(Illustration by Dan Kirchoff)
(Illustration by Dan Kirchoff)

In the same year that NASA has recorded the hottest global surface temperatures in modern history, Americans elected climate change denier Donald Trump as the next leader of the free world. The impending Trump presidency has struck terror into the hearts of environmental activists across the globe as it now appears that climate change denial will be the official line of the United States government. Trump once famously declared that the concept of global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese, dismissing the conclusions of the vast majority of the world’s reputable climate scientists.

During the campaign, Trump vowed to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, eliminate new carbon emission limits on power plants, approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. Early post-election signs indicate that Trump will likely make good on at least some of his anti-environment promises as he has stacked his transition team with fellow climate change deniers. Bob Walker, a senior Trump campaign advisor, told the Guardian newspaper that the Trump administration will also eliminate NASA's climate change research program, calling it "politically correct environmental monitoring." 

 In a recent Washington Post op-ed, activist Bill McKibben noted that as ocean acidification increases, sea levels rise steadily and global sea ice levels are at record lows, Trump is staffing his environmental transition team with fossil fuel industry lobbyists and a few “quite sincere freelancers” who believe that “some of the thermometers measuring the planet’s climate have been placed too near to airport runways” and that “sunspots or cosmic rays or ‘natural cycles’ will soon cool the Earth.”

“So let’s be entirely clear about what those actions would represent: the biggest, most against-the-odds and most irrevocable bet any president has ever made about anything,” wrote McKibben. “One man is preparing to bet the future of the planet in a long-shot wager against physics.”

Paris Agreement in Limbo, Clean Power Plan “Dead”

 At last week’s clean energy and technology expo in Portland, sponsored by the Environmental & Energy Technology Council of Maine, there was widespread agreement among energy lobbyists and government officials that market forces will be the primary driver of federal environmental policy for the next several years, which will require states to take the lead on combatting climate change. 

“First things first: elections matter,” said energy lobbyist Darrell Henry of the Washington D.C. firm Gavel Resources. “The energy world will change dramatically from the past eight years, but then again it will not change too, too much.”

Henry noted that while regulations are difficult to repeal because Senate Republicans are still eight votes short of a filibuster-proof majority, executive orders are easy to rescind. And one of the first items on the Trump agenda will likely be to kill the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which established the first-ever limits on carbon emissions from power plants. The plan was meant to put in place the framework to comply with the non-binding Paris Agreement, which was negotiated between 195 countries and the US within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) last year. So far, 193 UNFCCC members have signed the treaty and 112 have ratified it. The Paris accord sets the goal of keeping global average temperatures below 2?°C above pre-industrial levels and aims to limit the surface temperature increase to 1.5?°C above pre-industrial levels. Implementation of the Clean Power Plan is currently tied up in litigation due to a court challenge brought by the US Chamber of Commerce.

Henry noted that the Clean Power Plan could end up going to the Supreme Court, but with the majority of the court soon to be occupied by Republican appointees, it’s unlikely that the new regulations will survive.       

“Federal level carbon regulation via the Clean Power Plan will remain on hold for the indefinite future,” said Henry. “I would read that as it’s dead.” 

However, environmental consultant Nathan Smith questioned whether the Trump administration will pull out of the Paris Agreement, noting that the US would be one of only two countries refusing to join. He added that if the US does stay in the agreement, it would need some kind of plan for carbon reductions, which other much poorer countries like Nigeria and Colombia have even been developing. 

“They’re embarking on major renewable energy programs to comply with their commitments to the Paris Agreement and that’s happening across the globe,” said Smith, who leads the Strategic Ventures Group for the firm Cadmus. “Regardless of what we do, that’s not really going to change and those developments are going to impact the market here in the US. Technology is going to continue to be more viable and more technology and techniques available for us.”

Other close observers have warned of a diplomatic disaster and a potential trade war if the US stopped participating in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was adopted by President George H.W. Bush’s administration in 1992. According to the New York Times, officials in other pledged countries are already threatening trade tariffs on American goods if the Trump pulls out of the Paris accord, arguing that the US would be operating with an unfair trade advantage by avoiding paying the cost of pollution. However, Thomas J. Pyle, the president of the fossil fuel friendly Institute for Energy Research (IER), called Trump’s talk of pulling out of Paris an “an empty threat.” Trump has cited talking points by IER, which is funded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, in his argument for opening up federal lands to oil and gas extraction. 

Darrell Henry of Gavel Resources noted that the Trump administration will also try to speed up approval of oil and natural gas pipelines and encourage more oil and gas exploration. The Trump administration will appoint three more Republicans, including the chairman, to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has the power to approve interstate oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. 

“Administration policy will strongly favor siting pipeline and electric transmission infrastructure in tandem with transportation and other infrastructure build out,” said Henry. “Expect to see a resurrection of the Keystone pipeline.” But he added that global market forces will continue to drive oil and gas investment and there will be no return to “drill baby drill” until commodity prices rise again.

Henry suspected that the impending death of the Clean Power Plan will also effectively suspend new regulations on methane emissions from natural gas extraction. However, he noted that seismic activity caused by the process of hydraulic fracking, which involves extracting natural gas by injecting water and sand into the earth, could change the political winds.

