Trump and Clinton: A Tale of Two Energy Futures
The eighth part in a weekly series of articles RCP is publishing through Election Day to explore policymakers’ decisions regarding this crucial sector of the economy
With Ken Bone’s 15 minutes of fame officially over, readers may take a moment to direct silent praise at the man who injected the one serious policy question on energy and the environment into a general election campaign otherwise defined by either deep personal animus or talk of electoral apocalypse.
To recap, over the course of 4.5 hours of debating between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at venues in New York, Missouri and Nevada, nary a question on climate change nor a direct query on energy jobs was asked by the moderators. This important task was left to Bone, a heavy-set, 30-something, Izod sweater-wearing, coal-plant operator from Southern Illinois. Near the end of the second debate, he asked the two candidates the following question:
“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Bone’s question succinctly stated the paradox of the modern energy landscape. How does an economy shift from coal and oil to less polluting power sources without destroying entire industries and the livelihoods of workers like Ken Bone?
Both candidates’ answers to his question largely reiterated their previously stated positions, demonstrating an enormous policy gap between the two sides on how to deal with climate issues – though Trump indicated tepid support for renewable energy when he added to his response, “I’m all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar, et cetera, but we need much more than wind and solar.”
A closer look at their positions on energy and the environment tells us a lot about the way each would govern. Trump handles the conundrum of balancing climate concerns with energy jobs by simply ignoring climate change altogether. Clinton handles the paradox by saying one thing in public and another in private – a habit she said she learned from Abraham Lincoln – much to the chagrin of those hoping she could improve on her poor ratings concerning truthfulness and trust.
Trump has been consistent in his climate-change skepticism/denialism during the entire campaign, so it isn’t a surprise he continues to double down on it as the election approaches. On Saturday he chose Gettysburg, Pa., as the place to make is his most explicit policy statement to date when laying out goals for the first 100 days of his presidency. Concerning energy, he promised to lift restrictions on the production of oil, natural gas and coal throughout the country while removing administration roadblocks on energy infrastructure projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline.
In policy terms, Trump’s position can be construed to mean a rolling back of most, if not all, of President Obama’s environmental regulations over the past eight years, from EPA rules on coal ash disposal and natural gas methane emissions to draft regulations on navigable waters. Also up for elimination through a promised Trump executive action would be the entire Clean Power Plan at the heart of Obama’s commitment the Paris climate change agreement.
Trump’s unwillingness to dial back his stance may be popular with his political base, but it is highly unattractive to independent voters who hold moderate views on the need for climate action. Trump also reiterated a promise he first made in May to remove the U.S. signature from the Paris accord and cancel billions of dollars in promised payments to U.N. climate change programs, even though roughly 60 percent of Republicans support action on global warming.
Clinton and her team, instead of walling off a vast segment of voters, can be seen in leaked email messages promoting strong anti-oil and -coal rhetoric in public while dramatically dialing back such rhetoric in private meetings with interests groups.
Over the course of the primary season, Clinton’s leftist competitor, Bernie Sanders, forced her to publically disavow offshore Arctic drilling, criticize fracking, and announce her opposition to the Keystone pipeline. Now, thanks to a massive hacking of her campaign manager’s email account, we know that those positions have been mutable.
The documents show Clinton in late 2015 telling a building trades labor group that she wanted to “defend fracking” and she mocked environmentalist supporters who wanted her to further curtail fossil fuels production, saying that they should “get a life.” Clinton also voiced support for nuclear power in the private meetings, a position she has not promoted as part of her campaign.
However, given the Democratic nominee’s current lead of 5.5 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics average, many observers believe the dishonesty knock on Clinton could be rendered irrelevant if she defeats Trump and her margin of victory is higher than expected. A sizable win could have a spill-over effect on down-ballot races, giving Democrats control of the Senate and improving their numbers in the House of Representatives.
“If Hillary Clinton does what it looks like she will do in the election, then her energy policy rests more with the size of her margins than any policy substance,” said Robert Healy, a former energy lobbyist and author of a political science textbook on lobbying. “If you want to know where energy is going to go, tell me if Democrats win the Senate. Tell me how close they get in the House.”
The bottom line: When the vote-counting is over in two weeks’ time, coal-plant and mine workers like Ken Bone will be watching to see if the next president carries Obama’s climate plans forward … or stomps them into the dust.