The Trump Troika and Regressive Energy Policy

by Joseph Tomain

December 15, 2016

As President-elect Donald Trump continues to shape his cabinet, we are seeing plenty of indications of how agencies like the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even the State Department will approach energy and environmental policy. Trump's stated policy preferences and those of his nominees threaten to upend decades of progress toward a clean energy future as they exacerbate the politicization of and polarization around energy development and our environment.

Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, U.S. energy policy was largely bipartisan and focused on nonrenewable sources. Federal legislation created an energy policy dominated by fossil fuels and nuclear power. Even today, with the increased use of renewable resources, fossil fuels and nuclear power account for 89 percent of U.S. energy production.

Things change, albeit slowly. Bipartisan legislation since the energy crises of the 1970s has encouraged and required conservation, energy efficiency, use of biofuels, and fuel economy standards for cars, and Congress and the executive branch have provided subsidies for the development of solar and wind energy technology. And although such initiatives enjoyed bipartisan support for many years, energy policy became increasingly politicized as concerns for environmental protection began to play a more significant role in its development.

In one example, the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the potential energy resources that lie under its fragile ecosystem began in earnest in the 1980s and 1990s. The disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound raised awareness of ecological damage and intensified the debate over the Arctic Refuge. Concerns about the refuge continued through the passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Congress considered multiple issues during debates about the act. Should the country adopt national renewable portfolio standards? Congress said "no." Should subsidies and financial supports be reduced for oil and gas? Again, "no." Should wind and solar subsidies help promote a clean energy economy? "Yes." Should the Arctic Refuge continue to be protected? Congress said "yes" despite a near-constant push from members of the Alaska delegation to open the refuge to oil and gas exploration.

The point is a simple one: Republicans and Democrats could talk; they could trade; and national energy legislation could be passed. The presidential election of 2008, however, began to change that situation in many respects. (Last year witnessed a notable exception to this general pattern as even a notoriously gridlocked Congress managed to pass a set of modest energy efficiency measures.)

Just a year before that election, Congress reached a bipartisan agreement to protect a key part of the Alaskan wilderness, but vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would elicit cheers from crowds with her slogan, "Drill, Baby, Drill!" The unstated targets of that slogan were, of course, environmentalism and clean energy. Palin pressed the dubious claim that energy production and protecting the environment do not mix.

The contentious approach to addressing the nexus of energy and environmental policy continued after the 2008 election was over and has persisted throughout President Obama's two terms, though its origins trace back to at least the early 1970s when Republican President Richard Nixon signed several pieces of major environmental legislation. For decades, industry has targeted environmental regulations as "too costly." During the Obama administration, that opposition also labeled environmental regulations as "job killing" despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Despite industry blowback on environmental protections, Republicans and Democrats were still able to promote energy legislation while they were squaring off over the environment precisely because energy and the environment were largely regulated as separate and independent spheres of policy. The Obama administration is noteworthy because of its efforts to align energy and environmental regulation, thus merging two policy arenas that have, at times, been at odds.

The great virtue of the Clean Power Plan, for instance, is that it merges energy development and environmental policy. Throughout the energy cycle, from exploration and production through processing and distribution, and on to consumption and disposal, industry and consumers cause significant environmental impacts. Add climate change to this system and it becomes imperative that we treat energy and the environment holistically, not separately; they are interdependent. The politics of energy and the environment are challenged by this necessary merger, but this challenge can and must be met through policies that promote a clean energy transition.

Although initial policies around alternative and clean energy sources were driven by a desire for independence from foreign oil, energy studies from the 1970s onward amply demonstrate the benefits of a clean energy future. Clean energy technologies are more labor intensive than traditional ones; clean energy markets are more competitive because of their multiplicity and diversity; and a clean energy transition can promote economic growth as a result.

Consider a 2016 report by the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy (ARPA-E). The report details the progress being made on developing grid-scale batteries; alternative vehicle fuels; technologies to improve grid operations; efficiency of electronics; and developments in energy efficiency and clean power technologies. These new technologies address energy production and environmental protection simultaneously and are focused on our energy future.

The need for government support is as necessary for an energy transition as it was for the space race. Further, that transition is supported by decades of policy, by increasing public and private investments, and by business and regulatory innovations that are already happening throughout the country. But President-elect Trump's announcement of his Secretary of State, Secretary of Energy, and Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency unequivocally slam the brakes on this clean power transition. The nominees for these positions are a combination of Texas and Oklahoma oil men, climate deniers and funders of climate denial efforts, and antagonists of sound, sensible energy and environmental policies.

Trump's proposed Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has notably put the interests of ExxonMobil shareholders ahead of our nation's interests and goals. His proposed nominee for the Department of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, has called for the agency's abolition. And EPA designee Scott Pruitt, a beneficiary of Koch brothers money, disputes climate science altogether. This potent brew of anti-environmentalism is troublesome enough. However, combined with an antipathy to clean energy in favor of an outdated fossil fuel policy, this posture threatens to stall economic growth, increase environmental degradation, and  reduce the position of the United States in the eyes of the world.

Suppose, for the moment, that these nominees survive Senate scrutiny. While we can only guess at what policies they will pursue and which will be successful, a memo developed by the transition team suggests that the Trump administration's energy policy will go all-in on promoting fossil fuel extraction and use. Trump's top 10 energy priorities include: (1) withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement; (2) increase federal oil and natural gas leasing; (3) lift the coal lease moratorium on federal lands; (4) expedite approvals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals; (5) repeal the Clean Power Plan; (6) move forward with oil pipeline infrastructure, including the risky Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines; (7) scrutinize the supposed environmental impacts of wind energy projects; (8) reduce energy subsidies, with renewable subsidies first on the chopping block; (9) relax fuel economy standards for cars and trucks; and (10) eliminate the use of the social cost of carbon in federal assessments. This Back to the Future agenda may be great for ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, but it is not great for the United States or the rest of the world.

These top 10 Trump energy priorities run directly counter to a transition to clean energy by ignoring environmental consequences while increasing fossil fuel production. It is also Putinesque. Trump's favorable statements about Vladimir Putin, together with Tillerson's long-term relationship with the Russian president, point to an energy policy designed to help their friends and harm their enemies.

Assets once held by the Soviet government have been liberally distributed to Putin's friends and family and have created billionaires where none existed not so long ago. The Trump top 10 list intends the same end. The oil and gas buddies of Tillerson, Perry, and Pruitt now have a group of energy policy beneficiaries they can embrace: friends of fossil fuels, and enemies of clean power. According to political pundits, American voters rejected this kind of crony capitalism and business-elite corruption in November, yet here we are.

Unencumbered by environmental safeguards, the Trump energy plan is regressive, cuts against a clean energy transition, and portends not only environmental damage, but increased health and safety risks and an increased number of deaths from increased air pollution, climate change-induced disasters like floods and prolonged heat waves, and dangerous fossil fuel extraction jobs.

In short, there is nothing promising in this energy top 10 list. It's not an energy agenda that puts the American people first. Instead, it's an agenda of the fossil fuel elites, by the fossil fuel elites, for the fossil fuel elites. It will be up to all of us to push back through Congress, direct advocacy, and the courts in efforts to stop or at least stall the incoming administration's most harmful policy proposals.

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Joseph P. Tomain is Dean Emeritus and the Wilbert & Helen Ziegler Professor of Law at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

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