January 23, 2017

When it comes to energy and the environment, what kind of policies is the Trump administration likely to pursue? How might policymakers be constrained by their predecessors’ actions?

A recent forum at SIPA asked three experts who served as senior officials under President George W. Bush to consider these questions and more. Taking part were Jim Connaughton, former chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Jeff Kupfer, former deputy secretary of energy; and Bob McNally, former senior director for international energy on the National Security Council. The event, held on January 23, was sponsored by the Center on Global Energy Policy.

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Moderator Jason Bordoff, director of the Center, began by asking what each panelist was watching most closely, and whether they saw any widespread misunderstandings about future energy policy.

Kupfer emphasized the difficulty of large, unilateral changes: “It’s always easier for something not to happen in the government than for something to happen.”

The formulation of energy policy is surprisingly convoluted, Kupfer said, and much of what determines it will not change just because of a few political appointees.

Connaughton reinforced this point, noting that the vast majority of energy and environmental regulations represent long-term consensus, and “99.99 percent” of them will not change. Most big energy issues are enormously difficult to solve, he said, and creative ideas are scarce.

He added that progress in many industries is also very much set in stone, with utilities already on track to meet the much-discussed Clean Power Plan goals, and U.S. disengagement from the Paris treaty would not change that trajectory. In this regard, the new administration would most likely focus on streamlining and opening up barriers to capital access.

McNally said he expected to see a stark divide in the Republican party between what he called populists and traditionalists. Populists in the new administration, he suggested, will re-open some core questions on energy and environmental policy that have been closed since World War II—questions about collective security, U.S. engagement and leadership, diversified global sources of energy, and secure supply lanes.

Connaughton also noted populists’ rhetoric about using trade-related mechanisms to distort the market in favor of the U.S. and at the expense of other countries.

Another potential source of division among Republicans is the Iran deal, which McNally said Trump favors more than Congress. He said he doesn’t expect any direct attempts to dismantle it, but lawmakers will poke at it, and the White House will have to work carefully to keep any new sanctions from scaring Iran away from its commitment.

Kupfer also commented on the new administration’s removal of the climate section of the White House website, cautioning observers not to read too much into changes in such policy statements. It takes a lot to actually affect underlying trends in climate policy, he said, and some of the White House’s omissions may also simply reflect disagreement about policy goals within the new administration.

At the end of the night, the panelists did provide a list of what they considered to be the most-at-risk regulations. McNally emphasized the effective death of the Clean Power Plan, a bipartisan easing of the biofuels mandate, and the depoliticization of infrastructure permits (e.g., streamlining pipelines). Connaughton noted a likely acceleration of the EPA decision process to help capital planning and a reevaluation of fuel economy standards.

Kupfer concluded by predicting further support for clean energy R&D as well as continued tax credits for solar and wind.

All told, the consensus seemed to be that the new administration will bring several wild cards to the table, but that overall U.S. energy and environmental policy will remain relatively stable.

— Matt Terry MIA ’17

Pictured (from left): Jim Connaughton, Jeff Kupfer

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