Hillary Clinton’s climate and energy policies, explained

Source: By David Roberts, VOX • Posted: Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Media coverage of the Democratic primary has not shed much light on Hillary Clinton’s proposals for climate change and clean energy policy.

But oh, she has proposals. Lots of them! I read the white papers. And I called the campaign to talk through some of the specifics and the broader political thinking that informs them.

Her plans haven’t gotten much press — not as much as, say, her gaffe about coal miners — but they are exhaustive. In fact, they are quintessentially Clintonesque, rich with wonky detail, conversant with the policy levers available, and careful, always, to stay within the bounds of the politically possible (as she sees it).

I’m going to break this down as a series of numbered lists — not one, not two, but five lists of three:

  1. The three key facts the campaign took as starting points
  2. The three overarching goals of the plan
  3. Three numerical targets by which the success of the plan will be judged
  4. Three strategies to get there
  5. Three issues (e.g., fracking) environmentalists are keen to hear more about

All the juicy policy stuff is in part four, so skip down there if you just want the nuts and bolts.

Hillary Clinton announces she's running for president.
Hillary Clinton announces her campaign for president.

The three key facts the campaign took as starting points

1) Climate change is a serious problem that requires hitting the targets promised in Paris.

Clinton agrees with Bernie Sanders (and exactly zero of the 17 Republicans who ran for president) that climate change is “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.” According to the campaign, meeting that challenge means, at a very minimum, hitting the greenhouse gas targets President Barack Obama pledged before the international community at the Paris climate talks: 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

2) Job one is defending Obama’s gains.

Obama has made considerable progress on climate, even in the face of a hostile Congress. US carbon emissions have hit 11 percent below 2005 levels and are 14 percent below where they were projected to be at this point.

Part of that was the influx of cheap natural gas, which drove lots of coal out of the power sector. But a great deal was policy — the stimulus investments and then a range of federal standards implemented via the executive branch.

Clinton has vowed to defend and extend those standards.

3) The next president must do more, and Congress won’t be much help.

The measures Obama has put in place do not currently have the US on a trajectory to hit its 2025 goal, much less the more ambitious goals that lie beyond it. So the next administration must do more.

And Congress — or at least the House of Representatives — is likely to be controlled by Republicans in 2016, which means comprehensive climate and energy legislation will be off the table. As campaign chair John Podesta told National Journal last year, “In the short term, the chances of this Congress becoming a real partner with an administration” on climate change policy are “small.”

And as Clinton has said, “Climate change is too urgent a threat to wait on Congress.” So she’s developed a strategy that doesn’t require waiting.

paul ryan
Can’t wait to pass comprehensive climate legislation.

The three overarching goals of the plan

1) Close the gap.

The next administration must, at a minimum, put the US on track for its 2025 target. US credibility is on the line, as is the cooperation of many nations closely watching the US.

The Clinton campaign says that, overall, its plan will reduce greenhouse gas emissions “up to 30 percent” from 2005 levels by 2025. That will mean a combination of federal standards, grants to municipalities that exceed those standards, and investments in green infrastructure. (More on that in part four.)

2) Make sure the transition works for all Americans.

A transition of this scale will not work without broad political buy-in. That means engineering a shift to clean energy that, in Clinton’s words, “doesn’t leave anyone out or behind.”

According to the campaign, that means a number of things: economic development for coal communities, a focus on low-income households and communities of color, expanding union density in the clean energy space, and helping states figure out net metering and retail rate design issues.

Coal communities are particularly important to Clinton, who mentions them on the stump frequently. She just returned from a two-day tour through Appalachian coal country, in which she spoke at length about her plan to “revitalize coal communities.”That plan was one of the first pieces of energy policy she released.

coal protestors
(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

And last month she released a comprehensive plan on environmental injustice, which includes a program to address the public health threat of lead.

3) Lay the groundwork for greater ambition.

Trevor Houser, one of the campaign’s lead energy wonks, told me in an interview that the campaign’s climate policy is constructed with an eye toward “building the institutional, political, and technical foundation over the next decade” that will be needed to make deeper cuts after 2025, on a path to more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

Three numerical targets by which the success of the plan will be judged

Clinton pledges that within 10 years of her taking office, the US will (quoting from her campaign website):

  1. “Generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America, with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of Hillary’s first term.” (That would mean installed solar PV capacity of 140 gigawatts by the end of 2020, up 700 percent from current levels and well beyond most forecasts.)
  2. “Cut energy waste in American homes, schools, hospitals and offices by a third and make American manufacturing the cleanest and most efficient in the world.” (The campaign estimates this would save Americans about $8 billion a year in energy and health care costs.)
  3. “Reduce American oil consumption by a third through cleaner fuels and more efficient cars, boilers, ships and trucks.”

