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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