The Energy 202: Trump’s toughest rebrand yet? Being seen as a ‘great environmentalist’

The announcement, which reversed an earlier Trump administration effort to open nearly all federal waters to oil and gas drilling, is one of the biggest policy turnarounds of his presidency.

But Trump’s effort to green up his record is more than a year in the making, only accelerating in the final stretch of the race against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

The moves are meant to parry attacks from Biden on Trump’s environmental record.

And they come as concern about climate change grows among voters — especially young ones.

“Unlike Joe Biden, who is willing to sacrifice millions of U.S. energy jobs to appease the radical left, President Trump and his administration are promoting both energy independence and environmental health through innovation,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Courtney Parella said.

In addition to the offshore oil moratorium, Trump signed a law in August investing $900 million a year into expanding everything from huge wildlife preserves to neighborhood baseball diamonds, while his Environmental Protection Agency backed funding for the restoration of the Great Lakes. Both moves are stark reversals of the administration’s previous positions.

And just this week, Trump created a new “subcabinet” to improve water quality and management and approved an executive order in support of a plan backed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to plant a trillion trees and suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

But a green pivot may be too little, too late after four years of rolling back environmental rules. 

Many of Trump’s critics say he has one of the worst environmental records of any president. 

“This is an administration that spent four years bragging about how much fossil fuels they can get into the global economy,” said Jerry Taylor, a former global warming skeptic who now advocates for federal climate action as head of the Niskanen Center.

“At the 11th hour, these gestures, after four loud years of that, are extremely unlikely to resonate,” he added.

Republicans are responding in part to a voting public that increasingly sees climate change as a crisis.

While Democrats and independents are more likely to think humans are warming the planet, a majority of Republicans — 60 percent — said they believe that as well, according to a poll conducted last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Yet years of undoing Obama-era efforts to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars and coal-fired power plants have helped cement the anti-environment reputation of Trump’s party.

The Democratic Party holds a 31 percentage point edge over the GOP when registered voters polled by Pew Research Center were asked which would be better at confronting climate change. That is the largest edge between the parties among a dozen issues included in the survey over the summer.

Trump, despite the backpedaling, has been unable to maintain a steady message on climate change. 

During the first presidential debate Sept. 29, he showed a fleeting willingness to acknowledge that humans are contributing to the problem “to an extent.”

But two weeks earlier, he had shrugged off any links between rising temperatures and natural disasters during a briefing with California officials as the state saw its worst wildfire season on record. “It will start getting cooler,” he said, “you just watch.”

The muddled message could make his actions even harder to sell, especially as Biden consistently calls climate change an “existential threat” and is proposing to spend $2 trillion over four years to reduce emissions and prepare for its effects.

“I don’t know why the president says certain things that he says” about climate change, said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), a graduate of Yale’s forestry school who is behind the GOP’s trillion trees plan.

Westerman suggested Trump’s moves are informed by his background as a businessman. “But I do believe he recognizes a good deal when he sees one. And I think when he sees good policy, like the Trillion Trees Act, and he sees market-based conservation ideas, I think those are things that that he will embrace.”

George David Banks, who served as a climate adviser in Trump’s White House during his first year in office, said that the president does not have deep ideological convictions on climate change and “doesn’t see the political benefit of pushing a climate change agenda with his base.”

“It’s difficult for any Republican to break through politically in the minds of voters who place environment at the top,” Banks said.

When Trump has tried to turn over a green new leaf, it’s usually on local — not global — issues.

When announcing the offshore oil moratorium in Florida, Trump emphasized how the ban would protect “your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean” from potential spills — not how it would forestall emissions from burning oil and gas.

And Trump’s August signing of a major environmental bill, the Great American Outdoors Act, that would fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund for the first time since the 1960s, appeared designed to help Republican senators.

The White House has earlier called for slashing money to that program, but Trump changed his tune at the behest of Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), whose home states stand to gain from the funding. Both GOP lawmakers are in tough reelection races.

While not officially part of the Trump campaign, Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler went on a whirlwind nationwide tour this fall to issue grants and highlight efforts to restore the Great Lakes, with stops in Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

His agency is weeks away from finalizing a new rule updating the way water companies test for lead contamination in drinking water, a policy meant to tackle pollution still plaguing Flint, Mich., and other Midwestern cities with large African American populations Trump is trying to court.

“EPA has not forgotten what happened in Flint,” Wheeler said in Michigan in September. “What we need to do is ensure that nothing like that ever happens again anywhere in the country. Everyone, regardless of their Zip code, deserves to have safe drinking water.”

Historically, it has been tough for Republicans to win on environmental issues.

In 1988, George H.W. Bush flipped the script on Michael Dukakis, blaming the Massachusetts Democrat for pollution in Boston Harbor. Once in office, Bush signed into law a major update to the Clean Air Act to curb acid rain.

Even with that record, it was hard for Bush to outflank a Democratic ticket in 1992 that included Al Gore, who as a senator from Tennessee was already known as an environmental champion.

