Analysis: Where the presidential candidates stand on energy policy and climate change

The candidates are poles apart on energy regulation

The latest US Presidential debate saw the nominees spar on energy policy for five minutes. Donald Trump said ‘there is a thing called clean coal’, while Hillary Clinton championed gas as a bridge fuel to tackle climate change. The candidates are poles apart on energy regulation, but speaking this week, Rob Barnett, Senior Energy Policy Analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, spelled out how the US Congress could hamper them; and looked at ways the new President could circumvent this to deliver policy goals.

Barnett, who was presenting at the Bloomberg Future of Energy Summit, said the most important component in the US election was not who was President, but who controlled Congress. Polls suggest that the Democrats could pick up seats in the Senate. This means the Republicans, who currently enjoy a majority in the House and Senate, could lose control of the Congress.

Even if the Republicans retain control of the Senate, a greater number of Democrats would mean bipartisan cooperation on legislation would likely be necessary to pass laws. If not, legislators could face 50-50 deadlocks.

So Trump’s wish to repeal the Clean Power Act and Clinton’s plans to bring in new incentives for renewables would be hard to push through.

But Clinton, who is currently enjoying a lead in the polls, has other means to pursue her clean policy aims. She can create regulation using existing authority under the Clean Power Act.

There are still a number of ‘rules’ to be enacted under the Clean Power Act. But, the process of bringing in proposed rules can be a lengthy process, often involving the courts. One notable rule, says Barnett, is the Clean Power Plan, which he describes as a cornerstone of President Obama’s commitment from Paris to reduce greenhouse gases.The rule is currently in a “back and forth dance” between the courts and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In February, the United States Supreme Court ordered the EPA to halt enforcement of the plan until a lower court rules in a lawsuit against it. The Clean Power Plan, which is currently stayed, will likely be stalled by Trump and pushed forward by Clinton.

Other ways Clinton could pursue her policies on climate change without the need of Congress would be continuing a moratorium – started by Obama – on coal activity on federal land, which is in executive purview. Trump would rescind this moratorium. Democratic candidate challenger Bernie Sanders had said he would extend it to oil and gas.

Possibly the most worrying comment from Trump on energy policy is his promise to cancel the Paris climate deal. But, Barnett says, despite Trump’s rhetoric, the agreement has been developed through a bottom-up approach with every region in the US submitting a plan. “If the US steps back rhetorically, it won’t effect the agreement overall,” he believes.

“If Trump wants to back away it’s not so straightforward.”

But some observers think Trump could scupper the Paris Agreement. Research firm Climate Central writes on three ways Trump could abandon the climate pact. For example, it says “if elected president, legal precedent and a careful reading of Article 28 in the Paris agreement indicate he would have the power to formally withdraw the U.S. from it as soon as a year after it takes effect by abandoning a 1992 treaty — without any need for lawmaker approval”.