United States: Climate Change Acknowledgements Of Key Trump Nominees Leave Administration's Policy Uncertain

Last Updated: February 22 2017
Article by John A. Rego

Aside from the near certainty that the Obama Administration's signature Clean Power Plan will never be implemented, the best advice regarding the Trump Administration's expected policy on climate change is to "wait and see." After campaign statements that seemed unequivocally dismissive of government action to address climate change, recent statements by those members of the new Cabinet whose job descriptions most directly touch the issue, and by President Trump himself, suggest the new Administration's policies may be informed more by aversion to the perceived economic burdens of climate change regulation than by philosophical hostility to the underlying goals of such regulation.

In their Senate confirmation hearings, President Trump's nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the State Department all acknowledged the existence of climate change and some degree of human contribution to the phenomenon. Incoming EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testified, "Let me say to you science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity in some manner impacts that change." Incoming Energy Secretary Rick Perry stated, "I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity." Incoming Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testified that it is "indisputable" that climate change is occurring and that human activity has an influence. Finally, echoing comments that he made as CEO of Exxon Mobil, incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified that "the risk of climate change does exist, and the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken." Indeed, after the election, President Trump himself told The New York Times that he would "keep an open mind" on the subject.

Only time will tell whether such statements were primarily offered to facilitate Senate confirmation. Moreover, each cabinet nominee qualified his general acknowledgements with varying degrees of skepticism regarding the relative degree of human responsibility, the reliability of predictive climate models, and/or the appropriateness of current climate change strategies. And all expressed a general view that climate change does not warrant the level of importance ascribed to it by the Obama Administration in comparison to other public priorities, such as energy independence, foreign competitiveness, and overall economic growth. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, it remains to be seen how much influence anyone working outside the White House—including Cabinet secretaries—will have on policy formulation in the Trump Administration.

The new Administration seems certain, at a minimum, to be less aggressive in seeking to reduce the role that fossil fuels play in the U.S. economy. However, given the domestic and international backlash, along with the legal hurdles, that an open philosophical rejection of the need for climate change regulation would trigger, the new Administration might adopt an official position generally consistent with the statements of its cabinet nominees while reorienting its regulatory approach to place far greater emphasis on minimizing the economic impacts of climate-based regulation on U.S. businesses and consumers.

One test of this hypothesis will be the new Administration's approach to the Paris Agreement on climate change, which took effect in the fall of 2016. Secretary Tillerson has expressed his belief, publicly and in discussions with President Trump, that the President should reconsider his campaign pledge to withdraw entirely from the agreement because, in Tillerson's view, it is important for the United States to have "a seat at the table" in international climate change policy discussions.

Since there are no mechanisms for enforcement of the national emission reduction pledges in the Paris Agreement and no explicit penalties for falling short, the United States has very little to lose by remaining in the agreement, even if accompanied by a less aggressive U.S. policy that will produce smaller emission reductions. One campaign promise that is likely to be kept, however, is President Trump's pledge to cease contributions to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund, to which the Obama Administration had paid $1.5 billion of its $4 billion pledge.

No comparable survival pathway exists for the Clean Power Plan, which sought to dramatically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. power industry. Implementation of the plan is stayed by order of the U.S. Supreme Court. Having participated as Oklahoma attorney general in the lawsuit that produced that stay, EPA Administrator Pruitt is not expected to abandon his belief that the scope of the plan exceeded U.S. EPA's legal authority.

While there are multiple procedural pathways through which the Clean Power Plan might ultimately cease to exist, the larger question is whether Administrator Pruitt will propose an alternative approach and, if so, how that replacement will seek to reduce emissions while minimizing adverse economic effects. It is noteworthy that Mr. Pruitt testified in his confirmation hearing that "EPA has a very important role at regulating the emissions of CO2 ."

In any event, the new Administration will necessarily have to resolve tensions between competing campaign promises with climate change implications. For example, to the extent that the President's policies shift federal support from renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, to traditional fossil fuel sources, such as coal and natural gas, there would presumably be job losses in the renewable energy industry, and it cannot be assumed that such losses would be offset by gains in the fossil fuel industry. Thus, job creation and preservation, a central theme of the Trump campaign, could influence the new Administration's appetite for programs that support the development of low-carbon energy technologies.

Similarly, Trump pledged his support for increases in both natural gas and coal production, despite the natural economic competition between those two industries and the likelihood that increased activity in one sector could come at the expense of the other. Further, the President has already signed an Executive Order signaling his support for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would facilitate the importation of Canadian crude oil. Natural gas, which generally emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels to produce a given amount of energy, may continue to supplant the use of higher-emitting fossil fuels based simply on price, rather than regulatory preference.

In the end, it remains to be seen whether and how the climate change statements of President Trump's cabinet nominees will influence Administration policy. It also remains to be seen how the resolution of competing campaign pledges to various constituencies will impact the economics of the multifaceted U.S. power industry, which will necessarily affect overall greenhouse gas emissions. As with a host of other policies yet to be defined by the new Administration, we will simply have to wait and see.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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