Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Trump Administration and Fossil Fuels

The American media are paying close attention to the investigations into the relations between Russia and Donald Trump’s administration and campaign.  One of the animating questions is whether the Trump Organization has financial interests in Russia or debts owed to Russian banks.  The idea that an American president might have personal interests great enough to affect foreign policy decisions is too juicy for an “adversarial media” to disregard, and Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns keeps that question alive, but Trump’s treatment of Russia can be seen differently when it is put in the context of many of his other actions and political appointments.  It falls into perhaps the most consistent pattern of behavior exhibited by an otherwise extremely inconsistent man.  Donald Trump is consistently defending and promoting the fossil fuel industry.

Consider his appointments. 

The leader of Trump’s transition effort seeking to find a suitable Administrator for the E.P.A. was Myron Ebell, the Director of Global Warming and International Environmental Policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and he has been the group leader of the Cooler Heads Coalition.  According to its website during Ebell’s tenure as group leader, “members of the coalition point out that the science of global warming is uncertain, but the negative impacts of global warming policies on consumers are all too real. Coalition members also follow the progress of the international Global Climate Change Treaty negotiations.”  Ebell has been among the world’s most vocal climate science skeptics.  He asserts that while climate change is happening and humans have a role in it, the extent of that role is uncertain.  The organizations for which he has worked appear to be funded by the fossil fuel industry, though a complete record of their finances is not available to the public.

Next, we have Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the E.P.A.  He too can be described as a climate change skeptic.  Like Ebell, he acknowledges that the climate is changing and that humans have a role in causing that change, but he too denies the conclusions of nearly all of the world’s scientific societies that the human role is dominant.  Ebell is an economist and Pruitt is a lawyer, but for some reason they feel qualified to reject the scientific consensus on climate change and continue to pretend that there is some meaningful disagreement among climate scientists.  Pruitt made his name nationally as a dogged opponent of President Obama’s clean energy efforts and he filed numerous law suits against the E.P.A. as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, particularly against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.  So once a leading opponent of the E.P.A., he is now its head.

Then we have Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior.  As if reading from the most current edition of the climate skeptics’ script, Zinke intoned the very same views on climate advanced by Ebell and Pruitt during his Senate confirmation hearing.  Though as a state legislator in 2010, he called for "comprehensive clean energy jobs and climate change legislation," by 2014 he was claiming that climate change "was not settled science."  Zinke appears to have got the memo regarding how a respectable skeptic characterizes the issue: it’s happening, it’s partly us, but maybe not so much.

Regarding public policy, Zinke seeks to reduce the restrictions on selling public land to the private sector and to defer to the states the ability to manage national monuments.  A primary beneficiary of both of these policies would be fossil fuel companies seeking mining and drilling rights on public lands.  At the end of May, Zinke ordered the drafting of a five-year plan to expand offshore drilling.  Later that month, he repealed the Bureau of Land Management’s moratorium on issuing coal mining leases.  In June, he took the first step to open up oil and gas extraction from the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve by authorizing a review of the oil and gas contained in the Reserve and is allowing the venting, flaring, and leaking of methane on public and tribal lands pending judicial review.  These are all moves that the fossil fuel industry has long desired.  President Trump’s 2018 budget for the Department of Interior has increased funding for oil and gas programs, including offshore drilling, despite a general cut in the Department’s budget, including a cut in renewable energy programs.  Additionally, the American Petroleum Institute hired Ryan Zinke’s former deputy chief of staff Megan Bloomgren, potentially strengthening the relationship between the Department of Interior and the oil and gas industry.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry became the Secretary of Energy, ironically after he had run a presidential campaign that promised to abolish the department.  Perry once called the science behind climate change “unsettled” and a “contrived, phony mess.”  He consistently questioned the reality of climate change even as recently as 2014, but at his confirmation hearing he acknowledged that the climate was changing, attributing it to both natural and human causes, without stating their relative importance.  He went on to say that action to address climate change must be done in a way “that does not compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs.”  Since then, he has asserted that the role of humans is not a primary cause of climate change and has promoted the idea of establishing government funded “red teams” that would be tasked with undermining established scientific findings about climate change.  He has ordered a review of the national electric grid to determine if the reliability of its "baseload" power has been compromised by government support for wind and solar energy.  Perry’s remarks indicate that he assumes it has, so the review can be seen as an effort to undermine wind and solar energy as they are important fossil fuel competitors and guarantee a role for fossil fuels in the future.  The man managing the grid study will be Brian McCormack, a former utilities lobbyist and fierce opponent of renewable energy. 

