President-elect Donald Trump will come into power next year with the authority to redefine his predecessor’s ambitious and divisive legacy on climate and energy policy.
Just as President Barack Obama has used regulations and executive actions to try and make the U.S. a world leader in cutting planet-warming emissions across much of the nation’s economy—especially targeting the coal industry—Trump can largely act alone to define his own agenda.
“I really do think there will be some kind of reversal of Obama-era policies, but there are legal, political, and practical constraints on how far the Trump administration can go,” said Jody Freeman, the director of Harvard University’s environmental law and policy program, in an interview with The Daily Signal.
Based on rhetoric in his campaign, and staffing choices he’s made, Trump has indicated he will pursue a dramatically different direction than Obama, one that relies on industry and market forces to continue the U.S.’ progress toward a cleaner energy future, and removes the government from much of that role.
Under this vision, Trump, as he has vowed to do, would “cancel” last year’s Paris climate agreement, which commits more than 190 countries to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide.
Trump cannot pull out of that global agreement right away. The soonest he can do is four years from when the deal went into effect, this November.
But because the deal is not binding and only contains voluntary pledges with no enforcement mechanism, Trump can undermine the U.S.’ contribution to the agreement.
He could do this by dismantling the Clean Power Plan, a set of regulations developed by the Environmental Protection Agency created to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation.
The Clean Power plan, which is being contested in court and has not been enforced, encourages utility providers to replace coal-fired power plants with those using natural gas and renewable energy sources.
Trump has named Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute—a leading opponent of the Clean Power Plan—to head his EPA transition team.
Ebell, who is considered a key figure in shaping the president-elect’s energy views, has not spoken publicly about his role helping Trump.
He provided The Daily Signal an exclusive statement about his views on climate change.
“My [Competitive Enterprise Institute] colleagues and I agree that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing as a result of human activities—primarily burning coal, oil, and natural gas—and that this means the global mean temperature is likely to rise,” Ebell said. “Where we disagree with global warming alarmists is whether this amounts to a crisis that requires drastic action.”
President Obama’s climate action plan and other proposed energy-rationing policies will have negligible effects on greenhouse gas levels, but pose a grave threat to our economy and especially to the health and well-being of poor people. I believe that we should pursue energy policies based on the scientifically-supported view that abundant energy makes the world safer and the environment more livable, as well as the humanitarian view that affordable energy should be accessible to those who need it most, particularly the most vulnerable among us.
‘He Can Do a Lot for Us’
While Ebell did not describe specific policies he is recommending to Trump, the president-elect has been clear about one of his agenda items: encouraging more drilling to revive the coal industry, which has lost 68,000 jobs since 2011.
“There is no question he can do a lot for us,” said Luke Popovich, vice president of National Mining Association, in an interview with The Daily Signal. “When people say he can’t bring all coal jobs back or restore coal to greatness, they are making perfection the enemy of the good. He can do a lot of good.”
Popovich acknowledges the natural market forces that have contributed to the decline of coal.
The hydraulic fracturing boom in shale fields that began a decade ago has flooded the market with natural gas, a cleaner and cheaper energy source. Coal now makes up 30 percent of electricity generated in the U.S., down from 50 percent in 2008.
But Popovich attributes at least some of that decline to Obama’s regulations, mainly a EPA standard introduced in 2011 that limited emissions of mercury and other toxins from coal plants.
He says Trump could boost coal’s prospects by canceling a new proposed Obama administration rule restricting mining discharges in streams, and lifting a moratorium on coal leases in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.
In addition, Popovich says the prospect of the Clean Power Plan pushed utility providers to switch from coal production to natural gas, and greener sources like wind and solar power.
Last year, according to The New York Times, 94 coal-fired power plants were closed across the country, and this year 40 more are expected to close by the end of December.
“Seeing the writing on the wall, utility companies have certainly not made bets that coal would stick around,” Popovich said. “Trump is not going to be able to restart all the coal fired plants that were retired. And we are not denying the marketplace has been a problem. But the biggest advantage of a Trump administration is he would be reverting to an all-of-the-above energy policy where we let the marketplace and not government determine what fuels would be used and at what volume.”
Making Coal Viable
Popovich, and other industry experts, say Trump can work with Congress on ways to make coal more viable in the future by incentivizing environmental improvements.
“There are several no regrets policies that could involve a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but also achieve some of Trump’s stated economic goals,” said Paul Bledsoe, an independent energy and climate change consultant who advised the Clinton administration on these issues. “There is a huge, burgeoning new economic sector in low emissions clean energy. This is a pretty big economic opportunity for the U.S. given our technological prowess.”
Bledsoe, in an interview with The Daily Signal, says there is bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for legislation to expand tax credits for carbon capture and storage systems. These systems, which are expensive and far-off from being introduced on a large scale, would attach to coal production facilities and capture carbon emissions to sink them permanently in the ground.
Some experts say efforts to save coal are difficult to achieve.
At least some of Trump’s proposals, these experts note, would actually boost the fortunes of natural gas over coal, increasing its supply into the market.
Trump has said he would ease restrictions on pipeline building, approving the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama blocked and the Dakota Access pipeline, a controversial project that has been delayed. He has also said he plans to weaken rules limiting gas exploration and production on federal land.
“There are areas where he will get in conflict with himself,” said Michael Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, in an interview with The Daily Signal. “The energy industry is complex. No one thing makes everyone happy. So while pulling out of the Paris Agreement would help coal, and would hurt natural gas, some of his other proposals would do the opposite.”
Others argue that if Trump prioritizes industry at the expense of addressing climate change, the U.S. would suffer politically as other countries—including rivals like China—move toward limiting emissions.
Countries party to the Paris Agreement are discussing ways to punish the U.S. if Trump reneges from the pact, like introducing a carbon tariff, The New York Times reports.
“The Trump administration cannot change the fact that the world is committed to solve this problem,” Freeman said. “The direction of energy composition is changing and is really baked into the private sector and into what investors expect. I personally think you need a regulatory foundation to drive home some of this change, and there will be a loss if the U.S. federal government exits the field.”
If international pressure forced Trump to maintain the Paris commitment, and act less aggressively to reverse Obama policies, the president-elect, with Congress, could take more limited action.
For example, they could press to provide financial support and retraining to communities harmed by coal’s fall.
Popovich says coal miners would welcome any form of help, even if it has limited impact.
“It has proven to be very difficult to implement [plans that help coal communities] in any way that’s going to help these people get back on their feet,” Popovich said. “No one is refusing it. But these guys are making enough money to support a family with coal, and it’s hard to know what government can do for them. They don’t want other jobs. They want the jobs they are losing.”