Three strategies to get there

Now we get to the policy.

1) Defending, implementing, and extending federal standards.

There is a veritable laundry list here, but the campaign emphasizes a few things in particular.

The first is fully and effectively implementing the Clean Power Plan.

Second is fuel economy standards. The EPA will be doing a midterm evaluation of light-duty vehicle standards during Clinton’s first term; standards for heavy-duty vehicles have been proposed but not finalized.

Also on the list:

Gina McCarthy
(EPA) EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, signing regs like it’s going out of style.

2) Offering challenge grants to states, cities, and rural communities that exceed federal standards.

This is the other half of a policy approach the campaign calls “flexible federalism.” If federal standards serve as the floor, then challenge grants serve as inducement to reach higher.

The grants would come through a program called the Clean Energy Challenge, funded at $60 billion over 10 years.

The CEC would offer competitive, outcome-based block grants to states, cities, and communities that are “willing to lead on clean energy and exceed federal standards,” says Houser, “whether that’s through exceeding the target set under the Clean Power Plan, driving fuel economy and electric vehicles more aggressively than required by federal standards, leading on building efficiency, or improvements in industrial efficiency.”

The use of these grants is key to Clinton’s plan, so it’s worth quoting Houser’s explanation at length:

The reason for our strategy of combining federal standards with competitive grants is in part a recognition of the fact that a lot of energy policy gets made at the state and city level. A lot of these are tough policy issues that cities and states around the country are grappling with, whether it’s how to redesign retail electricity rates to deal with the growth of distributed-energy resources, or how to integrate ride-sharing services into mass-transit planning, or how change land-use planning in a way that drives transportation efficiency and delivers greenhouse-gas goals. Each city’s a little bit different. One of the goals of the challenge grant program is to create a new partnership between the federal government and states and rural communities — provide outcome, metric-based grants and through that learn what works and what doesn’t.

This would, the campaign acknowledges, require getting money out of Congress. But they think it will be able to attract a reasonable amount of bipartisan support, in part because recipients of the grants will act as both political advocates and examples to others. If states put these grants to use, creating clean energy jobs, reducing emissions, and keeping the lights on, neighboring states are going to notice.

The idea is to put the “laboratories for democracy” to use, experimenting and learning in a way that can be transferred to other states or the federal government.

The Clinton campaign expects the grants to elicit cost sharing and in-kind contributions from the municipalities receiving them, thus leveraging up their impact.

NYC uses bike sharing to cut down on transportation emissions.(Shutterstock)
NYC uses bike sharing to cut down on transportation emissions.

3) Direct federal investments in clean energy, innovation, and infrastructure.

This includes direct government spending, procurement, and management of the enormous federal fleet of buildings and vehicles.

Much of the green-infrastructure plan is part of Clinton’s larger infrastructure plan, with its proposed National Infrastructure Bank. It includes a “pipeline partnership” that would help cities and states more easily locate and repair leaky natural gas pipelines, various financing tools for grid investments to ease the spread of distributed energy, and investments in clean energy R&D.

Clinton would also make use of the federal government’s considerable size and market power by using more renewable energy in federal buildings, raising efficiency standards for all federal procurement and federally funded infrastructure, increasing renewable energy deployment on public land, and easing the process for permitting new electricity transmission.

One nerdy investment tidbit that’s worth calling out: It turns out that the Army Corps of Engineers owns dozens of dams that don’t currently have powerhouses, i.e., aren’t able to generate electricity.

Without damming any new waters, just by adding powerhouses to existing dams the Department of Energy estimates that some 12 gigawatts of hydropower capacity could be tapped, much of it in Appalachia, where coal production is on the decline. (Clinton flagged this fact in her coal communities plan.)

Smithland lock and dam, on the Kentucky/Illinois border, scheduled for a hydropower upgrade.
Smithland lock and dam, on the Kentucky/Illinois border, scheduled for a hydropower upgrade.

Infrastructure investments would also require getting money out of Congress, but the campaign believes there’s bipartisan support to be had for infrastructure spending, especially if funded by closing tax loopholes.

So that’s the plan — or at least the domestic policy part of the plan. (Foreign policy and national security policy will also crucially involve climate change.)

