Week 1 of the Trump Presidency: Infrastructure Plans, Budget Cuts, Appointees and More

Did you blink? If so, you might have just missed a major piece of news this week.

We’re just seven days into the Trump Presidency and a major shift in U.S. energy policy is already underway. It’s been such a whirlwind of a week that it’s been tough to keep track of all the developments.

In this recurring series, GTM tracks the latest energy and climate policy changes under the new administration to help you stay up to date. Several of Trump’s cabinet nominees have also weighed in on climate and energy policies in recent days. So in this edition we also chronicle the highlights from last week’s confirmation hearings.

The latest developments are listed below.

  • An America First Energy Plan
  • Trump lists infrastructure priorities, including in wind, solar and energy storage
  • The return of Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines
  • Massive budget cuts at the EPA?
  • Major budget cuts at the DOE?
  • DOE Nominee Rick Perry defends research, responds to budget cuts
  • Interior Nominee Ryan Zinke defends fossil fuels, opposes public lands transfer
  • EPA Nominee Scott Pruitt defends endangerment finding
  • State Department Nominee Rex Tillerson on climate, Paris Agreement
  • Possible review of Paris Climate Agreement
  • Cheryl LaFleur selected to lead FERC
  • Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin backs wind tax credit
  • Freeze on energy efficiency regulations
  • EPA grant and hiring freeze
  • Communications, climate blackout at government agenciesS
  • Spicer says Trump will seek “balance” on environmental issues

An America First Energy Plan

Minutes after Trump took office, the White House archived President Obama’s policy pages and posted new ones, including “An America First Energy Plan.” The plan commits to embracing the oil and shale gas revolution, reviving America’s coal industry and promoting energy independence, but makes no mention of renewable energy. Trump’s plan also commits to ending “unnecessary policies,” such as President Obama’s Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Eliminating such regulations will increase American workers’ wages by more than $30 billion over the next seven years, according to the new White House webpage.

Trump lists infrastructure priorities, including in wind, solar and energy storage

The Trump administration has drawn up an infrastructure investment priority list with about 50 projects nationwide, totaling at least $137.5 billion, McClatchy and the Kansas City Star reported this week. The preliminary list of vetted projects created by the White House matches a list of projects developed by the National Governor’s Association.

The list includes the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind projects in Wyoming and the Fort Mojave Solar Project in Arizona. The list also names several transmission projects to move renewable energy around the country, upgrades to hydropower plants across the U.S., and a national energy storage and grid modernization plan (see entries 9, 12, 16, 17, 20, 21, 29, 49).

In his state-of-the-state address this week, California Gov. Jerry Brown said he was enthusiastic about working with the Trump administration on infrastructure projects. “In this, we can all work together,” he said.

Also this week, Senate Democrats released a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which they say would create 15 million jobs over 10 years. The plan includes $100 billion in new funding for transmission and distribution projects, as well as clean energy projects.

Under the Democrat’s plan, a permanent incentive would be given for electricity generation, transportation fuels and energy efficiency improvements. “The level of incentive would be based on performance: the cleaner the technology or the more energy conserved, the larger the incentive. Technology-neutral energy tax credits would reward clean energy and promote innovation and investment in renewable energy and energy conservation,” an overview of the plan states.

The return of Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines

President Trump signed executive orders on Tuesday for the U.S. to reconsider approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. He also signed an executive order to expedite the “incredibly cumbersome” environmental reviews of other infrastructure projects. The orders are strongly opposed by environmental groups, which have made fighting these pipelines a core component of their climate action strategy. TransCanada has already resubmitted its application to build Keystone XL.

Massive budget cuts at the EPA?

According to a leaked “agency action plan” obtained by Axios, the EPA is expected to take a beating under President Trump. The document names several “potential opportunities for budget reductions,” including $513 million in cuts to the “states and tribal assistance grants,” $193 million in savings from terminating climate programs and $109 million in savings from “environment programs and management.”

Any budget changes will have to be approved by Congress. But there are several other ways Trump could undermine President Obama’s legacy on climate and clean energy, including undoing Obama’s executive orders on the environment, dismantling formal EPA rules and hampering future rule development.

The agency action plan identifies throwing out the Clean Power Plan and corporate average fuel economy standards. Changes could also be coming to the way the EPA uses science. “Unless major reforms of the agency's use of science and economics are achieved, EPA will be able to return to its bad old ways as soon as an establishment administration takes office,” the plan states.

Major budget cuts at the DOE?

Major budget cuts could be coming to the DOE. According to documents obtained by The Hill, the Trump team plans to “eliminate the Office of Electricity, eliminate the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and scrap the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.” Reports of the budget cuts came the same day former Texas Gov. Rick Perry testified as nominee to the DOE (see below).

DOE Nominee Rick Perry defends research, responds to budget cuts

The confirmation hearing for Energy Secretary Nominee Rick Perry started off relatively smoothly. The former Texas governor insisted that he no longer wants to eliminate the DOE, as he previously proposed. He assured Democrats and Republicans that we would adopt an all-of-the-above approach to energy policy, pointing to his track record on supporting both fossil fuel and clean energy industries in Texas.