“How much environmental support did he gain for those steps?” the Niskanen Center’s Taylor said of Bush. “Very little.”

But Susan McManus, a professor emerita of political science at the University of South Florida, said Trump may have better luck with his environmental pitch in the Sunshine State, which is crucial to his reelection chances.

Republicans are able to win on environmental issues in Florida, she said, because of the “extremely strong linkage” between the state’s ecology and economy.

“Florida’s economy is totally contingent upon the coastal areas,” she said. “Whether it’s tourism, fishing — you name it — it’s a critical part of our economic fortunes.”

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

Note: The Energy 202 will not publish on Monday or Tuesday of next week. Talk to you Wednesday.

Power plays

Biden distances himself more from the “new green deal.” 

During a town hall on ABC, the former vice president tried to further distinguish his plan for combatting climate change with the Green New Deal, a favorite of progressives. 

Biden said that his plan called for a later deadline of 2035 for net-zero emissions, while still allowing some use of gas if its carbon emissions can be captured. “The new green deal calls for elimination of all non-renewable energy by 2030,” he told moderator George Stephanopolous, flubbing the name of the other plan. “You can’t get there.” 

Yet the Green New Deal resolution from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) calls for “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” — not strictly renewables.

The candidate released a $2 trillion climate plan in July in part to endear themselves to the Democratic Party’s left flank. But as the general election nears, however, and Biden courts votes from moderates and disaffected Republicans, he has sought to set his own climate plan apart from the politically polarized Green New Deal.

Biden also reiterated he does not want to end fracking, although he promised to “stop giving tax breaks and subsidizing oil.” 

The Trump campaign has repeatedly accused Biden of seeking to ban fracking, even though Biden’s plan would only prohibit new fracking permits on federal lands. 

The overarching theme of Biden’s climate answer came back to his core talking point of green jobs, rattling off a number of jobs that his green energy push would make possible.

Trump administration is rejecting an emergency declaration for California fires.

State officials told our colleague Tim Elfrink that the administration this week “refused to grant an emergency declaration that would open up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for areas devastated in those fires.”

It’s not clear why the request from California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 28 was denied, but Trump has previously threatened to withhold aid to the state “over disputed claims that the state isn’t doing enough to prevent wildfires.”

Trump and Newsom have butted head before over the causes of the state’s record-breaking wildfire season, including whether rising global temperatures are contributing.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission signaled that states can go forward with carbon pricing.

The regulatory body “proposed a new rule Thursday encouraging state and regional power regulators to set a price on carbon emissions as a way to accelerate the development of clean energy,” the Houston Chronicle reports.

Power market regulators ”should have confidence that those proposals will be not be a dead letter on our doorstep,” Chairman Neil Chatterjee, a Republican Trump appointee, said in a statement.

The move comes as many states consider carbon pricing as a way to limit emissions, but some state officials have expressed concern that FERC would block the pricing structures.

Law students pledged to boycott employment at a top law firm over its work for fossil fuel.

The pledges were part of a #DropExxon campaign, organized by students to highlight law firms that they say are contributing to climate change by representing oil and gas clients.  

“Students gathered at the Manhattan headquarters of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP last week to hand-deliver a box of signatures collected from about 600 students at 45 law schools including Harvard University, Stanford University and Yale University,” E&E News reports. Paul Weiss has represented ExxonMobil in climate litigation.

Law students behind the #DropExxon campaign compared oil companies to the tobacco industry:

The EPA announced it will allow use of a radioactive material in road building.

“Reversing a strict, decades-old policy, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced it will allow limited use of a radioactive byproduct of phosphate mining to build roads,” The Tampa Bay Times reports. 

The EPA policy was strongly supported by the fertilizer industry, which produces the substance, phosphogypsum, as a byproduct of the production of phosphate fertilizer. Because it is radioactive, miners are required to follow strict regulations in its disposal.

Wheeler said that the plan will put the substance “to productive use rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure.” He also committed that the EPA would work with industry to reduce environmental waste and protect public health.

Environmental advocates, however, have raised concerns that the use of the substance in roads could put people’s safety at risk.


Data from Fannie, Freddie points to increased mortgage risk tied to climate change.

“Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose portfolios underpin half the $16 trillion U.S. mortgage market, recorded changes in home sales prices and an uptick in mortgage defaults among damaged properties in Texas after the destruction caused by 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, a storm whose extreme rainfall scientists say was worsened by climate change,” Politico reports.

Experts say that housing officials have been increasingly concerned about what climate-fueled flooding means for their portfolios.

“Freddie Mac found housing prices inside the federal floodplain [in Texas] fell sharply compared to those outside the vulnerable zone after the storm. Separately, Fannie Mae discovered homes outside the 100-year floodplain — which aren’t required to have flood insurance — were more likely to experience mortgage defaults after severe flood damage,” Politico writes.

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