American Energy First
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President Trump's energy policy confirms the energy sector-friendly goals he set during the campaign, with emphasis on the relaunch of drilling and the abandonment of Barack Obama's environmental policy

For the fossil fuel industry this much is clear about the direction of the next four years in the United States: The industry has a champion in the White House. While the details of President Donald Trump’s energy and environmental policies remain in flux, his intentions couldn’t be more clear: From day one the president began efforts to unravel the energy and environmental policies implemented by his predecessor, many of which had been viewed as hostile to the oil and coal industries. He immediately took steps to get the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines back on track, started the process for stripping away environmental regulations he considers cumbersome to the fossil fuel industry and began scaling back the role the U.S. government will play in combatting climate change. Many of Trump’s plans could take months or years to implement and many others will be challenged in court and thwarted by slow-moving government bureaucracy. But the trends are evident. The new administration is focused on jobs and the economy as top priorities, and his predecessor’s priorities on climate change and environmental protections are not merely on the back-burner but face all-out assault. Industry is cautiously optimistic, environmentalists are aghast and the American public is bitterly and deeply divided.

Watchword: energy independence

Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip, get-the-facts-later operating style is disturbing to friends and foes alike. In announcing that he was re-opening the process that would allow the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines to go forward, Trump also said he would demand that only U.S. steel be used to build those pipelines. Requiring U.S. steel would be a violation of the World Trade Organization agreement, one that only allows such actions in cases of national security, an exception that would not apply to the pipelines. His administration also backpedalled after he announced the U.S. would start building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and that he’d use a 20 percent tax on imported goods to pay for it. That immediately alarmed the oil and gas industry and other sectors, prompting at least a partial retreat by Trump on the amount of a potential border tax. It is of significant concern to the oil and gas industry that Mexico has purchased more than half of all U.S. natural gas exports in the past two years. Trump’s pronouncements create just the kind of uncertainty that can be unsettling to the very industries he has vowed to help the most. Trump has posted the general outlines of his energy plans on the White House website under the title ''An America First Energy Plan'' which he says is ''committed to achieving energy independence from the OPEC cartel and any nations hostile to our interests. At the same time, we will work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy''. At home, Trump said his administration ''will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution'', in part by opening more federal lands to ''untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves''. On environmental regulations, the new White House states: ''For too long, we've been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule'', which were his predecessor’s initiatives to protect waterways and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The new webpage statements provide no specifics, however, and do not go much beyond Trump’s campaign platforms. Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska and a strong proponent of oil and gas interests, said she did not expect many specific details of the new administration’s energy policy to emerge within the first 100 days. ''I figure my job as chairman of the energy committee is to remind the administration of the significant opportunities that we have within the energy space and why it’s so important to put it at the top of the nation’s priority list''.

All the President's "energy" men

Trump’s move to the White House has emboldened Republican lawmakers to introduce a torrent of pro-fossil fuel, anti-E.P.A. legislation that could win the support of the new administration. However, many of those early pieces of legislation seemed as poorly drafted as some early Trump policy pronouncements and have been quietly withdrawn. Aside from Trump’s frenzy to undo many of his predecessor’s policies and the vague policy pronouncements on the White House website, some of the clearest vision for his administration’s future policies on energy and the environment came in the often acrimonious U.S. Senate hearings questioning cabinet nominees who will be heading the agencies most responsible for carrying out Trump’s wishes and informing the creation of Congressional law. The men Trump chose to fill key cabinet posts are all friends of the fossil fuel industry. The former C.E.O. of Exxon-Mobil, Rex Tillerson, is secretary of state, the administration’s highest profile emissary with foreign countries. Rick Perry, former governor of oil-rich Texas, was picked to head the Department of Energy, even though he once advocated abolishing the agency. Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma, another oil state, was Trump’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has filed at least 14 lawsuits against the agency in his six years as attorney general. U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke of Montana, an avid angler and hunter who supports expanding drilling, mining and logging on federal land, was tapped to head the Department of Interior. Each of these appointees has expressed varying degrees of skepticism over the cause and impact of climate change. Some of the cabinet nominees have been highly critical of the agencies they were selected to lead. Perry, while running for president, proposed eliminating the Department of Energy, but at his nomination hearing he sought to re-assure senators that he has changed his mind: ''My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking. In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination''.

Backtracking on climate?

Trump and the men he chose for his cabinet appear to be softening their positions on climate change. Trump has backed away from campaign rhetoric that called it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. ''I believe the climate is changing'', Perry, who once identified as a climate skeptic, told senators, ''I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade activity. The question is how do we address this change in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs''. ''Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity, in some manner, impacts that change'', Environmental Protection Agency nominee Scott Pruitt, testified. And secretary of the interior nominee Ryan Zinke said climate change is not a hoax, but, ''I think where there’s debate is what that influence is, what we can do about it''. Even so, some policy directions are becoming clear by their absence. Within hours of Trump taking office, all climate change pages vanished from the White House website.

New life to coal

While the president can make numerous executive decisions with the stroke of a pen, the implementation of new policies could face countless bureaucratic, political and legal obstacles. In other cases, technology and market forces will have greater impact than all the intentions of new policies and leadership. Nowhere is that more likely than the energy sector. For example, while the Trump White House can ease policies that govern hydraulic fracking, it is state and not federal governments that have control over the permits and regulations that govern industry operations. The same holds across all energy sectors. For many environmental regulations, federal rules set minimum standards, but states have the authority to impose stricter versions. Trump and his cabinet members have vowed to eliminate many of the environmental regulations that often tie up industry operations and to speed permitting requirements that can delay shovel-ready projects for months, if not years. However, many environmental groups are beefing up their legal teams in preparation for court battles that, even if not successful, could delay implementation of Trump policies until his presidential term ends. Even greater driving forces are current market conditions, rapidly evolving technologies and growing consumer demands for greater corporate responsibility. One of the pillars of Trump’s campaign rallies was his promise to return jobs and prosperity to coal communities. But the decline of the coal industry is just as much, if not more, the result of cheap gas and new technologies as it is of tougher environmental regulations. West Virginia Rep. David McKinley, a Republican from coal country conceded: ''We're not going to get back to the 50s and 60s, I understand that''. The Trump administration has promised to open more areas to drilling in Alaska, off the U.S. coasts and on public lands. But with depressed oil prices and the dramatic rise in hydraulic fracking, fewer oil companies may be willing or financially able to expand drilling operations to new areas, especially the financially and environmentally daunting Arctic. Trump and his cabinet members also say they plan to take aim at Obama laws that tightened restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution. They will find powerful support in the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress for many of those efforts. The news site Politico asked outgoing E.P.A. chief Gina McCarthy, who presided over the implementation of those regulations: “When you look at the E.P.A. under a Trump administration, what is keeping you up at night?'' Her response: ''Just about each one of those issues is keeping me up at night, and the combination of them might keep me up for the next 10 years''.