Perry often is praised for the expansion of wind energy in Texas, but he was also a strong supporter of hydraulic fracturing and called for the lifting of the moratorium on deep-water drilling put in place following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  He signed into law a permanent extension of tax breaks for “high cost” natural gas in an already relatively low-tax, low-regulation environment.  Perry might have been an authentic “all of the above” energy proponent, but his sympathies for fossil fuels are undeniable.  He is touting “clean coal” and natural gas, particularly liquid natural gas, saying that natural gas can be just as effect as the Paris Accord at limiting greenhouse gas emissions.  In the future, Perry might have much less to do with renewable energy as President Trump’s 2018 budget would cut the budget of the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 70%.  

Also in the Department of Energy is William Bradford, head of the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs.  His views on climate change are revealed in his tweets: “unicorns, money trees, moderate Democrats, free lunch, & manmade [sic] climate change — things that don't exist,” and “soon, ‘climate change’ cultists will be pitied as the nuts they always were.” 

(Bradford has a checkered professional history as a law professor at Indiana University for three years, and even more briefly at the William and Mary Law School and the United States Coast Guard Academy.  Most recently he was employed at the United States Military Academy for one month before resigning.  He has a documented history of lying about his military service and his rank as well as being awarded a Silver Star.  His tweets about unicorns and climate change are actually moderate in comparison to other racist and sexist tweets he posted about President Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Megyn Kelly, and interned Japanese citizens during World War II.  His Twitter behavior and general attitudes appear consistent with President Trump’s.)

Alex Fitzsimmons is now a senior adviser in Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.  He was formerly at the free market think tank the American Energy Alliance, where he wrote blog posts critical of state mandated renewable energy portfolio standards, “green energy cronyism,” and other efforts to promote clean, renewable energy.  Recently, he worked to promote oil and gas production via the “Fueling U.S. Forward” campaign.  With Fitzsimmons advising the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, we have another example of the fox guarding the henhouse.

Inside the Justice Department, President Trump has nominated Jeffery Bossert Clark to serve as the assistant attorney general for the Environment and Natural Resources Division.  Clark is a strong critic of the E.P.A. referring to it as “pursuing an agenda of control” and saying that it was "reminiscent of kind of a Leninistic program from the 1920s to seize control of the commanding heights of the economy."  He served as attorney for an advocacy group called “Consumers’ Research,” challenging President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.  In one legal brief, he argued against the E.P.A.’s endangerment finding based on easily debunked criticisms of the climate science consensus.  Clark also represented BP in suits stemming from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Kathleen Hartnett White is the expected nominee to head the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality.  She current works at the Texas Public Policy Foundation which has the mission “to defend liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise in Texas.”  The Foundation denies that there is a consensus among scientists regarding the cause of global warming.  White has been promoted to lead the C.E.Q. by coal industry executives and conservative think tanks.  Her views on climate change are in line with other appointments.  She is quoted as saying that “it is likely” that human activity is contributing to climate change, but she says the extent to which it does is unclear.  For her, the science is not settled.  In recent years, she has also heaped praise on CO2, pointing out that our bodies are built on carbon and that it is essential for photosynthesis.  She is the author of a paper entitled, “Fossil Fuels: The Moral Case” and is the co-author of a book entitled, Fueling Freedom: Exposing the Mad War on Energy.

