concealed or misleading information provided to the public and Exxon investors regarding the existence of climate change and the implications of fossil fuel use; the world's largest oil and gas company knew of the global crisis as early as 1977, and has since spent more than $30 million to fund the dissemination of misinformation and climate denial.
It is also alleged that fracking proponent Harold Hamm, 39th wealthiest American and 98th richest in the world, is the first choice for the incoming administration’s Secretary of Energy. Lucas Oil magnate Forrest Lucas is thought to be the potential Secretary of the Interior.
Independent of partisan woes, the dissonance bodes poorly for Trump’s ability to represent the American populace. According to a recent poll from Gallup, 64% of Americans are worried a great deal or a fair amount about global warming; about 73% of citizens prioritize renewable energy alternatives over oil and gas, with 89% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans endorsing such a transition. In addition, an alliance of 600 American corporations representing $1 trillion of annual revenue and 2 million employees announced their support of the Paris Agreement and desire for its continuation. Though Trump has voiced his commitment to ameliorating and protecting the quality of American water and air, vivid and well-documented examples of fossil fuel's effects upon human health continue to make domestic and international headlines. From toxic fracking wastes contaminating Wyoming's water supply to elevated rates of bronchitis and asthma found in communities surrounding coal-fired power plants, an extensive body of research points to the adverse externalities associated with our search for and use of oil, gas, and coal.
Adhering to a traditional Republican approach to regulation, Trump wishes to dismantle or weaken national environmental policies in favor of individual state legislation. While this will do little to hinder the proactive states included in the petition, it signals a possible end to policies that encourage renewable energy in regions where it has yet to gain a foothold. Though neither the Investment nor Production Tax Credits have been threatened specifically, the 2020 expiration of the investment subsidy leaves the government support of renewable energy uncertain.
In focusing upon the resurrection of the coal industry, he overlooks the immense potential of more modern alternatives, such as the solar market. In as early as 2015, the solar industry employed more Americans than the coal mining, gas/oil pipeline construction, and natural gas extraction industries combined. There are also efforts by the government and non-profit organizations to retrain fossil-fuel workers to join the clean energy sector. Age-old rhetoric warning of economic underperformance as a result of reduced fossil fuel use has been proven untrue, as exemplified by a 10% growth in the American economy between 2008-2015 and a 9.5% reduction of the power sector's CO2 emissions during the same period.
Many industry experts remain optimistic, maintaining that the energy transition trail is already being blazed by states and cities, propelled by local commitments and favorable investment opportunities. Per megawatt-hour of energy, some wind farms can be built for a mere $22, whereas natural gas and coal plants total on average $52 and $65, respectively. Large utility companies are phasing out coal-powered generation in favor of cheaper natural gas and increasing their establishment of renewable energy over timelines spanning decades.
While it seems that Trump remains indifferent on renewable energy, his support of traditional means of energy generation is concerning. In an era in which renewable energy solutions are becoming increasingly competitive and sage investments, it is imperative that policy facilitates the growing role of clean power generation in our nation's energy mix. Though current economic trends indicate a shift towards wind, solar, and other means of green power, opposition in Washington may impede the rate of an energy revolution.