Energy Divides Candidates But Draws Little Attention
The second in a weekly series of articles RCP will publish through Election Day exploring the many implications of policymakers’ decisions regarding this crucial sector of the economy.
In an election year dominated by personal attacks and identity politics, significant policy debates have been mostly cast aside in the contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Energy policy, one area where the candidates differ greatly across the board, has mostly been left on the sideline.
Trump, a candidate noted for his major breaks with Republican orthodoxy on various issues, hews closely to the rest of the GOP when it comes to climate change and energy. He has labeled climate change a “hoax,” and put himself directly at odds with the Obama administration on several major issues, vowing to “cancel” the Paris Agreement that sets greenhouse gas standards for nearly 200 nations and to green-light the Keystone XL pipeline.
His Democratic rival, meanwhile, has vowed to continue and ramp up President Obama’s efforts on climate change and renewable energy. Clinton has praised the Paris Agreement and the administration’s Climate Action Plan while opposing the Keystone pipeline. She has called for more than 500 million new solar panels in the U.S. by the end of her first term, and for enough renewable energy to power every home in America by 2027.
“I think there’s never been a greater difference between the two presidential nominees than there is in 2016 when it comes to climate change,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.
But despite that massive difference, energy issues have received little attention from the two candidates as the fall campaign has hit full swing, overshadowed by controversial statements from Trump and questions about Clinton’s emails and the Clinton Foundation.
“Energy just really has not been very big in this campaign. It’s been so overwhelmed by the other issues, including now Clinton’s health, foreign policy, et cetera,” said J. Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from energy-conscious Louisiana. “You just almost don’t hear anybody talking energy in this presidential campaign."
Johnston added that given the negative, personal nature of the race, it might be for the best that something as complex and difficult as energy policy has been left out of the daily back-and-forth.
“Energy issues are very complicated, wound up in economics and all the rest,” he explained. “I think it’s probably best not to get it talked about too much. … This presidential campaign tends to be full of demagoguery and irresponsible talks. Probably the least said, the better."
The campaigns may have made a strategic decision to keep the issue in the background because it’s simply not at the top of voters’ concerns, particularly among Republicans. A Pew Research Center poll from July found that just 52 percent of voters – two-thirds of Clinton supporters compared with just one-third of Trump supporters – said the environment was very important to their vote in November. Meanwhile, more than 80 percent said both terrorism and the economy were top issues affecting their decision.
Charles Ebinger, a senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, said Americans aren’t necessarily feeling energy concerns in their checkbooks, which could be why it’s a low-scale issue for them.
“I think the reason they haven’t made the case centerfold is the fact that gasoline prices are at least down to more modest levels,” Ebinger said. “We haven’t seen the spikes in utility prices that are often subject of great concern in most parts of the country, even despite the heat waves that certain part of the country have had. I think it’s just off the agenda.”
Though it may not be receiving the attention of issues such as terrorism and the economy, energy nonetheless represents a stark contrast between the candidates.
Trump laid out his energy policy in a major address in North Dakota in May, one of his first speeches after securing the Republican nomination. In it, he accused President Obama of having “done everything he can to get in the way of American energy” and said that “things will get much worse” under Clinton. He called for tapping American oil reserves to become independent from foreign sources; for lifting some climate plan executive actions signed by Obama; revoking policies that create drilling restrictions; and ensuring that any future regulations are good for the American worker.
Clinton, on the other hand, has called to significantly increase renewable energy, particularly solar, and has stood by the carbon emissions goals of the Paris Agreement. She called for reducing oil consumption by one-third through use of cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles, and has called for as much as $60 billion in clean electricity initiatives over a decade, offset by ending tax breaks for oil and gas producers.
But while both candidates have received praise from their respective bases for their energy and climate proposals, both have also made some missteps that have frustrated different energy sectors. When discussing her plans during the Democratic primary, Clinton said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She later apologized for the comment, and has crafted a $30 billion plan to aid coal communities hurt by the transition to renewable and cleaner-burning sources. But the comment provided grist for Republican ads in Appalachia, particularly in the swing-state of Ohio, and has hurt Clinton’s support in those regions.
Trump, meanwhile, stirred up unease during a local TV interview in Colorado over the summer when he said voters should have a say in whether fracking is banned.
"I mean, there's some areas, maybe, that don't want to have fracking, and I think if the voters are voting for it that's up to them,” Trump said, a stance which is out of step with many Republicans on the issue.
Overall, the oil and natural gas industry has been mostly an afterthought in the campaign. Johnston, the former Democratic senator, pointed to the fact that the oil industry has donated much more readily to Clinton’s campaign than to Trump’s as evidence of where most allegiances lie – individuals in the industry have donated around $150,000 to Trump and around $525,000 to Clinton, according to the Wall Street Journal. But some executives have said neither candidate is especially appealing.
“I think most of us would agree that—nothing against either candidate, but we all wish there were better candidates on each side,” Scott Sheffield, chairman and CEO of Pioneer Natural Resources said in July.