Energy and the Environment:

what can we expect from the Trump Presidency?Energy and the Environment: what can we expect from the Trump Presidency?

By Leonidas Petrakis


Fossil fuels – the remnants of plant and animal life transformed during geologic time into natural gas, petroleum and coal-have powered the Industrial Revolution and are sustaining our modern society from agriculture to transportation to health care to technology. But these fuels (commonly but inaccurately referred to as “hydrocarbons”) have become the nexus of international disputes, and additionally they pose an existential threat to our planet as byproducts of their extraction, transportation, conversion and use enter the atmosphere and effect climate changes (“green house” phenomenon).

Compelling scientific evidence has been accumulating in support of the causal connection between fossil fuels use and climate change. Their deleterious effects are already evident – rising global temperatures, melting ice caps and glaciers, increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, accelerating sea level rise, acidification of the seas, loss of biodiversity, expanding range of pathogens once confined to tropical and subtropical areas, loss of arable land.

The overwhelming majority of the international scientific community accepts the scientific evidence that human activity is responsible for the climate change. But there is a vociferous minority of dissenters (“climate change deniers”), almost a uniquely American phenomenon featuring powerful politicians, Mr. Trump being its pre-eminent member and potentially the most disruptive. According to President-elect Trump, climate change is a “hoax”.

Here is a sample of his tweets on the subject:
–“I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”
–“It’s really cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!”
–“Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond. Global warming is an expensive hoax!”
–“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese”.

Interestingly even oil companies now acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels causes global warming, and they encourage limiting carbon emissions.

Under both Republican and Democratic administrations often energy policies have been put forth that are rich in rhetoric but driven by geopolitical calculations rather than based on sound economic and environmental considerations. During the 2012 Presidential elections campaign “climate change” was almost totally ignored, and instead President Obama touted his fossil energy agenda. “We have been drilling more. Under my administration, America is producing more oil than at any time in the last eight years. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some.” Of course much of the drilling uses hydraulic fracturing (fracking), an energy-intensive and expensive technology with severe environmental consequences (evidence the North Dakota devastation and Oklahoma earthquakes which strongly correlate with the drilling activity). Likewise, much of the laid pipeline with its attendant environmental consequences (aquifer contamination, methane (a greenhouse gas) releases into the atmosphere) is for transporting the shale oil and gas from fracking operations.

At the same time Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State refused to block the Key stone pipeline that was to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to US refineries (the State Department had final authority on the project since it crossed international boundaries). She also used some of her many miles in foreign travel to promote fracking especially in Eastern European countries through her “Global Shale Oil Initiative”.

Secretary of State John Kerry while visiting Greece in November 2015 sought to advance the project whereby LNG (liquified natural gas) from US fracking operations is to be shipped (Cheniere Energy Inc.) to the terminal being built in Northern Greece off Alexandroupolis (Gastrade, a Copelouzos company), and in cooperation with the Public Gas Corporation of Greece (DEPA) to supply gas to southeastern Europe with the possibility of expansion to Ukraine and Romania via the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) natural gas pipeline. This is viewed, as an official has stated, as “further progress of a US strategy, backed by the EU, to significantly reduce southeast Europe’s dependence on Russian gas”. Greece (which already has a long-term contract with Russia’s Gazprom) and other countries in the region currently rely on Russia as the sole natural gas supplier.

But in 2015 we got concrete evidence that the US was finally willing to not just offer moral support but also to take even difficult actions that are necessary to save the planet from the potential climate change catastrophe. Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama embraced and worked hard for the 2015 Paris Agreement (arrived at by 190 nations including China and other major polluters) that is aiming to reduce fossil fuels emissions. And President Obama in support of this historic agreement has used his executive powers to implement American obligations. The most prominent and most controversial action is his Clean Power Plan released through the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). The Plan is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired and natural gas power plants in the US and replace them by wind and solar farms. President Obama considers making the United States the global leader in climate policy as his proudest legacy.

Mr. Trump is fiercely opposed to all such actions and international agreements, and has vowed to undo all Obama initiatives and Executive Orders once he moves to the Oval Office. Mr. Trump has singled out President Obama’s signature policy of Clean Power Plan as a high priority item for reversing, and has also promised to dismantle the EPA “in almost every form”. The Clean Power Plan is currently on hold for it is in litigation in the federal courts. It will surely not survive if it goes to the Supreme Court especially with any new Trump appointees. Killing this Plan would be a devastating blow not only domestically but also internationally for it would provide excuses to reluctant signatories to the Paris Agreement (India likely) not to follow through on their obligations.

Mr. Trump remains strongly committed to the fossil fuels economy and to American “energy independence”, which of course features fracking. His early post-election actions unfortunately are not reassuring that he may finally deal with climate change seriously and on the basis of scientific facts rather than ideology and ridicule; and he is appointing people who are committed to undoing the significant progress under way.

As Secretary of Energy Mr. Trump is said that he will appoint one of two individuals, both prominent in the fossil energy sector, indifferent to renewable forms of energy, and inimical to the climate change issues. One is Mr. Harold Hamm who has been heavily involved with drilling within the United States, and especially in Oklahoma, which has seen a large increase in earthquakes that strongly correlate with the number of fracking wells being put in place. The other is Mr. James Connaughton, who, as President Bush’s Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, led the opposition to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. For EPA Director Mr. Trump is likely to choose Mr. Myron Ebell, a non-scientist, who previously represented the tobacco industry and has taken a leading role in climate change denial. Mr. Ebell has stated that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the European Union (contradicting Mr. Trump who considers climate change a Chinese hoax).

President Trump will be able to rescind President Obama’s Executive Orders simply by issuing his own. For reversing policies that require Congressional approval he will find in the Republican controlled Congress many like-minded legislators, such as Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment, author of a book on climate change entitled “The Greatest Hoax”, and fond of invoking Genesis 8:22 as the basis for his climate change denial.

Unless Mr. Trump has an epiphany and decides to make a “deal” (proud as he is of making “deals”) and accommodate the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that climate change is caused by human activity, the prospects are for reversing the progress made. And if Sarah Palin, as rumored, becomes Secretary of the Interior, we will regress even further and the shrill slogan that she inspired in the 2008 campaign, “Drill baby, Drill!”, will become reality. Climate change policies face serious challenges as we move into the Trump Presidency with potentially calamitous consequences for the future of our planet.