The Energy 202: We may be saying au revoir to Paris climate accord – Washington Post

THE LIGHTBULB

AUTHOR’S NOTE: There is breaking news this morning that the United States has or is about to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. I have a full rundown of where we are on the issue — and who’s saying what about it — right after The Lightbulb.

In an era of charged partisanship, there is at least one part of the government that consistently draws at least some across-the-aisle support: The Department of Energy.

The DOE — which has a hodgepodge portfolio of maintaining the nation’s nuclear arsenal, conducting the bulk of basic science research in the United States and funding breakthroughs in both fossil fuel and renewable energy technology — has many stakeholders in Congress. That reservoir of support will test President Trump’s ability to significantly cut the department’s budget, as the president has proposed.

“I don’t think any of these programs with significant proposed cuts are safe,” said Dan Reicher, executive director of the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford. That said, he added: “You’re going to have a lot of bipartisan support for restoring a lot of pieces of this budget.”

On the surface, Trump’s proposed budget cut to DOE may seem slight: 5.6 percent for the entire department (compared to 31 percent for the Environmental Protection Agency). But with funding up 11.4 percent for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which tends to the nation’s nukes, and down 18 percent for the rest of the department, Trump’s proposal cuts deep into much of the clean-energy agenda the Obama administration built over the past eight years.

For example, funding for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which researches clean energy, would be cut by 69 percent. Even an office researching traditional energy sources, the Fossil Energy Research and Development Program, would see a 56 percent cut.

But the Energy Department’s saving grace is that congressional Republicans helped build the Energy Department too.

Take DOE’s public-private manufacturing institutes, meant to bring more laboratory research to product development. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) co-sponsored the legislation that created the institutes. Trump’s budget would cut funding by 64 percent to the office that funds them.

Or take the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, which finances firms attempting to develop breakthrough energy technology. Trump wants to cut its funding by 93 percent. But only two years ago, three GOP senators — Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) — were calling to boost funding for the agency.

“All of us are very well aware that the president’s budget request proposes significant cuts to basic research and applied energy programs along with the elimination of certain programs that have proven to be effective for accelerating innovation,” Murkowski said last week at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which she chairs. She added: “I don’t like everything in it.”

Perhaps even more important are lawmakers’ parochial interests. The Energy Department’s system of national laboratories — 17 in total — bring high-paying science and technology jobs to states with Republican senators, like Idaho (home of the Idaho National Laboratory, which employs 3,500, according to the department’s website); Tennessee (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which employs 4,400); and Colorado (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which employs 2,500). 

“I will oppose any attempt to shut down lab operations,” Gardner, the Colorado Republican senator, said at a hearing last week.

As this 2015 DOE graphic shows, the national labs draw funding from multiple parts of DOEs budget, giving members of Congress with labs in their backyard incentive to protect as much of the budget as possible. Members of Congress will also be concerned that local universities and other research institutions will lose grant money.

But protecting DOE funds is no shoo-in. Given the narrow margin in the Senate, this group of GOP senators will have leverage.

But the practical desire to protect jobs and funding back home will tug against the broader ideological desire of the rest of the GOP caucus to shrink government.

“The overall budget constraints, whatever they may be, will hit R&D across the board,” David Hart, professor and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University, wrote in an email, referring to research-and-development. “This is where the President’s budget, which echoes views expressed by the most conservative Republicans, will probably bite.”

DOE does have one powerful new friend in its corner — former Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry, who once called for the department he now heads to be eliminated. (Let’s walk down memory lane on YouTube.)

During his confirmation hearing, Perry said he regretted proposing elimination after â€œbeing briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy.”

AU REVOIR PARIS?:

The decision the environmental and energy community has been waiting for may be officially coming soon from the Trump administration. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reports this morning that “President Trump has made his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the decision. Details on how the withdrawal will be executed are being worked out by a small team including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. They’re deciding on whether to initiate a full, formal withdrawal — which could take 3 years — or exit the underlying United Nations Treaty, which would be faster but more extreme.”

According to Axios, the president is mulling not just withdrawing the United States from the Paris deal, but removing the country from the underlying 1992 United Nations treaty under which the world’s nations negotiated — often considered the most extreme way the U.S. could wrangle itself out of Paris. A formal withdrawal from Paris would take three years, but exiting the 1992 treaty could be done more quickly.

