The presidential candidates’ views on energy and climate

This election cycle, what will separate Democrats from Republicans on energy policy and their approach to climate change? Republicans tend to be fairly strong supporters of the fossil fuel industry, and to various degrees deny that climate change is occurring. Democratic candidates emphasize the importance of further expanding the share of renewable energy at the expense of fossil fuels, and agree that climate change is a real problem—with some saying the challenge trumps most, if not all, other U.S. security concerns.

Now that there are presumptive nominees for both major political parties, it’s an important moment to outline, in broad strokes, the positions of Secretary Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump. We realize that Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has not dropped out of the race, but note that it is fairly unlikely at this point that he would clinch the nomination.

Clinton: Building on the Obama legacy 

Secretary Clinton has laid out the most comprehensive and detailed energy and climate policy proposals of the candidates to date. They are in essence a continuation, and in some cases a further expansion, of existing White House policies under President Obama. The Secretary has stated that she wants the United States to be the “clean energy superpower of the 21st century.”

This starts with the notion that climate change is an existential threat, which the global community has to address as soon as possible. In order to do that, in her view, the United States needs to continue to show leadership on the international stage, as the Obama administration sought to do surrounding the Paris agreement in December 2015. This will require substantial reforms to expand low-carbon options, including nuclear energy to some degree, while tightly regulating fossil fuels (and gradually phasing them out). 

[S]he wants the United States to be the “clean energy superpower of the 21st century.”

The first casualty of this transformation is the coal industry, which Clinton has explicitly acknowledged. She presented a $30 billion plan to revitalize communities where coal production is currently an important industry and job creator, for example, and has campaigned with this message in various state primaries. Implicitly, Secretary Clinton does not seem to believe in the economic viability of carbon capture and sequestration in the United States—this is despite the fact that most analyses, including those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), suggest that this technology could be a cost-efficient tool in a wider carbon emission mitigation portfolio. 

Clinton sees natural gas as a bridge fuel, though at this point it’s not clear how long that bridge is. Questions remain about the role that natural gas can play in scenarios of deep decarbonization in 2030 and beyond. At the moment, the gas industry is rather nervous of the Secretary’s statement that she’d increase regulations on, in particular, the fracking industry—if her conditions came to fruition, there would very few places where fracking would continue

Secretary Clinton believes that oil consumption has to be cut substantially in the coming years, and she has suggested that new drilling in places like the Arctic, off the Atlantic Coast, and on federal lands would be discouraged or banned. She has previously opposed crude oil exports, though we would not anticipate a roll-back of existing policies (in December 2015, the Obama administration lifted the decades-old ban). 

Clinton foresees a new energy economy built on rapidly increasing shares of renewable energy, which should comprise 25 percent of the U.S. fuel mix by 2025 according to her plan (solar energy would be a key focus, with half a billion panels to be installed by the end of her first term). To facilitate this transition, she presented an elaborate energy infrastructure plan to modernize the U.S. grid and improve efficiency in reviewing and approving projects. 

Tax credits to support renewables would be continued under a Clinton White House, whereas fossil fuel subsidies would be phased out. Increased energy efficiency, including harmonization of vehicle efficiency and fuel standards, are high on her agenda as well. The Secretary also supports the Clean Power Plan that the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration has launched, and which is currently on hold in the Supreme Court. 

On the international stage, Clinton supports the Paris agreement on climate change. Should she win the presidency in November, she would make an effort to take this Treaty to the next step, thus continuing U.S. leadership. That would mean reinforcing U.S. leadership along the lines described above, while helping address current uncertainties about finance, transparency, and accountability, to name only a few challenges that remain.

Trump: Drill, baby, drill

Although Donald Trump’s candidacy remains highly controversial, he is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president. To the extent that we know any detailed plans, quod non, it is safe to say that his views on energy and climate change are diametrically opposed to most of Clinton’s. Broadly speaking, Mr. Trump has come out as a fervent supporter of the fossil fuel industry, and has expressed skepticism about the economic viability of renewable energy.

Mr. Trump’s views start with the belief that climate change is not man-made. In the past, the controversial businessman has suggested that climate change might be a hoax invention from China, in order to undermine U.S. industrial interests and job creation. This starting point allows Mr. Trump to be extremely supportive of existing industrial interests (if carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions are not a problem, the thinking goes, then business as usual is the way to go). 

In a speech in North Dakota in late May, Mr. Trump laid out some broad initial ideas for his energy policy. He declared that under his presidency the United States would “accomplish complete American energy independence,” leaving unaddressed arguments about what that would mean for existing international energy trade. 

It is probably safe to say that Mr. Trump would like to further expand oil, gas, and coal production in the country. The latter, in particular, is remarkable: even coal executives have declared that market forces (particularly very competitive natural gas) have been the primary threat to the coal industry. Since Mr. Trump is also a strong supporter of the natural gas industry—and considering the challenges of building new bulk terminals for exports—it is unclear how a revitalization of the coal industry would occur. 

If climate change is a hoax, it will come as no surprise that Mr. Trump will not support efforts to mitigate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Contrary to his opponent, Mr. Trump would also like to revoke restrictions on drilling for oil and gas, and would permit production on federal lands. He also supports further expansion of energy infrastructure, and would, if elected, ask Trans Canada to resubmit a permit application for the Keystone pipeline, which he’d approve. He has caveated his support for projects like these by demanding that a portion of the revenues from oil and gas flows be redistributed to local communities, to compensate them for intrusion on their private property. Mr. Trump has also indicated that he wants to use revenues from oil and gas production to rebuild U.S. infrastructure more broadly.

If climate change is a hoax, it will come as no surprise that Mr. Trump will not support efforts to mitigate carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. The candidate has called the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan “stupid,” and when asked what he would do about the Paris agreement on climate change, he said he’d cancel it

Though Trump says the United States must pursue all forms of energy—including renewables—he has expressed skepticism about their economic viability, calling solar energy “very expensive.” Wind energy received similar pejorative feedback, since Trump says it kills eagles and is noisy. During one of the few debates about renewable energy during the Iowa primary, he voiced his support for blending biofuels in vehicles. 

To the polls

The 2016 U.S. presidential election will have a profound impact on global affairs. Not only will it affect a range of security and economic issues in important ways, it also means a lot for global energy and climate policy. Will the United States continue on the trajectory that President Obama has started and continue a major energy transition strategy? Or will it shift course, potentially undermining existing domestic policies and investments, as well as international obligations? In November 2016, the American people will decide.