In another reversal from previous comments, Perry said during his hearing that he believes the climate changing. “I believe some is naturally occurring I believe some is created by human activity,“ he said. “The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t affect economic growth.”

The hearing took a strange turn, however, when Democratic senators started questioning Perry on a budget blueprint published by The Hill hours prior that noted Trump’s plans to dismantle several key DOE clean energy programs: The Office of Electricity, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Office of Fossil Energy. Perry seemed unaware of the Trump plan — which pointed to a lack of coordination within the administration — and reiterated his commitment to implementing a thoughtful, all-of-the above energy plan.

Perry did not expressly say that he would protect the DOE’s budget on matters related to climate budget, but did promise to protect the DOE’s research budget. “I am going to protect all of the science, whether it's related to the climate or other aspects of what we're going to be doing,” he said.

Perry also reacted positively when Senator Murkowski listed her interest in marine hydrokinetic technology, biomass fuels, microgrids and modular nuclear reactors. “Those are exactly the types of [technologies] the DOE should be engaged with and funding,” he said.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on Perry’s nomination on Tuesday.

Interior Nominee Ryan Zinke defends fossil fuels, opposes public lands transfer

Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved rule changes that make it easier for the federal government to sell off or effectively give away federal lands to states and local authorities. The rule change was championed by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah). During his confirmation hearing last week, Interior Secretary Nominee Ryan Zinke said he supports drilling, mining and logging on federal lands, but does not support ceding federal control of those lands. 

“I am absolutely against transfer and sale of public lands,” he said. “I can’t be more clear.”http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/01/18/watch-live-scott-pruitt-confirmation-hearing-administrator-epa/96712026/

Zinke said that he supports an “all of the above” energy strategy, explicitly mentioning solar and wind power, as well as fossil fuels. In a departure from Trump, Zinke said it was “indisputable” that the climate is changing and that humans are having an effect on it, but added that there’s debate over how significant the effect is.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to vote on Zinke’s nomination on Tuesday.

EPA Nominee Scott Pruitt defends endangerment finding

EPA nominee Scott Pruitt testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee last week, and this week responded to more than 1,200 questions for the record. During his confirmation hearing, Democrats grilled Pruitt on his ties to the fossil fuel industry, his legal cases against the EPA and his views on climate change. Pruitt said, “I do not believe that climate change is a hoax,” but stopped short of naming human activity as the primary cause.

In a more notable position shift, Pruitt defended the EPA’s “obligation” to regulate carbon emissions under a 2007 Supreme Court decision, as well as the 2009 “endangerment finding,” which determined that carbon emissions are a threat to public health. Trump has threatened to review the endangerment rule, and Pruitt took part in a 2012 lawsuit to undo it (he’s also challenged the EPA’s authority to regulate mercury pollution and wetlands).

“The endangerment finding is there and needs to be enforced and respected,” Pruitt said during his testimony. “There is nothing I know that would cause a review of it.”

In his written responses, Pruitt gave himself some wiggle room to act on climate change. According to Politico, he pledged to have regulations informed by the “most up to date and objective scientific data, including the ever-evolving understanding of the impact increasing greenhouse gases have on our changing climate.” He also promised to enforce the mercury rule, “so long as that rule remains in force.”

Despite these comments, Pruitt’s nomination is strongly opposed by environmental groups and many Democrats. Pruitt has said he believes there is a “war on coal” and plans to reexamine the moratorium on coal development on federal lands put in place by Obama. He has also championed the interests of fossil fuel companies, while serving as attorney general to Oklahoma. And he made several controversial statements during his hearing. For instance, Pruitt did not commit to approving California’s authority to regulate vehicle emissions and other state-level environmental regulations.

State Department Nominee Rex Tillerson on climate, Paris Agreement

Former Exxon CEO and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing last week that he thinks “the risk of climate change does exist.”  He also expressed hesitancy over pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, despite Trump’s campaign trail statements that he would withdraw.

“I think it’s important that the United States maintain its seat at the table in the conversation on how to address threats of climate change. They do require a global response. No one country is going to solve this alone,” Tillerson said.

His viewpoint appeared to shift in his written comments, however. “Mere membership in an international agreement does not by itself convey global leadership or credibility,” Tillerson wrote to Sen. Jeff Merkley. The former oil company executive added he does not see climate change as an “imminent national security threat,” Politico reports

The Senate committee approved Tillerson as secretary of state this week. His confirmation now moves to a full senate vote for approval, which seems likely. Tesla CEO Elon Musk unexpectedly threw his support behind Tillerson this week in a series of tweets.

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As Tillerson’s nomination advances, reports surfaced of several top State Department officials leaving the agency. “The entire senior level of management officials resigned Wednesday, part of an ongoing mass exodus of senior foreign service officers who don’t want to stick around for the Trump era,” wrote The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin. The story has been heavily criticized. According the State Department, such resignations are standard practice with a change of government.

