This summer, I argued that Republican nominee Donald Trump’s energy policies were “confused.”
Today, President-elect Trump’s energy policies remain embryonic, but should give conservatives reasons to cheer.
For one, a Van Jones chairmanship of the Environmental Protection Agency is no longer a clear and present danger to the affordability of Americans’ electric bills. But what can we expect of a Trump administration’s regulatory reach, especially with regard to electricity?
A Clinton administration would have based its policies in part upon the yearnings of fantasists who are in perpetual argument with the laws of physics, and who contend that the Koch brothers and a deficit of political will, rather than the limits of science and technology, are preventing our cities from being powered entirely by renewable energy.
Meanwhile, for eight years, the federal government has tried mightily to bring state energy policies to heel, the most egregious example of which was the Clean Power Plan. Federal attempts to upend the work of the nation’s state regulatory bodies should ease or end under a Trump administration.
Trump’s policies will likely make American energy production not “great” again — the so-called shale revolution guaranteed that — but even greater. “Producing more American energy is a central part of my plan to making America wealthy again, especially for the poorest Americans,” Trump told the Shale Insight Conference during his campaign. “America is sitting on a treasure trove of energy.”
What will this entail? Oil- and gas-pipeline construction, which the environmental Left has hindered, will soon likely proceed apace. Restrictions on offshore drilling and fossil-fuel production on federal land will be eased. TransCanada has begun to lobby for the approval of the Keystone XL crude oil pipeline, the construction of which would confer $3 billion in economic activity and scads of dollars in property taxes to counties traversed by the pipeline. The $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline, stalled by tribal and environmental disputes over easement issues, is poised to receive the federal permits it needs to begin service.
The mainstreaming of once “alternative” forms of energy is nearly complete. The proper response to Trump deriding “solar” as “very expensive” is, “It depends.” To vastly simplify: Solar power has decreased in price and, in some marketplaces, has proven cheaper than fossil fuels. Yet it still cannot provide the 24-7, on-demand power provided by nuclear and fossil fuels, upon which a functioning civilization depends — a hard fact still denied by propagandists whose wishful thoughts will have little sway in a Trump administration.
Renewable-energy tax breaks, the source of relatively broad bipartisan support, will likely survive until the date of their scheduled phase-out, in 2020. These programs are opposed by the Right but are not worth expending political capital to undo.
Solar and wind power, intermittent by nature, are nothing without the backup provided by natural gas — a fact lost on the Sierra Club, whose goal of moving “beyond natural gas” would move us beyond modernity and into a state of perpetual brownouts. Relatively cheap natural gas remains critical to the long-term success of renewable energy, and Trump has made clear his commitment to the infrastructure and political support necessary to ensure its procurement.
Updating the Grid
Trump has emphasized the pressing need for infrastructure investments, and modernizing the nation’s power grid to accommodate electricity generated at homes and businesses (“distributed energy”) and two-way energy flows is not an option — it is a pressing need. But the states are the arena in which energy experiments are flourishing, and the Trump administration should refrain from the federal regulatory micromanagement that might hinder them.
The Trump administration will surely nix the Clean Power Plan, which is already on hold owing to court challenges. The plan, the first set of EPA regulations designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector, was set to upend the states’ diverse mix of energy sources (a key ingredient of a reliable electric grid). Repeal can occur through a voluntary remand to the D.C. Circuit Court or the issuance of new rules. A far more difficult — and unlikely — route would involve congressional action precluding the regulation of CO2 via the Clean Air Act by redefining what constitutes a pollutant.
The “War on Coal”
“Regulations that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and block the construction of new ones — how stupid is that?” The words are Trump’s, yet arguably the marketplace has exacted more of a toll on coal than President Obama’s antipathy toward it.
Market forces will lead to an uptick in coal generation and production next year, as generators turn to coal in the face of slightly higher gas prices. Yet the marketplace — and a near-universal antipathy among the nation’s regulators and utility companies toward coal-fired power — will severely hinder new coal plant construction. Altering power plants’ new-source pollution rules is a likely quiver in President Trump’s arsenal of options for boosting coal. Trump’s pledge to revive the coal industry will prove an uphill climb, and he is better off slowing its death than trying to reverse it.
The electric-utility industry, reliant upon prudent and prescient investments in long-lived assets, values stability, predictability, continuity, and gradualism. They bet on Clinton in a small way, in spite of policies contrary to their own interests, because she seemed a more certain commodity.
Now, all bets are off. The details of Trump’s policy goals on energy remain obscure, but the broad brushstrokes are heartening.
Compared with eight years of federal overreach, most any regulatory act by most any Republican administration will seem a form of blessed underreach. Americans exhausted by federal edicts and rising electric bills will likely breathe easier owing to our new political climate.
— Bob Stump is a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, Arizona’s five-member statewide elected utility body that regulates most Arizona utilities.