Republican Cracks Emerge in Trump's Coal-Heavy Energy Plan

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  • Support for green power, Paris accord dividing Republicans
  • Debate to play out at Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference

QuickTake: Trump Pushes Coal Revival

For all Donald Trump’s efforts to revive coal, market forces and some of his own supporters are vying to write their own version of America’s energy future.

Divisions persist among the president’s supporters -- and even within his own cabinet -- about whether to continue subsidies for wind and solar power, enact a carbon tax, remain party to the Paris climate accord and plenty of other issues that will shape the U.S. energy landscape.

“Seventy five percent of Trump supporters like renewables and want to advance renewables,” Debbie Dooley, a Tea Party organizer and solar energy activist, said at a Bloomberg New Energy Finance conference in New York on Monday. “The conversation has changed. You have to have the right message. Talk about energy freedom and choice. The light bulb will go off.”

Trump may be resolutely committed to fossil fuels, but the economic reality is renewables are now among the cheapest sources of electricity. Wind and solar were the biggest sources of power added to U.S. grids three years running, becoming key sources of jobs in rural America. That’s created clean-energy constituencies in North Carolina, Texas and other parts of the country that supported Trump in November.

Still, there are enough members of Trump’s cabinet who deny the basic science of global warming that there is little, if any, chance the administration will enthusiastically support clean energy. Instead, the debate is likely to hinge on whether the president will try to actively reverse market forces allowing wind and solar to flourish.

That tug-of-war will play out in the weeks to come at the White House, in corporate board rooms and at economic summits in Italy and Germany. On Tuesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry will shed light on the debate at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance gathering, which also will feature Myron Ebell, an avowed climate-change denier who headed Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

Ebell said global warming and the advantages of clean power are largely a myth perpetuated over the last half century by financiers and scientists he dubbed the “climate industrial complex.”

Policy Matters

“President Eisenhower in his farewell address not only talked about the military industrial complex, but he talked about the technological scientific complex as a problem as well,” Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, said at the conference.

In many ways little has changed in America’s energy markets since Trump took office. States including California, New York and Massachusetts continue to move forward with aggressive policies to cut carbon emissions. Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and other companies continue to power facilities with wind and solar energy.

How to Hit the Brakes on Climate Change

(Source: Bloomberg)

Even so, federal policy matters.

Despite the president’s executive orders, much of his energy blueprint remains a work in progress. That includes his position on tax credits for wind and solar, how energy fits into a federal infrastructure plan and how, if at all, the administration plans to keep uneconomical coal plants open.

So investors will listen closely as Perry -- who oversaw record expansions of wind power as Texas governor -- steps to the microphone at this week’s conference.

“There are a lot of blanks to be filled in,” Ethan Zindler, an analyst with New Energy Finance in Washington, said in an interview.

Paris Question

Perhaps no issue engenders more debate within the Trump administration than the Paris accord. The president famously vowed to “cancel” the landmark agreement during the campaign. Afterward, he said he’d keep an open mind about it.

Two key events next month are likely to force him to make a decision. Leaders from the Group of Seven nations meet for an economic summit in Italy on May 26 and have indicated they will push Trump to sign off on a joint statement supporting efforts to fight climate change. And envoys hashing out details of the Paris accord will gather in Germany for two weeks of discussions concluding May 18.

Meanwhile, Trump’s advisers have staked out their positions. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and chief strategist Stephen Bannon are among those pushing to scrap the Paris deal, brokered in 2015 by almost 200 nations. Opposite them stand Trump’s daughter, Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others.

Pressure is coming from outside the White House on both sides of the debate. Coal baron Robert E. Murray has pushed Trump to scrap the deal. Other energy companies have endorsed the accord, including Exxon Mobil Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc, BP Plc and liquefied natural gas exporter Cheniere Energy Inc.

Beyond Washington

“Domestic energy companies are better positioned to compete globally if the United States remains a party to the Paris agreement,” Cheniere Chief Commercial Officer Anatol Feygin wrote in an April 17 letter to George David Banks, a White House energy adviser.

Outside the beltway, Trump backers are split over energy policy, too. The president received strong support from coal-rich regions of West Virginia, Wyoming and Kentucky. Yet recent polls have indicated Trump voters also back renewables, especially in windy states like Iowa and Texas.

While wind and solar were the province of liberal environmentalists, conservatives have increasingly begun to see clean energy as way to weaken the power of monopolistic utility companies and bolster America’s energy independence. It doesn’t hurt that wind and solar employ almost 475,000 people in the U.S., almost three times as many as coal.

“These are conservative values: jobs, energy freedom, choice, personal liberty,” Dooley said. “There is really a green revolution going on within the Republican party.”

Ebell doesn’t buy it. And he doesn’t see Trump backing away from his pledge to back fossil fuels.

“The president has a very definite agenda on increasing oil and gas production,” Ebell said. “Wind and solar are always going to be secondary. They are always going to be a pain in the neck.”

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