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Energy in 2017: Regulatory rollback and environmentalist angst

Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 1, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.

Susan Walsh / AP Photo

Protesters gather outside the White House in Washington, Thursday, June 1, 2017, to protest President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the Unites States from the Paris climate change accord.

The priorities set by a new presidential administration dominated energy news in 2017. President Donald Trump and his cabinet set an agenda to “unleash” America’s energy potential, removing the barriers they perceive to be holding back domestic energy production — often to the dismay of the environmental community.

Here’s a compilation of the year’s biggest energy news, as covered by StateImpact Pennsylvania and others in public media.

Trump reverses U.S. climate objectives

Fulfilling a campaign promise, Trump signed an executive order in March aimed at rescinding the Clean Power Plan. The Environmental Protection Agency rule was the Obama Administration’s signature climate initiative, seeking to curb carbon emissions by assigning each state an emissions reduction target. Pennsylvania would have had to cut its carbon emissions 33 percent by 2030. Many states planned to transition away from dirtier power sources like coal toward cleaner options like natural gas, wind and solar.

The rule was part of President Barack Obama’s plan to uphold the United States’ pledge in the 2015 Paris climate accord. This voluntary agreement among nearly 200 nations sought to curb global warming. But Trump announced in June that he intended to withdraw the United States from the agreement unless he could negotiate a better deal. His decision has prompted states and cities, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, to develop their own plans to combat climate change.

Pipeline battle heats up

In his first week in office, Trump directed his administration to approve the final segment of the Dakota Access Pipeline crossing under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. The next month, law enforcement raided the camps set up along the path of pipeline construction, arresting dozens from the land they had occupied since the previous summer. The pipeline began pumping oil in June, though the tribe’s battle over the project is still in court.

This wasn’t the only major pipeline to get Trump’s stamp of approval. The president green-lighted the Keystone XL project in March after Obama had rejected the pipeline, which seeks to transport oil from Canadian tar sands. Pipeline company TransCanada secured a key permit from Nebraska regulators in November, though the state rejected its preferred route.

Protesters confront a construction crew for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in central Pennsylvania.

Marie Cusick / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Protesters confront a construction crew for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline in central Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, battles brewed over several pipelines that are being built. Police arrested 40 people in 2017 protesting the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline, and federal regulators denied a request to reconsider the project’s approval. Another project, the Mariner East 2, was plagued by legal challenges and spills that resulted from drilling.

Regulatory rollback tangled up in court

To encourage more energy development, Trump’s EPA and the Interior Department have begun rolling back Obama-era rules aimed at reducing methane emissions at natural gas sites, along with others extending federal protections to small waterways and requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce water pollution.

Some energy-rich states sued over those rules when they were proposed. But as the Trump administration moves to delay and repeal them, environmental groups are the ones filing lawsuits.

Coal, nuclear find an ally in the Energy Department

Energy Secretary Rick Perry asked a panel of federal regulators in September to prop up coal and nuclear plants.

The Bruce Mansfield Power Plant burns coal to generate electricity in Beaver County.

Amy Sisk / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Bruce Mansfield Power Plant burns coal to generate electricity in Beaver County.

Such a proposal would help out a few mid-Atlantic energy companies, but it would also mean that the region’s ratepayers would likely have to pay more for electricity. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said earlier in December that it needs another month to act on Perry’s request.

Hurricanes wreak havoc on energy infrastructure

Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, causing refineries and pipelines to temporarily shut down. It sent shockwaves through the energy sector, causing gasoline prices to spike, including in Pennsylvania. In its wake, StateImpact Pennsylvania looked at hurricanes and flooding in Philadelphia.

Weeks later, Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico’s electric grid, knocking out power to much of the country. The effort to restore electricity has been plagued by problems from tough terrain to politics.

Renewables continue to make gains

Though talk of Trump and fossil fuels dominated much of the energy news in 2017, renewable power continued to make strides.

Patrick Whittaker of Solar States installs solar panels on the roof of a home in Bryn Mawr.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Patrick Whittaker of Solar States installs solar panels on the roof of a home in Bryn Mawr.

In March, wind and solar reached a record 10 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration. But Trump is expected to decide in January whether to impose tariffs on imported solar parts. That looming decision has the industry on edge because such tariffs could halt some of solar’s momentum.

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