California Vows to Go Its Own Way to Support Renewables as Storm of Controversy Surrounds Trump Executive Actions

Trump Signs Executive Orders
Trump signs executive orders | Image credit: Voice of America

Executive actions taken by U.S. President Donald J. Trump during his first four weeks in the Oval Office by and large confirmed expectations he intends to turn back the clock with regard to U.S. energy and environmental policy – in the case of the former as far back as 30 years.

Prominent among the obstacles standing in his way is the fundamental nature and structure of U.S. representative democracy. Creating a federalist republic, the U.S.’ founding fathers aimed to prevent undue concentration of power at the federal level by creating a tripartite governmental structure that separates executive, legislative and judicial powers and cedes substantial decision-making and governmental authority to the 50 U.S. state governments.

Just as fossil fuel companies and their supporters in the U.S. Congress and state governments opposed and fought every step of the way against enactment of President Barack Obama’s renewable energy and climate change agendas, leaders of leading U.S. solar and renewable energy states say they intend to take Pres. Trump on in the courts and go their own way when it comes to energy policy.

First among them is California.

Initial executive actions signal course Pres. Trump’s energy policy will take

One of the first executive actions Pres. Trump took upon taking office was to freeze new hiring across just about the entire federal government. He also ordered federal agencies to revive and fast-track review of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands fuel and Dakota Access shale oil pipelines.

The latter was promptly approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, which chose not to complete an environmental impact statement and waived the need for further governmental review.

Casting an ethical “dark cloud” over these presidential executive orders, a news report pointed out that Energy Transfer Partners’ CEO Kelcy Warren was a major Trump campaign donor, as was Continental Resources’ CEO Donald Hamm, who was Trump’s top energy policy adviser. All the shale oil Continental extracts from the Bakken Shale will flow through the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, according to the news report.

Furthermore, according to a New York Magazine article, Trump and his team are following a policy “blueprint” devised by the Heritage Foundation, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based think tank, to craft a “draconian” plan to downsize the federal government – in budget terms by some $10.5 trillion.

That includes eliminating the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Created in 1981, EERE served as a “spearhead” for Pres. Obama’s precedent-setting, though hotly contested, actions to foster development and growth of the U.S. solar, renewable energy and cleantech industries.

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Trump’s purported plan to drastically downsize the federal government’s national energy apparatus also includes rolling back funding for nuclear physics and advanced scientific computing research to 2008 levels and abolishing the Office of Fossil Energy, which focuses on technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The State Department’s two biggest climate change action programs, one of which is the historic UN Paris Climate Change accord signed by Obama, are also said to be on the chopping block.

Accelerating the federal government “brain drain”

Media reports have emerged that the executive actions Trump has taken in just the first four weeks of his four-year term in office are adding momentum to the federal government “brain drain”.

“You will see many talented people leave because they have options. You tend to get the brain drain of your top talent first,” Minh Le, the former director of DOE’s solar technology office, told GTM Media’s Stephen Lacey in a November 2016 interview.

Le is among a slate of solar and renewable energy experts scheduled to speak at GTM Media’s California’s Distributed Energy Future 2017 conference in San Francisco March 8-9.

California Solar Market 2016 By Sector
California Solar Market 2016 By Sector | Credit: Solar Leaderboard

“In a time of federal uncertainty, the nation is looking to California to continue its leadership on climate and renewables. And that means that the state’s regulatory and policy action will continue to intensify,” GTM Media’s Shayle Kann wrote in an email invitation.

Le noted that try as he might, Trump will not be able to dismantle federal clean energy and climate change programs, much less agencies, overnight. However, short of wiping them out completely, Trump could work with supportive members of Congress to “starve” them of funding, according to U.S. government experts and political analysts.

Running contrary to Trump’s campaign promises and recent energy-related actions, strong, broad-based public supports exists for federal energy agencies, such as EERE and ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy).

“The reality is that any significant changes would take significant bipartisan support. Whichever administration it is, it’s not like you could just zero out everything. It would take a huge act of Congress,” Le was quoted.

California Governor Jerry Brown comes out fighting

Governor Jerry Brown at AGU Meeting, Dec 2016
Governor Jerry Brown at AGU Meeting, Dec. 13, 2016

All these and other factors led California Governor Jerry Brown to publicly declare that California will oppose, as well counter, Trump’s efforts to wipe out federal government support for solar, renewable energy, and climate change mitigation and adaptation, not to mention fundamental scientific and technological research and development.

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“We can’t fall back and give in to the climate deniers,” Brown said during his January “State of the State” address, the Washington Post reported.

“The science is clear, the dangers are real. We can do much on our own and we can join with others — other states and provinces, even other countries — to stop the dangerous rise in climate pollution.”

Broad-based support for solar, renewable energy

Earlier this month a group of prominent Republican Party members called on Pres. Trump to institute a revenue-neutral carbon tax, an action favored by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who retired as chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil upon being nominated.

Furthermore, a bipartisan group of 22 state governors sent President Trump a letter touting the benefits of renewable energy. Among others, the state governors pointed out that wind power farms are making $222 million a year in lease payments to rural landowners, while renewable energy companies are investing $100 million a year in low-income areas.

The governors also asked Trump to continue supporting grid modernization initiatives, offshore wind development initiated by his predecessor, as well as extend renewable energy tax credits and increase federal investment in renewable energy R&D.

Perhaps the biggest factor likely to give Pres. Trump pause and cause to rethink his energy policy platform is broad-based public support. According to one poll, 84 percent of Trump voters expressed support for expanding solar. Over three-quarters (77%) said they support increasing federal support of wind power, GTM Media’s Lacey pointed out.

Addressing members of the American Geophysical Union in a December speech, Gov. Brown reiterated that California would resist any efforts to roll back national climate policies. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers and we’re ready to fight,” he was quoted in the Washington Post’s January news report.

Responding to comments made by a Trump campaign adviser who said that the Trump administration would discontinue federal spending for NASA climate research, Brown reportedly said: “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.” comment