 



He said that federal wind and solar tax credits will phase out by 2020 and 2022 and are unlikely to be extended by the Republican Congress. Although environmental groups are already thinking about the next Congressional election, Henry said it will be an uphill battle for Democrats to put a check on Trump’s anti-environment agenda because Democrats will be defending 23 Senate seats and Republicans only have to defend eight in the 2018 midterm elections. However, Nathan Smith noted that market conditions are beginning to favor renewable energy and natural gas is outcompeting coal. He said many of his clients have already been preparing for some kind of carbon regulations down the line, regardless of what happens in the near-term.

Smith added that it’s unlikely a new administration would curb its own substantial investments in renewable energy technology, noting that the federal government is the single largest individual energy consumer in the US and the Department of Defense is the largest user of energy within the federal government. 

“The Defense Department has embraced the message of energy independence at the facility level and at the operational level,” said Smith. “I don’t see that changing, because it’s made a lot of sense domestically and out in the field.”

Kicking It Back to the States

Meanwhile, it will likely be up to Democratic-led state governments like California and New York to craft environmental policy. California, for instance, drives the demand for fuel-efficient cars due to the state’s stricter fuel efficiency standards. Regional market-based approaches to reduce power plant carbon emissions, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (which includes Maine and eight other states), will also continue unless state leaders decide to undo them. 

And there are some energy trends that probably won’t be undone by government policy, such as upgrades in advanced grid technology to accommodate more renewables, electricity demand-response systems, rooftop solar, battery storage and electric vehicles. Speaking on behalf of the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents all U.S. investor-owned electric companies, Environmental Policy and External Affairs manager Jason Smith said his members would continue to make investments in grid modernization because their customers are demanding it. But he argued that large utility-scale solar, not rooftop solar, is the cheapest for consumers. 

“In terms of being for or against renewable energy, we support utility scale, universal solar, commercial and community-scale solar and residential rooftop,” said Jason Smith. “At the same time, you have to keep in mind that as a utility, we’re required to sell that power at an affordable rate to our customers.”

However, a 2015 Maine PUC-commissioned study concluded the value of solar power produced in Maine to be twice the standard retail rate per kilowatt-hour, which is what solar producers currently receive for their power, because it displaces more expensive fuel sources, creates less air and climate pollution, adds more price stability and energy security to the state’s energy portfolio, and reduces the need to build more power plants to meet certain peak electricity demand times. A 2013 report by the Edison Electric Institute actually warned of the financial risks that “disruptive forces” like solar photovoltaics and energy efficiency pose to utility investors since the costs for these new technologies have plummeted in recent years. The report recommended implementing fixed monthly service charges and eliminating programs that favor solar and other on-site generation, moves that have been championed by conservatives in other states. 

What About Maine?

Back in Maine, the Legislature will likely consider a watered-down version of last year’s solar compromise, which aimed to increase solar capacity in the state for rooftop solar residential users, large grid-scale distributed generation sources, cooperative solar and commercial and industrial projects. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage and his veto sustained by House Republicans. Currently, the Maine  PUC is finalizing rules that would phase out favorable rates for new solar users after 10 years and gradually get rid of benefits for existing rooftop solar producers after 15 years. 

Democrat Rep. Martin Grohman of Biddeford — who serves on the Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee — said he would likely get behind separate solar bills for each sector, such as utility-scale and commercial-scale solar, rather than a comprehensive omnibus solar bill.  

“It’s my view that … the whole thing is not just a big green boondoggle. There’s opportunity,” Grohman told the E2Tech crowd. “In fact, I’m here to tell you that renewable energy people are cold-blooded capitalists too.”

PUC Chairman Bruce Williamson, a LePage appointee, implied that he would be more amenable to supporting large renewable energy plants than distributed energy sources like residential rooftop solar. “What puzzles me, however, is encountering the assumption in Maine that small is beautiful as well as cheap,” said Williamson. “The assumption is that the cumulative cost to society in many small, beautiful systems is less than the cost of a centralized electricity supply system.” 

As for offshore wind energy technology, Williamson expressed concerns about the costs and questioned whether developing more wind would stimulate economic development and create jobs. Speaking on behalf of the Governor’s Energy Office, LePage energy advisor Jim LaBrecque said that energy policy should focus on incentivizing energy efficiency, not making public investments in renewables. Last year, the Legislature overrode an attempt by the governor to hold $38 million in energy efficiency funding hostage because of the omission of the word “and” in a 2013 law.

LaBrecque complained at length that schools waste fuel and money by having large buses that only a few students ride and that the University of Maine leaves the lights on its football field on when there are no games to illustrate his point that environmental groups are ignoring the need for more energy efficiency measures. 

“You know what, there is 12,000 people including the president of the university who probably had to buy shades for his house right on campus because the light was coming in, but nobody cared,” said LaBrecque. “And I don’t think that these people who claim that they’re so concerned about the environment and allow these things to happen are really not at all as concerned as they appear to be.”

He concluded with a shot at Democratic legislative leaders, whom he said are “jeopardizing cleaning up the environment for our children” because they don’t want solar and wind to compete “on a level playing field for financial incentives if these incentives are based strictly on performance measures.”

In response to LaBrecque’s tirade, audience member Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Mall, said he agreed that energy efficiency is a place to start, but pointed out that the market doesn’t always work perfectly.

“[The market] is not always rational,” said Lee. “If it was rational, people would buy fuel-efficient cars instead of trucks that get 14 miles per gallon. People make decisions not just based on the money. There was a time that leaded gas was cheaper than unleaded gas. Cars actually run better on leaded gas and cars are cheaper if we burn leaded gas, but lead is poison. So sometimes we make decisions based on factors other than just the marketplace.”