A Conflicted Energy Front
Terry H. Schwadron
Jan. 13, 2020
The quiet wars over America’s energy future are continuing to murmur as we enter this year — in clashes between Congress and the White House, in courtrooms and in bets on effects of climate change. It suggests a year of particular uncertainty that will spill over into policies and investments.
These conflicts have as much to say about environmental health as they do economic concerns. Our disagreement reflects the argument over our seemingly undying American belief in the sanctity of Big Oil, and now natural gas, to handle the ever-growing needs for electric power and to drive issues from jobs to trade.
As Donald Trump continues to deny the effects of climate disruption, the argument about the need to find and fund realistic non-fossil fuel-driven energy alternatives will be a repeated mantra in Congress, in the presidential campaign and in endless regulatory lawsuits. Trump himself continues to talk about clean coal, which has been a scientific and economic bust, and about freeing industry from pressures to change energy sources towards environmental health.
Indeed, the Trump’s administration is doubling down on de-regulation as a path towards what it sees as cleaner energy through business innovation while Congress has adopted a competing approach of pushing research funds for alternatives to oil and gas. Those competing approaches are bound to prompt more business and regulatory confusion than actual scientific progress towards efficiencies that will prove environmentally and economically helpful.
In the courts, the Trump administration is proving to be more interested in punishing California for taking a stricter view of air pollution sources than it is in clean air. Competing lawsuits are on the dockets for resolution this year about separate rules for setting mileage standards for cars, for example, as well as water quality. California has sued the Trump administration over environmental rules 34 times, and many of those cases are still working their way through courts.
That big budget deal that passed last month would increase energy research spending nearly 14% compared to this year’s levels and more than 50% compared to 2014. Congress moved to increasing funds for solar, wind and biological energy despite Trump’s repeated attempts to cut spending.
Instead, Trump has again taken to his campaign rallies to ridicule wind-generated energy, asserting without evidence that wind power is widely killing birds and is ineffective. The president, who continues to reject any scientific evidence about climate change, insists on policies that expand oil drilling in our oceans and fracking in our national parks and monuments lands while the rest of the world is investing in solar panel technology and bio-generated power.
Clearly, congressional Republicans have agreed that federal research and development is a key part of scaling up and making affordable technologies needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as advanced nuclear power and innovations with solar and wind energy. Democrats are picking up on wider approaches, including calls by environmentalists for policies that set costs on carbon dioxide emissions or mandates requiring carbon-free energy. That looks to be a battlefront we will be hearing more about this year, particularly as Democratic presidential candidates continue to push energy as a point of difference with Trump.
One anomaly has arisen: The Department of the Interior is close to signing off on approving a plan for the largest solar farm in the country, reports the Los Angeles Times. The farm in the Mojave Desert is part of the Gemini Solar Project which is installing solar panels that will generate up to 690 megawatts over the 7,100 acres of federal land, a project that is estimated to create up to 2,000 jobs.
The continuing rollback of environmental regulations seems an active arena for conflict. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the Detroit Economic Club recently that “innovation and technology have led to remarkable environmental progress and often deregulation is necessary to spur on that innovation. Furthermore, deregulation does not always mean rolling back rules. More often than not it means modernizing or simplifying or streamlining regulations.”
As reflected in The Hill.com, in 2019, states or environmental groups, often together, have sued over rollbacks of the Endangered Species Act, tailpipe emissions rules, Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the U.S. rule, offshore drilling safety regulations, and the easing of efficiency standards for lightbulbs. The Supreme Court will be hearing two cases, one a lawsuit from the Sierra Club challenging border wall and another case involving a challenge to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
Later this year, the administration will block the EPA and energy department from considering studies that don’t make their underlying data public — a disguised attack on scientific research in favor of industry research.
In Congress, the Democratic House Energy and Commerce Committee has said it will introduce legislation to reach a 100% clean economy by 2050, commonly known as “100 by 50.”
Of course, should the November elections produce a Democratic winner, we can expect a lot of change from Trump energy policy.
Put it all together and it would seem to spell a tumultuous year for American energy companies without a unifying approach.