Under Trump, Watching U.S. Momentum on Clean Energy and Climate Slow But Not Stop

Someone at a rally holding a sign reading 'Trump digs coal'

By Joel Stronberg

I don’t doubt the nation’s transition to a clean energy economy will continue after Donald Trump is inaugurated in January. Economics, a rapidly growing number of companies owning responsibility for their carbon emissions, and ordinary people acting on behalf of future generations underpin the trend towards environmental sustainability.

How far and fast the transition will occur is in part dependent on the actions of the federal government.

Sustainability is a family affair requiring the collaboration of many public and private sector actors. Its achievement is the consequence of shared responsibilities.

One may argue the finer points of today’s federal clean energy and environmental policies and programs. What cannot be convincingly argued, however, is the pivotal importance of federal participation in establishing uniform environmental standards and a reasonably level commercial playing field.

I have been in the business of renewable energy for a very long time; and, in that time, I have never been so apprehensive about the future of federal clean energy and environmental policies and programs. Under usual circumstances I would view a change of administrations as simply part of the natural ebb and flow of politics — confident that interruptions of the political space/time continuum will, with a bit of patience, re-establish a workable, if not working, equilibrium.

Today’s circumstances are hardly usual. The contentiousness, frustration, enmity, quarter-truths, total lies and recriminations of the 2016 elections, appear certain to be carried forward  in the formation and operation of the new administration.

Many skirmishes between climate deniers and defenders will be fought before a new national clean energy and environmental agenda emerges. The battle lines are just now forming.

Divination of successful advocacy strategies by the clean energy and environmental communities requires a reasonable understanding of what actions the Trump administration is likely to attempt. The following is my guesstimate of what they will endeavor to do within the first year of office.

Trumpian Targets of Action and Reaction

Actions consistently promised or implied by Trump and his doyens include:

  • Rescinding all Executive Orders in support of clean energy and environmental action by federal agencies, e.g. directives to the Environmental Protection Agency to issue regulations reducing carbon emissions (CPP) and expanding coverage of the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules to include upstream tributaries;
  • Failing to defend — aggressively — challenges to existing environmental regulations, e.g. CPP, WOTUS;
  • Opening federal lands to coal, oil and gas exploration/extraction;
  • Boosting conventional and unconventional production of fossil fuels, i.e. fracking, through active deregulation;
  • Asking Congress to amend or rescind numerous environmental acts, e.g. clean air and water, legislatively limiting the authorities of federal agencies;
  • Cutting climate related expenditures of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to blind our eye on the ravages wrought by global climate change;
  • Curtailing or cancelling U.S. involvement in international climate agreements;
  • Failing to honor monetary commitments for the deployment of clean energy and resiliency projects in developing countries;
  • Limiting issuance of any new energy/environmental regulations intended to combat  climate change serving to reduce harmful emissions and increase reliance on renewable energy and energy efficiency;
  • Using sovereign authority to cancel existing contractual commitments combatting climate change or supporting research/development/deployment of clean energy technologies;
  • Dismantling/diminishing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy — particularly climate and clean energy programs, including research, development and loan guarantees;
  • Prohibiting the on-going development/application of social benefit cost analyses from federal decisionmaking procedures, e.g. clean power purchasing agreements or on-site installations;
  • Appointing federal court judges on record having rendered opinions limiting the scope of federal environmental protection authorities;
  • Prohibiting the use of federal funds for researching/ modelling/ accumulating climate change data;
  • (Potentially) striking references to anthropogenic contributions to climate change in existing federal reports;
  • Appointing only Secretaries, Deputy and Assistant Secretaries to federal departments, agencies and offices who are of the opinion climate change is either a hoax or of so little consequence as to be unworthy of federal action.

In addition to the above list of actions and reactions looms the persistent threat of a presidential veto of any policy, program or action introduced into the Congress considered contrary to administration priorities of promoting fossil fuels or intended to combat global warming.

In fairness to the in-coming administration, not all federal incentives, policies and programs will be laid upon the block. Tax credits benefitting wind and solar will likely remain in place and permitted to phase out in accordance with existing law. 

It is also possible: Governor Perry will continue to support wind as the Secretary of Energy; and, Mr. Tillerson will encourage Trump to follow in the footsteps of Exxon and recognize that anthropogenic climate change is real. The exact nature of any possible support is total speculation.

Will History Repeat?

This is the second time in this still young century that environmental regulation and renewable energy have been targeted by a hostile administration. The first full frontal assault on federal clean energy/environmental policies, programs and regulations occurred during the term of G.W. Bush. 

Led by Vice President Cheney, a one-time chairman of the board and CEO of Haliburton, appointees within the White House and federal agencies worked actively to: distort the findings of federal climate scientists; dismiss the threat of climate change; and derail or diminish the work of the Department of Energy, NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition, the Bush administration endeavored to: gut key sections of the Clean Water and Air acts; cripple the Superfund program; cut EPA's enforcement division by nearly one-fifth; and refrain from fining environmental violators.

An investigation by Rolling Stone, corroborated by numerous other organizations and investigators, revealed:

“… those distortions were sanctioned at the highest levels of our government, in a policy formulated by the vice president, implemented by the White House Council on Environmental Quality…
                 … administration scientists and climate-policy officials – confirm[s] that the White House has implemented an industry-formulated disinformation campaign designed to actively mislead the American public on global warming and to forestall limits on climate polluters.”

Although many Bush administration actions were overturned by the courts, the tag team of Cheney and Rove succeeded in slowing the momentum building towards the end of the Clinton/Gore administration. Market reality is such that fossil fuel interests know time is not on their side.

The cumulative and increasingly visible harms of pollution, e.g. unsafe water supplies and the rise in respiratory disease, will ultimately force government to regulate harmful emissions. Realistically, then, success for anti-regulators is not repeal but delay.

In so far as legal challenges to the Administration’s promised environmental deregulation will tie things up in the court for years, they succeed. They also succeed by:

  • Slowing the introduction and/or consideration of new legislation;
  • Cutting budgets and enforcement personnel; and,
  • Threatening the existence of an agency or department and deflect the focus and resources of the clean energy/environment communities away from constructive actions.

The Trump administration’s first success is already occurring. By nominating known deniers, many of whom have ties to the fossil fuel industry and are opposed to the agencies they are being asked to lead, the President-elect has guaranteed a contentious and drawn out confirmation process. Leaderless agencies sit; they do not run.

The G.W. Bush years offer a glimpse of what the future will hold under a Trump administration. The differences between then and now suggest only that the Trump administration will be more adamant and accomplished in its performance.

With Trump's victory, the fossil fuel industry has been given an unexpected opportunity to slow the considerable momentum built up during the Obama administration. I simply cannot imagine a less than a no-holds-barred effort by Trump’s appointees — who undoubtedly see this as one of the last opportunities to control the clock.

The fact that the President-elect, along with many of his appointees and advisors, are wealthy Washington outsiders, having homes to go to after public service, makes them much less constrained by the chains of conventional politics. Moreover, many of the nation’s voters are currently willing to give the anti-establishment latitude in the performance of their duties. 

The different targets of Trump attacks on clean energy will dictate the need for a variety of defenses.  

Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. A version of this article was originally published on his blog Civil Notion. Read the original.

Main image: Louisiana GOP Rally on December 9, 2016 at Dow Hangar, Baton Rouge, Louisiana Credit: Tammy Anthony BakerCC BY 2.0