Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry could see more output, fewer environmental restrictions, and more pipelines to take its products to market, while its embattled coal industry may also get more help, following the stunning victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election, analysts said Wednesday.
The state’s efforts to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan on power-plant emissions may be unneeded under President Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese hoax and pledged to scrap the Obama administration’s signature environmental initiative.
And with its vast reserves of natural gas and coal, Pennsylvania could become a national testing ground for the implementation of Trump’s campaign promise to “unleash” U.S. energy reserves.
The fate of the Clean Power Plan
The Obama administration’s environmental policies are vulnerable because many of them are the result of executive action, and therefore can be undone by the incoming administration, said Mark Alan Hughes, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy.
“The vulnerability is that so much of the substantive policy relating to energy and the environment in the United States for the last eight years has been related to presidential direction to executive agencies,” said Hughes, who was the City of Philadelphia’s first director of sustainability.
The Clean Power Plan that requires states to curb carbon emissions from their power plants is especially exposed to be undone by the new administration, and may also be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court with a new conservative majority as a result of the expected nominee by the incoming administration.
“The Clean Power Plan is at great risk,” Hughes said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection had previously said it would continue work on the Clean Power Plan despite the ongoing court battle. Department spokesman Neil Shader says any future decisions will hinge on the legal decision.
“Regardless of the ultimate outcome, Pennsylvania’s carbon footprint has been shrinking rapidly due to market based decisions being made in the state’s electric generating sector, particularly rapid switching toward natural gas,” Shader writes in an email. “It is likely that this trend will continue. DEP will continue to seek ways to continue addressing climate change.”
Although Trump’s promise to unleash U.S. energy production is vague, the chances are that in Pennsylvania it will mean more energy production and fewer environmental protections, Hughes argued.
“It’s going to be larger this morning than it was yesterday morning,” he said, the day after Trump’s upset victory.
Meanwhile, energy industry representatives welcomed the new administration.
“We’re excited to work with new and returning elected officials at the local, state and federal level on commonsense policies that encourage great production and use of our abundant natural gas resources,” said Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the gas industry’s leading trade group in Pennsylvania.
A statement from the American Petroleum Institute said it looks forward to working with the new administration on energy policies that protect U.S. oil and natural gas production, development and refining, as well as in reducing carbon emissions.
But Trump’s pledge to revive coal while at the same time supporting robust gas development, has a serious flaw, says Emily Hammond, a law professor at George Washington University.
“It’s hard to imagine being able to both promote coal and natural gas as electricity fuels at the levels he described,” says Hammond. “The lowest cost fuels are used first on the electric grid, and right now, with natural gas prices so low, coal is not going to be used as soon to meet demand, as natural gas. Those two resources are competing.”
At a Pittsburgh gas industry conference in September Trump pledged to return the EPA to its core mission, which he says should be promoting clean air and clean water.
“The permitting process in your industry is a disaster. It’s a disaster” Trump told the crowd of oil and gas representatives. “Every friend I have in your industry– they tell me it has become horrible with the EPA.”
However, oil and gas wells are not permitted by the EPA. They are largely regulated by states. It’s unlikely he could significantly influence permitting decisions made by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Yet as president, Trump will have the opportunity to appoint new commissioners to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is charged with siting interstate pipelines.
‘The wrong direction’
Rob Altenburg, Director of the Energy Center at the environmental group PennFuture, said Trump’s election would likely mean abandoning the Clean Power Plan and the U.S. commitment to reducing carbon emissions under the historic COP21 agreement in Paris.
“The Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan were just beginning to go in the direction we need to be going,” he said. “This is clearly a move in the wrong direction.”
Lynda Farrell, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Coalition, said more gas and coal production in Pennsylvania and other states would make it less likely the U.S. could meet its obligations under the Paris agreement, and would increase health risks.
“If those campaign promises are kept, this is a very troubling road we will be traveling,” she said.
Listen to our radio report: