Trump’s win upends climate fight

Source: By Alex Guillén, Elana Schor, Esther Wheeldon and Eric Wolff, Politico • Posted: Monday, November 14, 2016

Once-ascendant greens prepare for battle, while oil, gas and coal expect a bright future.

Supporters of President Barack Obama’s energy agenda are scrambling to adjust to the looming Donald Trump era — with climate activists girding for battle while some green industry groups hope to appeal to the president-elect’s love of commerce.

Meanwhile, fossil fuel producers are facing the best of all possible worlds, with expectations high that Trump will loosen restrictions on coal, rip up Obama’s climate regulations, walk away from last year’s Paris global warming accord and name oil and gas executives to his Cabinet. Even the Keystone XL oil pipeline appears set for a resurrection, an unexpected turnaround for a project that Obama killed to environmentalists’ cheers a year ago last Sunday.

Both sides confront a much different world than they had expected to face under Hillary Clinton, who promised to build on Obama’s agenda with tightened limits on fracking and the installation of 500 million solar panels. Wind and solar have boomed under Obama, with sun-generated electricity expanding 30-fold since 2009.

Now, for some environmentalists, the road ahead looks bleak.

“I don’t immediately see the path forward,” said Bill McKibben, a leading climate activist who helped lead the fight against Keystone, and who noted scientists’ warnings that the world needs to quickly slash its carbon output to have any chance of preventing catastrophe. “We have such a short window to deal with climate change, and it feels to me like it got significantly narrower.”

Others activists are vowing to fight, and to use even rowdier tactics than they had deployed under Obama. “The next four years will not be easy, but we have fought hostile administrations before,” Friends of the Earth spokeswoman Kate Colwell said in a statement.

But some clean-energy supporters are trying to develop arguments that would appeal to Trump’s business sense, in hopes of preserving crucial tax credits and mandates for the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries.

Trump “is a businessman first and foremost,” said Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy, which promotes energy efficiency as an engine of economic growth. “And if you look at what businesses … are doing with respect to advancing energy efficiency and showing a bottom line benefit from that, he’ll want to follow suit.”

“We’re going to take that into Trump’s administration and play that card hard,” she said.

Trump has made it clear that he’s no fan of wind and solar. He fought to stop offshore wind turbines near one of his golf resorts in Scotland, calling the turbines ugly and blaming them for killing birds. He has also insisted that climate change is a hoax promoted by China, and he promises to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement while undoing the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon regulations on power plants — all central to Obama’s legacy on global warming.

What Trump does support is an overhaul of the tax code, sparking fears among wind and solar supporters that the industry’s tax credits could make way for other kinds of giveaways, such as Trump’s calls for reducing the corporate tax rate and the top income tax bracket. Congress agreed last year to extend the wind and solar credits for five years — while phasing them down — but Trump may upend that arrangement.

One Trump supporter who opposes the tax breaks thinks they may be safe for now, however, at least because of support from Republicans in windy and sunny states.

“I don’t know that the Congress has changed so dramatically that they’re going to take a run at unwinding those,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a group with ties to the libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch. “But what it has done is taken away any opportunity for the wind guys to try and take another run at that.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday that he hopes Trump pursues a sharp pivot toward fossil fuels, including approving Keystone and ending the “war on coal.” Though Obama rejected Keystone a year ago, in a hard-fought win for the green movement, developer TransCanada said Wednesday that it wants to work with Trump to revive the Alberta-to-Texas pipeline project.

Fossil fuel advocates expect to have a prominent place at the table in Trump’s administration, even though many oil and gas lobbyist held back from contributing to his unorthodox presidential campaign.

Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of the oil and gas company Continental Resources, is on the shortlist for potential Energy secretary, while oil industry executive Forrest Lucas may get the nod for Interior secretary. Trump’s transition adviser on EPA is Myron Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, who has fought for years against “alarmism” over human-caused global warming.

Trump himself has vowed to revive the coal industry, telling miners in West Virginia last spring that “you’re going to be working your asses off.”