 

CBS, Politico and the AP confirmed the news this morning. From Politico: “The upcoming decision is a victory for hardliners such as senior White House adviser Stephen Bannon, who argued that the deal would hobble the U.S. economy and Trump’s energy agenda, and a defeat for moderates like Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who feared that withdrawing would damage U.S. relations abroad. Trump had promised during the campaign to “cancel” the nearly 200-nation agreement, the most comprehensive climate pact ever negotiated.

Trump’s move marks the second time in two decades that the United States has negotiated, signed but then spurned a major international climate pact following a change of party control in the White House. The previous occasion — the decision by George W. Bush to abandon the 1997 Kyoto accord negotiated by the Clinton administration — caused years of distrust of the U.S. in international climate circles.”

 

This tweet from climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies may sum up how the scientific community is feeling this morning. It means “and yet it moves” and refers to Galileo’s comments about the Earth orbiting around the sun:

From Obama’s former top political adviser:

Trump also teased that things were not quite final in a tweet after the news broke this morning:

The New York Times and CNN were more cautious, reporting that Trump is “expected” to withdraw from Paris but that a final decision hasn’t been made. The president is meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former head of ExxonMobil (which has lobbied to stay IN the deal) at 1:45 today, and a decision could be forthcoming after that. Or not.

From CNN: “The decision would be a significant foreign policy break with nearly every other nation on earth and a major reversal of the Obama administration’s efforts on climate change. Trump met Tuesday with a key voice advocating for withdrawal, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. He meets Wednesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who supported remaining in the deal.”

And the NYT: “President Trump was poised Wednesday to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, two officials with knowledge of the decision said … Mr. Trump appears to have decided that a continued United States presence in the accord would harm the economy; hinder job creation in regions like Appalachia and the West, where his most ardent supporters live; and undermine his “America First” message. But advisers pressing him to remain in the accord were still pressing up to the final announcement.

The exit of the United States, the world’s largest economy and second-largest greenhouse gas polluter will not dissolve the 195-nation pact, which was legally ratified last year, but it could set off a cascade of events that would have profound effects on the planet. Other countries that reluctantly joined the agreement could now withdraw or soften their commitments to cutting planet-warming pollution.

 

Even before the news, climate reporters said observers were asking the wrong question on Paris. Emily Atkin at the New Republic argues that the fallout of dropping out of the international agreement could overflow into other areas: “We all know the president doesn’t think global warming is real, human-caused, or problematic… there are just so many better questions to ask. Has Trump considered the potential diplomatic fallout of leaving the Paris agreement? How does he plan to deal with that fallout? Why does Trump think every single major world leader and the majority of climate scientists are wrong, and he alone is right?”

Or as Amy Harder of Axios put it:

Sean Spicer added that Trump met with Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, yesterday, which some read as boding ill for the agreement:

— Whether or not Trump keeps his “seat at the table” under Paris, as Tillerson likes to say, the United States has already ceded leadership to the rest of the world on climate change. Chris Mooney reports: “The frenzied chatter and speculation is on over whether President Trump will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement this week. But this much is already clear: Trump’s administration will not actively work to stop climate change. And considering that the United States is the second-biggest global emitter, that may well prove the bigger deal.”

Three key points: 

  1. The United States, measured by emissions cuts through 2030, makes up a large portion — 21 percent — of the Paris climate agreement. 
  2. But even with U.S. participation, Paris was never enough to hold the planet’s warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius anyway. 
  3. Trump, in the Paris agreement or out of the Paris agreement, is dulling the U.S. contribution to fighting global climate change and punting the problem to the rest of the world. 

This conclusion has led a handful of commentators to wonder if the Paris deal itself would actually be better off without the United States.

Luke Kemp, a lecturer in climate and environmental policy at the Australian National University, is a leading proponent of this view. In a paper in Nature Climate Change, he writes: “Continued US membership in the Paris Agreement on climate would be symbolic and have no effect on US emissions. Instead, it would reveal the weaknesses of the agreement, prevent new opportunities from emerging, and gift greater leverage to a recalcitrant administration.”

