Trump Faces Dueling Pressures on Paris Deal Pullout

Abandoning the global climate deal is not a top fossil-fuel industry priority.

Environmentalist activists form a human chain at the United Nations Climate Change Conference near the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2015.
AP PhotoMichel Euler
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Nov. 30, 2016, 8 p.m.

Donald Trump’s recent wavering over his high-profile campaign pledge to abandon the Paris climate-change pact underscores why it could be a tough call even for someone who rejects the scientific consensus on global warming.

For part of Trump’s political base, the pact negotiated through the United Nations is exactly the kind of thing they want Trump to shove aside. Trump counselor Stephen Bannon has called the deal the work of “globalists,” and he doesn’t mean it as a compliment, while his Breitbart site has bashed the deal repeatedly.

But inside the Beltway, the fate of the U.S. role in the landmark deal is not the immediate top priority, as GOP lawmakers and fossil-fuel industry advocates plot their political capital allocation.

Fossil-fuel lobbyists are interested in achieving the unwinding of President Obama’s myriad regulations and access restrictions that directly affect the industry, far more than the Paris pact, which does not itself create new requirements on U.S. industries or create binding national carbon-emissions limits.

For instance, in newly published suggestions for Trump’s transition team, the Independent Petroleum Association of America identifies a wide array of Obama’s regulations and policies it calls harmful to domestic development, but mentions Paris just once in passing and does not call for withdrawal.

One prominent fossil-fuel industry lobbyist said issues like unwinding the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon-emissions rules for coal-fired power plants and Obama’s restrictions on oil-and-gas industry access to offshore areas are “much more important” than Paris.

“The regulations that the Obama White House is pushing through at the eleventh hour are a huge threat because they aren’t based on abstractions,” said a separate oil-and-gas industry advocate, arguing that policies like Arctic drilling restrictions and methane-emissions rules have a “chilling effect” on domestic investment.

Top GOP lawmakers who finally see a chance for Obama administration regulations to be dismantled—through a mix of executive and congressional actions—are not yet clamoring for the U.S. to walk away, even though many Republicans attacked Obama’s executive decision to enter the deal.

“That is going to be his decision. Let me think about that one. I don’t want to give him any advice at this point,” said Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership team, when asked if he wants Trump to pull the U.S. out of the agreement.

To be sure, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have strongly attacked the Paris accord, but on Wednesday aides declined comment on whether they want Trump to withdraw from the pact.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop said expanding access to oil-and-gas development on federal lands and waters should be a top priority, noting that the U.S. production boom has been centered on private and state lands.

Asked whether Paris should be a priority, he replied, “I don’t know.” His committee oversees Interior Department energy policies, not global emissions pacts, so his focus makes sense. But other lawmakers have bigger priorities too.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky, a coal-producing state, said this when asked to weigh the importance of unwinding domestic regulations versus abandoning Paris:

“It’s hard to pick one out of 10,000 things that need to be done—reining in the EPA, undoing a lot of the executive orders, for starters. So there’s a lot to be done.”

As for withdrawing from the Paris pact, Rogers said: “Well, I would like to see it. Whether or not he can pull that off or not, I’m not sure.”

Formally withdrawing from the agreement, which was struck in late 2015 and entered into force a few weeks ago, is a four-year process. But Trump is reportedly exploring avenues to act more quickly.

Trump, in an interview with The New York Times last week, appeared to hedge when asked about his vow to abandon the deal, saying that “I’m going to take a look at it.”

Some experts note that the powerful oil-and-gas sector in particular—especially the gas side—has reasons to want the U.S. to remain involved. The sector has played an active role in international climate talks.

Natural gas has benefitted from pressure that climate policy puts on the coal industry, while more broadly, the oil-and-gas industry has sought to show that it supports sustainability.

David Goldwyn, a former top State Department energy official under Obama, said the oil industry has been “neutral to positive” on Paris. The natural-gas industry is positive on the deal, he said, because the emissions pledges of many countries are “counting on gas as a first-step alternative to coal in their greenhouse-gas reductions.”

Goldwyn, who heads a strategic advisory firm that included oil and natural-gas industry clients, also noted that other industry sectors, such as companies that design and build gas-fired power plants, have reason to support the accord.

The American Petroleum Institute, which is the oil-and-gas industry’s most powerful lobbying group, has not taken a position on whether the U.S. should remain in the Paris pact.

The U.S. coal industry, which has faced the double-whammy of cheap natural gas and Obama’s emissions and mining restrictions, is positioned differently, notes one expert.

“The coal sector would cheer a pullout and a failure of the [Paris] Accords globally, since this would open up more demand for coal,” said Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, in an email exchange.

“As for oil and gas, the majors are global companies that care very much about their image and being good stewards, and they already use carbon prices in their investment planning. What’s more, they produce both oil and gas, and gas is at least a medium-term winner in a tighter GHG world,” said Krupnick.

“So what might be a four-year off- and then on-again climate strategy makes their long-term investment planning really hard,” he said. Still, he doubts the industry would lament a U.S. pullout.

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