Besides walking away from the Paris agreement, which commits the U.S. and more than 190 other nations to take action to fight climate change, Trump has promised to scrap EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a regulation limiting greenhouse gases from power plants. Both steps would be a gift to the coal industry, which has suffered from the Obama administration’s environmental regulations, declining demand and competition with inexpensive natural gas.

“It’s virtually certain the Clean Power Plan will be revoked,” Jeff Holmstead, a George W. Bush-era EPA air chief who now works at the law firm Bracewell, said after the election. “I’m quite confident based on everything I’m hearing from people close to the campaign or transition that they’ll make good on that promise.”

As Trump’s win began to sink in this week, green groups that had coalesced behind Clinton — some more slowly than others — began to cast themselves in the role of scrappy fighters.

“Above all, we’re ready to protect the significant climate progress of recent years,” Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp tweeted Wednesday. “Defense is our middle name.”

David Goldston, government affairs director for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, noted that Republicans won’t have a filibuster-proof majority that would let them easily undo major environmental rules. “The president doesn’t get to rule by fiat,” Goldston said. “It’s not simple to undo regulations.”

Still, Senate Democrats may not be in a strong position to put up a fight. They face a tough electoral map in 2018, when they will be defending seats in at least 10 states Trump won on Tuesday, including major fossil fuel producers like West Virginia and North Dakota.

Moreover, Hillary Clinton’s collapse in Rust Belt states that Obama had previously won points to their party’s lingering difficulty connecting with blue-collar voters. That could empower the building trade unions that had unsuccessfully urged Democrats to support fossil fuel projects such as Keystone.

Green groups also will face new questions from Democrats about their efforts to sell a climate-friendly message to voters who seemingly rejected it.

Tuesday’s GOP sweep puts Republicans in charge of both Congress and the White House for the first time since a landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling that said EPA must regulate greenhouse gases if it deems them to pose a threat. Environmentalists expressed hope that the ruling could provide some check on Trump’s ability to stop all action on climate change.

But past Republican EPA administrators have warned that Trump’s environmental agenda could have drastic consequences, possibly even bringing mass resignations among employees who don’t want to carry out Trump’s agenda.

Jamie Henn, the strategy director at the climate activist group, proposed that green groups focus on strengthening the grassroots protest energy that prodded Obama to kill Keystone.

“No matter how this plays out, we’re going to need a massive movement to defend the progress we’ve made and look for openings where we can,” Henn said by email. “We’ve shown the ability to hold up fossil fuel projects on the ground.”

Trump’s precise blueprint to reverse Obama’s actions on climate change is unclear. But legal experts have some idea of what could happen.

First, he would probably pull back the Obama-era regulations still working their way through the courts — most notably the EPA power plant rule. The Supreme Court stayed that rule earlier this year, and it is pending review before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Legal experts from both sides agree that the Trump administration could ask the D.C. Circuit to send the climate rule back to EPA for reconsideration, assuming judges have not yet ruled by Jan. 20. It’s unclear whether the court would approve such a request, and environmentalists and other groups supporting the rule would fight it fiercely.

To reverse any Obama rules already in place, Trump would have to direct his administration to go through a whole new notice-and-comment rulemaking process explaining how the new version fixes flaws in the old, and environmentalists would be able to challenge any of those new rules in court.

Trump has also vowed to review EPA’s scientific conclusion in 2009 that greenhouse gases threaten public health, the underlying basis of all its Obama-era climate rules. Even if Trump leaves that finding in place, it could in theory be satisfied with rules that require relatively minimal efforts to reduce emissions from coal plants by boosting efficiency.

A resurgence of inexpensive coal would threaten to undercut wind and solar power, jeopardizing the gains they’ve seen during the Obama era. But some supporters of green power say they still see a bright future for their industry, thanks to the cost reductions that they’ve achieved in the past eight years.

“If you tell me Mr. Trump is going to tear up the CPP and get out of the Paris climate [deal], we weren’t using that in the industry to push us forward anyways,” said John Berger, CEO of Sunnova Energy Corp. He added: “At the end of the day it wasn’t fundamentally driving this industry. The horse is out of the gate.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.