Within the Council on Environmental Quality, Mario Loyola was hired as the associate director of regulatory reform.  Previously, Loyola worked for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.  He also worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation.  As a frequent writer for the National Review, Loyola has often asserted that the science of climate change is not certain enough to inform policy decisions.  In January, he wrote that scientists have an “extremely limited ability to quantify the relationship between CO2 increases and temperature increases precisely enough to support an informed choice among policy alternatives."  Loyola’s primary interest appears to be the rollback of environmental regulations of all kinds.  He was a critic of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Finally, we come to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil.  On the surface, he appears to be the model of an enlightened fossil fuel executive.  Tillerson not only publicly supported U.S. commitments made in the Paris Climate Accord, he has made cogent arguments in favor of a carbon tax.  His views on climate change, though, are the skeptic’s current party line:  climate change is happening, humans are partly the cause, but how much?  We don’t know.  Prior to Tillerson becoming C.E.O. of Exxon Mobil, the company was a leading force in dismissing concerns about climate change and poured a great deal of money into “think tanks” that had as their missions to distort and confuse the public perception of climate science.  This happened despite a history of Exxon scientists presenting internal reports confirming the climate science consensus.  Support for denialist institutions appears to have changed with Tillerson’s arrival at Exxon Mobil, though the lack of public records makes this hard to confirm.

Currently, the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating Exxon Mobil to determine if its reports to shareholders understated the danger of climate action to the company’s future profitability.  These understatements would have been made while Tillerson was C.E.O.  Schneiderman has gone so far as to write in a legal document that Exxon Mobil’s reports to shareholders were “a sham.” 

Tillerson’s argument that the U.S. must retain “a seat at the table” in international discussions of climate change does not mean he has any interest in agreements that will compromise fossil fuel development.  Even his support of a carbon tax might be a ploy to ensure that he has the standing to advocate a tax that is high enough to blunt the criticism of climate activist and low enough to keep Exxon Mobil in business.  Finally, Tillerson’s relationship with Russia reveals a long-standing interest in seeing Exxon Mobil involved in the development of Russian oil and gas fields, particularly in the Russian controlled Arctic. 

This, of course, leads us to our original question?  What is Trump’s interest in Russia?

Trump may have personal financial interests in Russia and he may have an emotional attachment to personalities like Vladimir Putin, but it is hard not to fold Russia into the evidence of his administration’s symbiotic relationship with the fossil fuel industry.  After all, Russia is a petrostate and as of March 2017, Putin is on record denying the role of humans in changing the climate.   Putin has even asserted that global warming is good for the planet.  Drawing from statistics reported over the last few years, Russia is the world’s largest oil producer, the world’s second largest natural gas producer, and the world’s sixth largest coal producer.  It is the world’s largest exporter of hydrocarbons.  (Given the rapid, recent rise in natural gas production in the U.S., Russia’s position may have slipped since these numbers were compiled, but its position certainly must remain very high.)  Consequently, it is in the interest of international fossil fuel companies to maintain good, working relationships with the Russian government.  Rex Tillerson has been quite adept at this, receiving the Russian Order of Friendship award from Putin in 2013 after signing deals with the state-owned oil company Rosneft to partner in the exploitation of Russian oil reserves in the Arctic Ocean and the Black Sea.  The operation was halted, however, after the U.S. placed economic sanctions on Russia following its invasion of the Crimea.

Time and again, the Trump administration has taken actions that both symbolically and substantively support the interests of the fossil fuel industry.  Whether is it killing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, reneging on commitments made in the Paris Climate Accords, making Saudi Arabia his first international trip, boasting about his support for coal, attacking E.P.A. regulations to limit methane leaks in both pipelines and underground storage facilities, slashing budgets for energy conservation, approving the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, opening federal land for fossil fuel exploitation, or supporting offshore drilling, the pattern is undeniable – the Trump administration is acting aggressively and often effectively in the interests of fossil fuels.  It is entirely plausible that his efforts to thaw relations with Russia is first and foremost a part of that effort.

President Trump has yet to fill many important positions in his administration. Given his track record, we can expect more appointments that will support the interest of the fossil fuel industry.  With a sympathetic Congress, our best hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are currently via court cases and the emerging economic strength of clean, renewable energy.  The former will depend on the forward thinking of state and federal judges.  The latter will depend on technological advances and popular support for a livable future.