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The Presidential Debate: Clashing On Energy

Trump Hillary

In a U.S. election year that has seen scant public discussion of any substantive issues, beyond the building of walls and the deportation of immigrants, the issue of U.S. energy policy has largely stayed outside the realm of popular discussion. But in advance of the first presidential debate on Monday, September 26, it seems a good idea to review each candidate’s energy positions in as much detail as possible.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has recently made energy a key part of his platform, arguing that unlocking a “treasure trove” of American energy resources will boost the economy. He has argued that reducing regulation and increasing investment in coal and natural gas will result in 3.5 percent GDP growth and 25 million jobs over 10 years, citing a study from the Institute of Energy Research. The IER study largely connects the economic boost with opening up all federal lands to drilling and fracking, something that Trump has advocated.

Economists have expressed some doubt that the outcome of less regulated drilling will be as beneficial as the IER study indicates; the organization, it should be noted, has long advocated for a free-market approach to energy production while frequently arguing against the viability of renewable energy and the legitimacy of climate change.

Trump recently delivered a speech at a fracking conference where he promised to cut taxes and reduce regulations, but the industry response has been skeptical. In In July Trump equivocated on his position regarding fracking, expressing sympathy with local municipalities who wish to ban fracking. In his attempt to court both rural, lower-income communities who are wary of fracking’s long-term consequences and the businesses behind the American fracking boom, Trump is being pulled in two directions at once.

Trump’s position on coal represents the same dichotomous thinking. He has publicly argued for both more coal mining and greater natural gas production, despite the fact that cheap natural gas is the reason why coal has struggled, along with tougher environmental regulations.

Mr. Trump has expressed skepticism regarding renewable energy, claiming at one point that wind turbines posed a deadly threat to birds. He has promised to cancel the Paris Agreement on climate change, yet has acted more equivocally in recent days, perhaps due to the fact that the Agreement will have already taken effect by the time a new U.S. president is sworn in next year. Trump has embraced skepticism in climate change, suggesting at one point via Twitter that it is a Chinese conspiracy designed to inhibit American manufacturing.

When asked about the Iraq War, Trump has claimed that the U.S. should not have pursued regime change but instead should have concentrated on “taking the oil.” It’s an idea that he first expressed in 2011, suggesting that seizing Iraqi oil would amount to a “reimbursement” for the United States’ expenses incurred during the invasion and occupation. More recently, Trump suggested that “taking the oil” would pay for a punitive campaign against ISIS.

Mr. Trump has declined to explain how this would be possible, practical or even advantageous for the United States, which imports only a small fraction of its energy from the Persian Gulf and a tiny percentage from Iraq itself. He has not offered an answer to critics who argue that “taking the oil,” the seizure of property which both by national law and international accord belongs to the Iraqi people, amounts to a war crime.

In general, the issue Trump has taken the clearest and most resolute stance on is reducing environmental regulations and laws limiting domestic fossil fuel development. When arguing about climate change, Trump will usually blame government intervention or bad policies for poor ecological conditions, such as the recent drought in California.

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It is possible that Trump, who often characterizes himself as a businessman and manager rather than an ideologue, will push for market conditions to determine American energy policy. In this sense, he would be little different than many American presidents who have suggested policies and offered prescriptions while largely letting the energy sector sort itself out. But while a commitment to market principles represents continuity with previous administrations, Trump’s rhetoric indicates clashes in policy that would be difficult to reconcile. More generally, he seems poorly versed on energy policy or the economic foundations of the political economy of international energy, and his willingness to appease any and all domestic political factions renders his future policies very difficult to predict.

Hilary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, has been more specific regarding her prescriptions for energy policy: in truth, the very density of her policy proposals make them a little overwhelming, particularly when compared to the paucity of detail that characterizes the proposals of her rival.

Mrs. Clinton has pushed for a strong commitment to renewable energy, through her $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge proposal. The plan calls for renewables to supply 25 percent of total U.S. energy by 2025, and Clinton has promised to install 500 million solar panels during her first term, according to the Wall Street Journal. Her campaign has vowed to make the U.S. a “clean energy superpower.” She has also vowed to do this in a way that takes into account the declining fortunes of American coal mining communities, where she proposes programs for economic development, job training and re-education.

Her campaign has also argued that reducing waste and improving efficiency through energy conservation and better fuel standards will drastically cut down on energy expenses and reduce American energy imports. She has proposed a large-scale infrastructure plan that will focus on repairing leaking natural gas pipelines and bringing hydroelectric power (chiefly from the dozens of dams owned by the Army Corps of Engineers which currently do not generate power) back into the energy infrastructure.

Clinton framed her position on energy as closely linked to her position on climate change, in part to appeal to the progressive elements of her party who see climate change as a serious issue, and who are perhaps less comfortable with Clinton’s ties to the energy industry. Yet since winning the endorsement of Bernie Sanders, her progressive rival during the Democratic primary, Mrs. Clinton has largely dropped environmental rhetoric from her campaign.

In the past Clinton has supported fracking, but during a debate in March she declared that local communities should be able to ban fracking if they so choose. She went further to say that when all her planned regulations were in place, fracking would likely be possible only in a few select spots within the domestic United States.

This position was likely the result of the tough primary contest with Sanders, who forced Clinton to adopt progressive stances on a number of issues. Yet it also likely reflects public opinion, which has become more divided on fracking, particularly in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Dakota, where the results of the fracking boom have brought both wealth and economic dislocation.

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Her campaign has encouraged greater natural gas use, citing it as a cleaner alternative to coal and a “bridge” fuel to renewable energies. While Clinton has opposed drilling in the Arctic, she does not support a blanket ban on new oil and gas leases on public lands.

Despite a strong rhetorical stand on climate change and renewable energy, Clinton’s campaign has proven persuasive enough to draw strong support among oil and gas executives. For the first time in recent memory, a Democratic nominee for president has won more support from the energy industry than the Republican nominee.

Why should Clinton prove more attractive to the industry? Perhaps it is that her policies, while not as friendly to conventional energy as some would like, are laid out in such detail and with such precision that energy executives can predict how a Clinton Administration would influence the market.

Clinton has called for greater government involvement in the energy sector, chiefly through higher efficiency standards and increased investment in renewable energy, and seems determined to stick to the Obama Administration’s stand on the Paris Climate Agreement and other international accords on reducing carbon emissions. But she also appears comfortable with increasing natural gas production, albeit within regulatory limits that take into account local political considerations, and her positions indicate an awareness of current market trends.

Her stand on the Arctic, for instance, came just after Royal Dutch Shell was awarded the first permit to drill in those northern latitudes, an expensive investment that the current glut has forced Shell to abandon. Her position on natural gas is both politically useful and generally representative of an enthusiasm for natural gas as a possible bridge between coal and renewables, one that takes existing infrastructure and market considerations into account. Her position on assisting coal miners, offering development and education programs, also indicate an awareness that the decline in coal has as much to do with changes in the market as it does with environmental regulations, not to mention the persistent fact that American coal cannot compete overseas.

Thus, while Donald Trump’s pro-business, anti-regulation rhetoric is attractive to those who support greater flexibility within the energy sector, his positions do not appear to reflect a nuanced understanding of existing conditions. Mrs. Clinton, while an advocate for climate-friendly policies and a champion for renewable energy, seems inclined to push her agenda without tampering inordinately in the energy industry’s underlying foundations.

By Gregory Brew for Oilprice.com

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