Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the U.S. presidential election portends enormous changes in U.S. energy and environmental policy, and a nearly complete turnover of the men and women who will administer that policy for the next four years. But the details of just what a Trump administration would mean are foggy, as his campaign never spelled out in detail how they would implement their energy and environmental goals.
Some things are clear, given that the new administration will not need to consult Congress to implement many of its policies. (The Republican Congress will be compliant in any case.)
Friend of Fossil Fuels
The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is dead, as are any U.S. programs to deal with the threat of global warming. Trump has made clear that he doesn’t view global warming as a significant issue. He campaigned on restoring jobs in the U.S. coal industry. So Trump will blow up the Environmental Protection Agency and repudiate the Paris agreement, probably among his first actions as president.
Whether Trump can revive the coal industry and restore coal mining jobs, as he promised during the campaign, is much less clear. Market forces, not government policies, are the driving force in limiting coal generation.
Trump has said he’s supporting energy markets. He took a firm stand in favor of hydraulic fracturing technology for oil and natural gas production—something that has left Democrats tripping over their own political contradictions—and said he will try to resurrect the Keystone XL oil pipeline project. He likely would support the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, rather than seek a new route; it is currently sited along an existing natural gas pipeline. He has also said he will lift limits on oil and gas production from federal lands and offshore. Some have described Trump’s energy policy as “fossil fuels and fewer rules.”
All of these actions are within the power of the executive branch, although a Republican Congress could intervene—an unlikely prospect. Democrats will not have enough muscle in Congress to stop the exercise of executive branch authority.
Legal and Market Brakes
Initiatives by a Trump White House to impose its will on energy policy, moving 180 degrees away from the Obama administration policies, almost certainly will lead to litigation. That could slow the Trump drive significantly. If the legal disputes reach the Supreme Court, that will come after Trump has picked someone to fill the vacant seat of the late Antonin Scalia.
Trump’s website quotes him as saying that his goal for America is to “become, and stay, totally independent of any need to import energy from the OPEC cartel or any nations hostile to our interests.” Many energy experts say this is a pipe dream, as fossil fuel markets and production are international. Oil, gas, and coal are largely fungible. During the Obama administration, due mostly to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology, U.S. domestic production of oil and gas resulted in imports at the lowest levels since before the Arab oil embargo of 1973–1974. Trump’s definition of energy independence, according to experts, is largely unachievable without large amounts of renewable energy, which Trump has rejected.
A New Team of Players
Trump has consistently avoided specifics of how he might accomplish his muscular energy agenda. That may be because he has not thought beyond his talking points, meaning that his administration will have to cope with the details once he is sworn in as president on January 20, 2017. That’s not unusual for incoming administrations.
A key to Trump’s performance in office, as opposed to his campaign rhetoric, may be his appointments to fill executive branch positions, from cabinet secretaries, to members of independent regulatory commissions, to White House operatives, to the hundreds of political lower-level drones who will support his top executive queen bees.
To start, there will be a clean sweep of Obama administration appointees, wherever Trump can find and fire them. He has pledged to his enthusiastic voters that when he gets to Washington, he will “drain the swamp” of the government establishment. He won’t be able to willy-nilly fire career civil servants, but he will be able to clean out Obama’s team in the executive agencies.
The new administration’s sweep will start with the cabinet secretaries in the Energy Department, the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department, and all other agencies that have a remote connection to energy and environmental policy.
The new administration will face a tricky path in gaining control of two regulatory agencies important to energy interests: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). By law, both five-member commissions must have a partisan slant that favors the party in power, with three seats held by members appointed from the party that controls the White House and two from the minority party. The party in control of the White House can name the chairman.
Both FERC and the NRC currently have two vacancies. In FERC’s case, both empty seats belong to Republicans. In the case of the NRC, one seat is designated for a Democrat and one for a Republican. With the change in party in the White House, the Trump administration can name two Republicans to the empty FERC seats and topple Norman Bay as chairman. At the NRC, the administration will have to fill one Republican seat and one designated for a Democrat.
Democrat Colette Honorable’s FERC appointment expires June 30, 2017, providing a Republican opening to give the party the majority. One of its FERC nominees is likely to be named the new chairman.
At the cabinet agencies, the new administration will face a long process of putting its people in control. The Senate will have to sign off on all nominees for cabinet secretaries, as well as scores of lower-level political appointees, which is a time-consuming process. In the meantime, the administration will have to name people to fill in while the official nominees go through the vetting process. That is likely to take many months, or even years, while interim administrators guide the executive agencies.
A 1998 federal law may complicate the new administration’s ability to put its people in place quickly. The Washington Post reported that the day before Tuesday’s election, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a case challenging the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. The law, the newspaper reported, “allows the president to immediately fill jobs that will ultimately require Senate confirmation.” So an incoming president could name acting administrators and acting cabinet secretaries so that the wheels of government could continue to grind in the face of vacancies requiring the lengthy and tiresome confirmation process.
But the law “prohibits a person from serving as both the acting officer and the president’s nominee for the position, except under certain conditions.” And there’s a hitch—the reason that the legislation is getting Supreme Court review. As the Post reports, the “acting” can’t become the real boss “unless he or she has been the first assistant for at least three months.”
Democrats retain significant power in the Senate, as the GOP will have only a one- or two-seat majority, not the 60 votes necessary to advance legislation against a Democratic filibuster. The first test of the GOP political muscle may come when the Trump administration nominates a candidate to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, ending the 4-4 stalemate that has existed since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last February. Democrats will filibuster and the Republicans are likely to implement the “nuclear option,” changing the Senate rules so a simple majority can approve a Supreme Court nominee.
Energy and environmental policy and governance in the new Trump administration, looks like a wild and bumpy ride. Hold on tight.
—Kennedy Maize is a long-time energy journalist and frequent contributor to POWER.