The Paris agreement allows each member nation to set a nonbinding target for the amount of heat-trapping gases it would emit. What if the U.S. stayed in the agreement but greatly overshot its emissions goal? The fear is that the other nations would begin not to care about hitting their targets too.

As Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic: “The Paris deal worked as long as Barack Obama was president, and it would probably have worked under a President Hillary Clinton, too. Some senior U.S. official would attend the meeting every year to clamor about the document’s importance, and investors would get the message and plunge more money into renewable-energy infrastructure and research. President Trump, however, has speculated about leaving the treaty since its completion. If he stays in the treaty, he will do so only begrudgingly.

The fear is that reluctantly staying in the agreement may send the same message to the rest of the world as emphatically pulling out.

Or as Liz Purchia Gannon, former head of communications for the EPA under President Obama, put it:

— Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), like his “dear and beloved friend” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), on Tuesday became one of the few GOP senators publicly asking Trump to stay in the Paris agreement:

 

During his 2008 run for president, McCain called for cap-and-trade legislation for carbon dioxide but has since then been relatively quiet on the issue.

Similarly, a pair of Florida congressmen weighed in too:

— António Guterres, United Nations secretary-general, made a final plea to Trump on Paris too. In a speech at New York University yesterday, he made an argument linking climate change to national security: â€œThe economy and social aspects are linked to the environmental aspects, but they are also linked to the security aspects, they are linked to the risks of conflict… If you leave a void to others to occupy, you might be creating a problem to your own internal security.”

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil says it supports the Paris deal. But it doesn’t want to say very much more about how climate change will affect its business. Steven Mufson reports: “ExxonMobil is seeking to fend off a shareholder rebellion over climate change, with major financial advisory firms BlackRock and Vanguard openly considering casting their votes against management on some key proxy resolutions at the annual meeting Wednesday. The two firms are the biggest shareholders in ExxonMobil, owning 13 percent, or $43.6 billion worth, of the company’s stock. A vote by them against management would be an important step for groups that have been trying to force corporations to adopt greater disclosure and transparency about the financial fallout of climate change.”

Three Mile Island nuclear plant will close in two years, its owner says. One of the big narratives of the natural-gas boom is that it is driving coal out of business — and, in effect, replacing a dirty, carbon-intensive fossil fuel with a cleaner one. But cheap gas can cut against carbon-free power sources too.

Bloomberg reports: “Exelon Corp.’s Three Mile Island reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, site of the worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history in 1979, will close in 2019 after losing money for five years, the company said Tuesday in a filing. At least five nuclear power plants have retired in the past five years including Fort Calhoun in Nebraska, which closed in October, as shale gas and rising output of wind and solar power depress prices.”

 

Something new under the sun: Rooftop solar panels are proving to be big, carbon-neutral blockades to firefighters trying to save burning homes, Eleanor Cummins and Nicole Wetsman report in Wired. “Panels can get in the way of cutting ventilation holes” and “it’s hard to evaluate a solar-paneled house from the ground,” they write. And of course, photovoltaic panels have electricity coursing through them. Regulations, like requiring panels to be installed far enough apart to rescuers to walk between them, happen at the local level — which is to say, they happen slowly.  

  • CA: There is a new crop growing in Southern California’s famous avocado groves — coffee
  • DE: A 16-foot, 3,500-pound great white shark was tracked off the Atlantic coast over weekend
  • VA: A new breed of falcons soars back from brink of extinction in Virginia 

Today

  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke continues his trip through Alaska and will address a conference for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.
  • Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) is also on the road right now. Quigley’s taking a tour of the Rocky Mountain National Park to explore the effects of climate change on the region, and he’s logging his adventures on Twitter with the hashtag #RepInTheRockies.

Coming up

  • The Energy Department announced yesterday that Secretary Rick Perry would visit China and Japan beginning Thursday to “promote American energy interests in Asia and attend the Clean Energy and Mission Innovation Ministerials in Beijing.” 

Let’s end on a happy note:

Godspeed, baby bison.

Watch: Researchers travel up smoke stack to check on newly born falcon chicks

Fun fact: A baby falcon is called an eyas. (Good one to know for crossword puzzles.)

Finally, some lightning in slow motion

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