Every day over the past few weeks has brought news of another cabinet pick by President-elect Donald Trump that shocks, worries and frustrates those who support clean energy and seek to fight climate change.
But will Trump’s chosen team stifle the booming U.S. clean energy industries, undercut emerging energy innovation, and doom the world to a hotter climate and rising seas?
Well, there’s a lot we don’t know at this point, and there’s also a lot to be worried about.
Trump’s picks represent a massive break with the Obama administration, and could enable big oil to wield significant influence in the new administration (though oil ties to the White House are nothing new).
Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, America’s largest oil company, is set to become Secretary of State. The former governor of oil-behemoth state Texas, Rick Perry, is supposed to head the Department of Energy. Meanwhile, the proposed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is a long-time oil ally.
The selections are also notably going to major industry leaders, with deep corporate ties, which appears to break Trump’s campaign promises to focus on the working class and avoid special interests.
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Many of the candidates have also made statements questioning the science behind climate change. That’s a worrisome point of view for leaders of energy and environmental departments.
However, there’s a lot of momentum behind both established American clean energy industries and many of the already-enacted energy policies, regulations and departments. Market drivers and the dropping cost of technology have contributed greatly to the rise of solar and wind energy, as well as the decline of coal. The abundance of cheap domestic natural gas has made coal far less competitive.
The wind industry has some potential advocates in the administration. Perry oversaw Texas’ emergence as the biggest wind industry market in the U.S. Trump’s pick for ambassador to China, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, ushered in Iowa’s huge wind industry and signed one of the country’s early renewable portfolio standards.
At the same time, government programs like ARPA-E — which gives out small grants to energy research projects — have long had bipartisan support. The Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program was originally established as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which was signed by George W. Bush (who himself had deep oil connections) and passed by a Republican-controlled Congress.
Programs that can create jobs and help grow industries can sometimes get support from both sides of the aisle.
Trump has called for a major investment in American infrastructure. Perhaps, if convinced, that could include clean energy and electrical grid infrastructure.
Billionaire Bill Gates appears more optimistic than many that Trump could maintain a government budget for energy technology research and development. Gates had a brief phone call with Trump two weeks ago in which the Microsoft co-founder pushed the idea that if America leads in energy innovation, it’s a good deal for the country. Gates also just announced a new $1 billion fund to invest in energy technology.
On Wednesday morning, Trump said that clean energy entrepreneur and Tesla CEO Elon Musk would be added to his Strategic and Policy forum. Musk, who tends to be apolitical, once called Trump “not the right guy” for the presidential role in an interview. However, it’s unclear how much influence this group of tech and business leaders will have in the administration.
Some climate-change awareness advocates have also been able to grab the ear of the president-elect. Earlier this month actor Leonardo DiCaprio met with Trump and presented him with a plan of how to invest in “sustainable infrastructure.” Trump’s daughter Ivanka has also reportedly been interested in making fighting climate change her signature issue.
At the same time, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA has questioned the science behind climate change, and has himself led the legal charge against Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a program that calls for energy companies to lower their carbon emissions.
Clearly, the messages have been both mixed and extreme. At this point, it’s hard to tell exactly what Trump’s team will do, though anything and everything’s on the table.
Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of Trump’s energy-related cabinet picks.
The Department of Energy — Rick Perry: This week Trump nominated Rick Perry, Texas’ former governor and Trump’s former campaign opponent, to the role of Energy Secretary. The move is a sharp turn from Obama’s choice of top scientists Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz for that position.
In Perry’s 2011 presidential bid, he famously failed to answer a question about the federal agencies he would eliminate, naming two and forgetting the third — the Department of Energy. He’ll now head an agency he both forgot and said he would get rid of.
Perry has many ties to Texas’ oil and natural gas industries, including as a board director at gas and oil pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners, one of the companies behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline project. He’s also expressed skepticism about climate change in various public statements and interviews.
As Energy Secretary, Perry would likely help open up access to oil and gas in more U.S. regions that have previously been restricted. In Trump’s campaign, he pledged to remove regulations that protected certain lands and seas from oil and gas drilling.
Head of the Environmental Protection Agency — Scott Pruitt: The attorney general of oil-rich Oklahoma has been one of the chief opponents of the EPA throughout the Obama administration. Pruitt is one of the attorneys general that sued the EPA over Obama’s Clean Power Plan, meaning that he’ll now head up an agency he’s taking to court.
Pruitt has also opposed the federal government’s controversial biofuel mandates, as well as federal clean water regulations. If Trump’s chief goal is to eliminate energy regulations, Pruitt is the man for the job.
Secretary of State — Rex Tillerson: Unlike Perry and Pruitt, who have questioned climate-change science, the head of ExxonMobil has supported action on climate change and has even called for a tax on carbon emissions. As an oil industry executive, he wanted to usher in greater certainty for his company.
Though ExxonMobil’s record on investing in clean energy — even reportedly hiding its findings on climate-change science — has been fairly abysmal. Tillerson clearly has deep ties to the oil industry, which some worry could compromise his decision-making on U.S. national security.
Listen to the Energy Gang talk about Trump’s cabinet picks — and all the other big stories in energy throughout 2016.