Possible review of Paris Climate Agreement

The New York Times reported this week that the Trump administration is preparing executive orders aimed at drastically reducing America’s role in the United Nations and other international organizations. Trump also plans to review international treaties that are not “directly related to national security, extradition or international trade.” That could include the Paris Climate Agreement and other environmental treaties.

Cheryl LaFleur selected to lead FERC

Cheryl LaFleur has been selected as acting chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, replacing current-chairman Norman Bay. LaFleur is considered to be more utility industry-friendly than Bay. The five-member FERC panel now has three commissioners: LaFleur, Bay, who will continue to serve, and Colette Honorable. Two positions have yet to be filled.

Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin backs wind tax credit

Treasury Secretary nominee Steven Mnuchin said during his confirmation hearing last week that he supports the existing phaseout of the Production Tax Credit for wind energy, telling Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) “I support the phaseout of that as you suggested.” Mnuchin did not specifically address the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar, but his position on the PTC is likely a positive for the solar industry. Many energy policy experts believe the renewable energy tax credits will be left as-is.

Freeze on energy efficiency regulations

Last weekend, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a government-wide freeze on new or pending regulations, including four nearly finished Energy Department energy efficiency standards, The Washington Post reports. The regulations deal with an array of products, including portable air conditioners and commercial boilers. But stakeholders say they aren’t sweating the memorandum just yet.

EPA grant and hiring freeze

Reports surfaced this week that the Trump administration had imposed a freeze on grants, contracts and hiring by the U.S. EPA. A total halt to a single agency’s activities created anxiety at the EPA, which awards more than $4 billion in funding for grants and other assistance agreements related to air and water quality, according to the agency website. Myron Ebell, who ran the EPA transition for the Trump team, said the act was not unprecedented.

“They’re trying to freeze things to make sure nothing happens they don’t want to have happen, so any regulations going forward, contracts, grants, hires, they want to make sure to look at them first,” Ebell told ProPublica. Ebell returned this week to directing energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group that has long fought EPA policies.

On Friday, an EPA spokesman confirmed the grant freeze had been lifted. However, restrictions on public outreach remain in place (see below).

On Monday, Trump signed an executive order freezing hiring in all areas of the executive branch, except for the military, national security and public safety services.

Communications, climate blackout at government agencies

Memos were sent out to at least four government agencies this week, ordering employees to cease all external communications and to speak with senior officials before speaking to news media. Restrictions were issued to the EPA, as well as the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Nancy Pelosi called it “a deterioration of intellectual resources to prevent information to flow.” But EPA transition team communications director Doug Ericksen told Politico that the blackout was merely to “check out what's going on on the communications front.”

Employees at the DOE’s Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office have also been ordered not to share any information on their personal or professional social media accounts.

On Tuesday, the Badlands National Park Service, a branch of the Interior Department, sent out several tweets related to climate change in defiance of the gag order. The tweets were promptly taken down, and a National Parks official said the tweets were likely sent by a former employee who still had access to the Badlands’ Twitter password. The tweets were cheered as an act of resistance and several mock accounts were created in support of climate science shortly after, such as @AltNatParkSer. There are also altEPA and an AltNASA Twitter accounts.

Greenpeace responded in a more direct fashion by draping a 70-foot banner with the word “resist” off of a crane in view of the White House.

In addition to the communication lock-down, there were reports this week that the Trump administration planned to remove all references to climate change from the EPA website. However, Trump spokesman Doug Ericksen said on Wednesday that they were merely “scrubbing it up a bit” and not necessarily taking all climate data down from the website.

References to climate change were removed from the State Department website, however. Pages on the Green Climate Fund, State Department’s Climate Action Report, and an overview of the Global Climate Change Initiative are among the pages that have been removed.

Moments after Trump took office, references to climate change were also removed from the White House website. The new “America First Energy Plan” makes no references to renewable energy or climate change, save for a pledge to throw out President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

While there is cause for concern among environmentalists, Zack Coleman of The Christian Science Monitor wrote “that anxiety could be distorting what appear to be typical events in a presidential transition into perceived acts of political malice.”

Spicer says Trump will seek “balance” on environmental issues

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press briefing on Monday, where he said that President Trump would seek to “balance” the economy and environmental issues, such as climate change.

“He’s going to meet with his team and figure out what policies are best for the environment,” said Spicer. “One of the things he talked about during the campaign is there’s a balance, and he’s trying to make sure that we use our resources appropriately, that we maximize things to make sure that we don’t do so at the detriment of economic growth and job creation.”

The booming U.S. clean energy sector and decoupling of carbon emissions and economic growth demonstrate that environmental protection and climate change mitigation need not come at the expense of economic growth. However, Spicer’s comments suggest the new administration views these matters to be at odds.

That's all folks!

from GTM Solar https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/week-1-of-the-trump-presidency-infrastructure-plans-budget-cuts-appointees

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