Three issues environmentalists are keen to hear more about

1) What about fracking?

Fracking is an issue that divides the Democratic Party. The left, as championed by Bernie Sanders, has adopted a categorical “no fracking” stance. Clinton, along with most of the center-left party establishment, believes that fracking still has a role to play, though it should be more tightly regulated.

More broadly, Clinton believes natural gas is a “bridge” — an intermediate step — to decarbonization.

That position has come under heavy fire during the primary, but the campaign defends it. By driving out coal, they say, natural gas has reduced not only carbon emissions but also local air pollution, which disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. The campaign estimates that the shift from coal to natural gas under President Obama has prevented thousands of premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma attacks in 2015 alone.

They highlight the potential for natural gas to continue reducing carbon and other pollutants in the power sector, where natural gas also plays an important role in balancing variable renewable energy sources, and in the transportation sector, where it is a cleaner alternative to diesel and gasoline.

But the first priority is to put “the right safeguards in place,” says Houser, which includes “addressing methane leaks from both new and existing sources, repairing and replacing distribution pipelines, ensuring that wastewater injection does not increase the risk of induced seismicity, [and] protecting local water supplies.”

Clinton has said she supports local communities that aren’t comfortable with fracking. But for those that decide otherwise, she wants to ensure it’s done in a way that protects health and safety.

Two final notes from the campaign on natural gas.

First, investments in natural gas pipeline infrastructure can be leveraged later to transport lower-carbon biogas or synthetic natural gas, which will be useful in cleaning up heavy-duty transportation, heating, and industry.

Existing natural gas pipelines in the US.
Existing natural gas pipelines in the US.

Second, natural gas as a “bridge” does not necessarily mean increasing natural gas generation from where it is today. The campaign’s expectation, reflected in Clinton’s renewable energy goal, is that most of the emission reductions achieved under the Clean Power Plan and her competitive grants will be through renewable energy and nuclear power, not through coal to natural gas switching.

2) What about “keep it in the ground”?

I asked about the new enthusiasm among climate activists for the “keep it in the ground” strategy of blocking or shutting down fossil fuel supply projects.

The campaign pointed to places where Clinton believes oil and gas production is not worth the risk, including the Arctic and the Atlantic coast, and noted that she supports Obama’s moratorium on new coal leasing, as the leasing program is reformed.

She does not, however, support a blanket ban on new oil and gas leases on public land, as called for in a bill from Sanders and Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

The campaign points out that the vast majority of oil and gas production in the US occurs on private land. Oil and gas production on public land has actually declined under the Obama administration; all the growth has been on private land. With that in mind, their primary short-term focus is on reducing economy-wide oil consumption.

Nonetheless, a campaign spokesperson says Clinton “believes we should be on a long-term path to a future where there is no extraction of fossil fuels on public lands” and that “our public lands can be an engine of job creation and a 21st-century clean energy economy.”

BLM Solar Energy Zones in the west, slated for solar power development.
BLM Solar Energy Zones in the west, slated for solar power development.

3) What about nuclear power?

Another area where Clinton differs from Sanders is on the question of what to do with existing nuclear power plants. Sanders wants to deny their applications for renewed permits and let them shut down according to their original schedules. Clinton wants to keep them running.

“Existing nuclear power plants don’t just provide 20 percent of all electricity generation [in the US],” Houser says, “they still provide 60 percent of all zero-carbon power generation in the country.” Hitting America’s international climate targets, he says, in part means ensuring that “those existing nuclear power plants that are safe to operate stay online.”

Clinton also wants to increase investment in advanced nuclear power.

The vexing question of aspirational politics

So there you have it: a detailed plan for making use of existing authorities to extend and accelerate the Obama climate policy trajectory.

Which raises a final question: Why not shoot for the moon?

Why not propose a revolutionary plan, equal to the scale of the problem, even if it is politically impossible, just to set a marker and shift the conversation?

This is an old, old political dispute between the left and the party establishment. Obama was able to paper it over somewhat with soaring rhetoric, which made incrementalism sing. Clinton’s incrementalism does not sing. In his routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner earlier this month, Obama suggested a new campaign slogan: “Trudge up the hill with Hill.”

For better or worse, Clinton resists the call for policy moonshots. She wants a plan that can be implemented within the bounds of foreseeable political reality. She wants the numbers to add up and the details to be in place, so her administration can get started immediately, without waiting for Congress.

“She is committed to aggressive climate action,” Houser insists. “It’s about finding a way to actually deliver that action.”