U.S. President Donald Trump called health insurance an “unbelievably complex subject” when Congress was debating health care in February. "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” said Trump as Republicans in Congress struggled to find consensus on how to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Given developments in Washington, D.C., over the past week, he could soon be issuing similar tweets about unimagined intricacies in energy policy—intricacies with critical implications for technology developers.
Last week's main affair in Washington, of course, was Trump's firing of FBI director James Comey, and the ensuing 'political firestorm'. But two big energy issues were also playing out, exposing policy rifts among Republicans—cracks that that could ultimately shift the course of U.S. and global policy.
One momentous event was the Republican-led Senate’s failure to pass the override of Obama-era methane regulations that House Republicans approved in February. The second was the hardening of a split among top Trump officials over U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
Both cases show energy policy—and its environmental drivers—to be richer than the jobs-versus-environment caricature painted by Trump and Republican leaders in Congress. Knocking down existing policies inherited from prior administrations to deliver on political promises—rather than carefully improving them—comes at a price that some members of Trump’s party and even his administration are not willing to accept.
Mark Boling, a supporter of clean energy and climate action, makes that case forcefully. Boling, an executive vice president at the Houston-based natural gas producer Southwestern Energy, opposed the legislative attack on methane regulations pushed by GOP leaders in Congress. “It was too blunt,” says Boling.
The targeted regulations, finalized in 2016 by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, specify royalty charges, monitoring requirements, and emissions controls for methane vented or flared by oil and gas producers at sites on federal lands. The rules are defended by environmental groups fighting to slow climate change (because methane is a potent greenhouse gas), by local leaders grappling with local air pollution exacerbated by methane releases, and by taxpayer advocates bemoaning lost royalties from wasted methane.
The Congressional resolution would have scrapped the rules and prohibited the agency from issuing new rules that were “substantially similar.” It was pushed forward by oil and gas producers, who saw the rules as an unwarranted drag on their industries.
Last week was the dramatic showdown. It was the Senate’s last chance to use a streamlined procedure to scrap rules approved under President Obama, and Vice President Mike Pence was on hand in case the GOP’s vote count was off and there was a tie vote. Instead, the Senate defeated the methane rollback 51-to-49. Arizona Senator John McCain cast the surprise 'no' vote, joining two other Republicans and all of the Senate’s 48 Democrats.
The Trump Administration will now review the rule, as Trump instructed EPA to do with related rules governing methane releases on new oil and gas sites nationwide in a sweeping executive order last month. Boling has strong ideas for how to improve the existing rule to get more emissions reduction at lower cost. “It clearly has flaws,” he says.
One flaw is what Boling calls its “prescriptive specifications” for methane leak detection and repair programs, which he predicts will slow the commercialization of novel sensor technology. Boling favors a performance-based approach whereby the Bureau of Land Management (and the Environmental Protection Agency) would set a ceiling on allowable methane releases and then set oil and gas producers free to meet it.
He predicts producers will be empowered to press novel technology into service faster. Examples include drone-based methane detectors (which General Electric is working on), or small tuneable diode lasers for 24/7 onsite monitoring (being developed by IBM and Quanta3). Using such advanced technology, says Boling, will accelerate the identification of so-called super-emitters—the 10-20 percent of oil and gas sites releasing 90 percent of the methane—and thus slash emissions faster.
A similar argument over the merits of policy improvement versus abandonment surrounds U.S. involvement in the Paris agreement. Pulling out of Paris was part of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, along with his assertions that climate change was a hoax. But concern about damage to various U.S. interests has fueled debate amongst key members of Trump’s team.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Trump policy advisor Steve Bannon want the president to follow through on his campaign pledge, calling Paris a “bad deal” for the U.S. Others, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the President’s daughter Ivanka advocate staying in so the U.S. can help steer global climate policy.
The Paris “foes” had “gained the upper hand” early this month, according to the Washington Post, when a decision seemed imminent. But last week, that decision was deferred, and Tillerson took full advantage. On Thursday, he signed on to an agreement among Arctic nations (the Fairbanks Declaration of 2017) that refers to the human causes and severity of climate change and also cites the Paris Agreement.
Business leaders, meanwhile, are speaking out in greater numbers against a Paris pullout, including top executives from the energy industry:
- General Electric chairman Jeff Immelt told a Georgetown University audience this month that the deal is a big business opportunity, reminding the students that GE operates a $12 billion renewable energy business. (Immelt also stated categorically that “climate change is real.”)
- Colin Marshall, CEO of coal firm Cloud Peak Energy, wrote Trump last month arguing that he can best support the coal industry by staying in. For example, the Paris rules could determine the global acceptance of carbon capture and storage, which could ultimately make or break coal’s fate.
- Last week, two dozen major firms financed adsin the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the New York Post that “strongly urge” Trump to stick with Paris. Signatories include Google, Intel, utilities National Grid and PG&E, and power equipment giant Schneider Electric.
Boling says there are multiple issues at play, but he counts five big ones: science, social concerns, economic issues, environmental factors, and political calculations. All but one, says Boling, are slam dunks for staying the course: “The only possible way one could get to a ‘no’ on the Paris Agreement is under the political category.”
The critics get Paris wrong, says Boling, by viewing it as a “death march” rather than a “roadmap” for an economic marathon. As Boling puts it: “We have to move to a low carbon energy economy. The smart people will see that as an economic opportunity for those who want to get there first.”
If other issues are any guide, the upside potential presented by global cooperation on climate change may be something important—something the President did not thoroughly analyze before his election. Trump attacked and antagonized China on the campaign trail, and has subsequently befriended Beijing in order to put pressure on North Korea. Might the climate skeptic discover similar nuance on climate change, embracing cleaner energy and the Paris Agreement to “make America great again”?
Peter Fairley has been tracking energy technologies and their environmental implications globally for over two decades, charting engineering and policy innovations that could slash dependence on fossil fuels and the political forces fighting them. He has been a Contributing Editor with IEEE Spectrum since 2003.