The Presidential Politics of Energy Policy

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tightening their grips on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations.

Published in Real Clear Energy

Climate change is the new energy policy. President Obama has shifted the nation in recent years away from the abundance of oil and natural gas to cleaner, though more expensive, renewable energy sources.

The president has made a 180-degree turn since winning re-election in 2012. Once supportive of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, he has replaced it in the closing days of his administration with “keep it in the ground.”

The change represents a dramatic shift in our nation’s energy, environmental and economic policies. It’s a goal that if realized would effectively prohibit using 89 percent of the nation’s current energy supply. To impose that shift, the Obama administration has issued a number of costly regulations requiring utilities and industry to cut carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

The new regulations, according to the administration, are necessary to protect health and stave off the worst effects of climate change.

It’s a fundamental change and perhaps a worthwhile one. But the accumulation of regulation will have real consequences for millions of Americans, who can expect higher utility bills and fewer economic opportunities.

Hillary Clinton, in the first debate between the two major party candidates, repeated her support for transforming the nation’s energy sector, calling for generating enough electricity from renewable sources by 2026 to power every home in America, including the installation of 500 million solar panels on roofs across the country.

The goal is not without challenges, both in terms of available technology and economic impact.

Residential demand is 36 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption. Commercial and industrial users make up the balance. Of total U.S. generation, solar contributes only 1 percent, and all renewable energy combined – excluding hydropower, which continues to be widely opposed by the environmental community – equals only about 7 percent. Shifting just one-third of that generation to renewables will require a major government investment.

Ms. Clinton has proposed overcoming these hurdles with a “clean energy challenge” that would work with states and local communities to encourage innovation, update infrastructure, and incentivize deployment of renewable energy projects.

Ms. Clinton insists the benefits of the foretold clean energy economy will outweigh the downside of higher energy costs and loss of U.S. competitiveness. As the current president’s chief science advisor has said, transitioning to all renewables is not a technical issue but a “challenge of economic and social practicality.”

An economic challenge, indeed. The energy boom of the past five years, made possible by hydraulic fracturing – a practice Ms. Clinton has said wouldn’t occur “many places” once her conditions are met – is credited as one of the few drivers of the struggling U.S. economy.

Republican candidate Donald Trump offers a more traditional vision for America’s energy policy. The New York businessman sees the nation’s energy resources as neither good or bad, but as opportunities to revitalize the American economy.

Mr. Trump says it’s important to maintain the nation’s energy production to enable a resurgent manufacturing sector and enhance national security in an unstable world.

Mr. Trump has said he would rescind the current administration’s unilateral agreements on global climate mitigation and suspend new federal regulations, except those approved by Congress or for safety reasons. His plan also calls for investing oil and gas revenues in fixing the nation’s schools and public infrastructure.

Mr. Trump has promised to “revoke policies that impose unwarranted restrictions on new drilling technologies,” and has said that regulation of hydraulic fracturing should be done at the state and local level.

Mr. Trump, who has voiced support for regulations to protect air and water quality, has also made controversial statements about climate change, including calling it a “hoax” invented to help the Chinese.

Mr. Trump has since said that he was joking, but his concerns about the Paris Agreement potentially giving China a competitive advantage over the United States are all too real.

Americans face two very different choices November 8.

With Ms. Clinton, voters have someone who supports the energy and environmental policies of the current administration. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is determined to use America’s energy resources to revitalize the economy, spur job creation, and maintain a strategic advantage in the world.