Should President Trump maintain control of the White House, the next four years are likely to be marked by an expansion of the deregulatory and "energy dominance" agenda that has come to define his presidency.
Trump, who has made his support for the fossil fuel industry — in particular hydraulic fracturing — a cornerstone of his campaign’s closing arguments, is expected in a second term to build on the rollbacks of rules that have drawn continued ire from environmentalists over the past 3 ½ years.
He’s likely to continue efforts to speed up the development of pipelines, export terminals and small nuclear reactors while trying to find a way to keep the coal industry afloat and target energy efficiency regulations, analysts say.
"President Trump will continue to build on this tremendous progress through more deregulation, expedited permitting and infrastructure development to continue America’s newfound energy dominance," White House spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement.
Democratic challenger Joe Biden, by contrast, has called climate change an "existential threat to humanity," and his energy plan would look to transition the United States more rapidly to renewables and 100% low-carbon sources.
Here are five energy issues to watch in the case of a Trump victory:
DOE efficiency standards
Anti-regulatory groups that oppose current energy efficiency standards have notched several victories under Trump’s Department of Energy and are optimistic they could land more in a second term.
Trump made railing against energy standards a frequent fixture during campaign rallies, portraying his dishwasher and lightbulb policies as a favor to suburban women.
"We’re hopeful that some of the progress we’ve seen in a few areas will continue," said Sam Kazman, general counsel at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has pressed the administration for changes, including to dishwashers. "We think ultimately we’re going to see some real improvements in something that has become sort of a regulatory joke."
DOE last month tweaked efficiency requirements for dishwashers and signaled in August it would create a product class to allow for speedier washing machines and dryers — both CEI goals. In August, DOE proposed a rule that would allow showers to deliver a greater blast of water by changing the definition of "showerhead."
Proponents "keep touting the fact that the standards will give us products that are even better than what we have now … but that claim turns out to be false and people know it," Kazman said.
Energy efficiency and environmental advocates say they fear continued setbacks to a program that before the Trump administration had enjoyed across-the-aisle support. DOE in Trump’s first term failed to update standards for 25 products, they note.
Andrew deLaski, executive director of the Appliance Standards Awareness Project at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, noted that a number of standards will be up for review in the near future including for water heaters, air conditioners, refrigerators and clothes dryers.
"These appliances last a really long time," deLaski said. "If we don’t make progress with these appliances we’ll be locking in tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, [of] appliances that get installed in American homes for decades, and that makes it hard to get to any 2050 climate goals if you’re locking in inefficient appliances. The next four years are critical."
DOE is required to review existing standards at least once every six years and set standards that achieve maximum energy efficiency improvements that are "technically feasible and economically justified."
More than a dozen states and a coalition of environmental and consumer groups filed legal action against the department in August, accusing it of missing its own deadlines.
"We’ve made zero progress over the last four years," said deLaski. "Instead of doing what the law requires them to do, they’ve wasted their time and taxpayer money looking for ways to remove standards."
Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette in July pledged to lawmakers that the department would complete as many updates as possible before the end of the year.
EVs and solar
A second term for Trump could bring more congressional wrangling over key tax policies affecting clean energy.
The president has frequently mocked the capabilities of wind and solar energy, but a bipartisan majority in Congress moved this year to extend key tax credits for production and investment.
Trump was more successful, however, in helping quash an extension of credits for buyers of electric cars. Lawmakers removed an extension from a $1.4 trillion appropriations package late last year after the president threatened a veto over it (E&E Daily, Dec. 18, 2019).
Few believe that Trump would budge when those issues come up for debate in the future.
"I’d say the biggest points to make are that he’s not going to extend the [investment tax credit] or provide additional incentives to buy electric vehicles," said Gordon Johnson, an alternative energy analyst at New York-based GLJ Research.
On one of the few issues in which the Trump administration’s views appear to coincide with those of clean energy advocates — the need to develop a domestic supply chain for lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars and energy storage — advocates may find a closer friend in Biden, say some analysts.
Trump has issued executive orders that led to new "critical minerals" designations for battery minerals like lithium and cobalt, while streamlining permitting of new mines and potentially increasing access to federal funds (Energywire, Oct. 1).
The administration has supported such moves largely on national security grounds. China controls the majority of battery supply chains, including mining and battery production.
But strict clean transportation mandates, like the eventual phaseout of gas cars backed by Biden, would likely provide a much more powerful jolt of demand for battery minerals, said Caspar Rawles, a senior analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. That, in turn, could accelerate global shortages of battery minerals in the coming years, making the development of U.S. supplies a more pressing necessity.
"If you start to see strict deadlines on EV penetration rates in the U.S. or electrification of the grid," said Rawles, "larger deficits of raw materials" might follow.
A second term for Trump would probably defeat any opening for such clean energy mandates.
"Arguably, if Biden gets in, it’ll be a more accelerated impact," he said.
Some of Trump’s most ambitious policies affecting renewable and low-carbon energy also remain hung up in the courts, making a second term necessary for their full realization.
For instance, the administration sought to weaken federal fuel economy standards and roll back California’s authority to set more stringent rules for car emissions. Legal challenges to those actions remain unresolved, and a Biden White House is all but certain to reverse them.
If courts uphold them during a second term, however, the rollbacks would probably slow adoption of EVs, said Moody’s Investors Service analysts in a research note last month.
"A continuation of Trump’s deregulatory agenda … would alleviate some of the pressure on automakers to innovate and produce cleaner cars" in the coming years, particularly in states with comparatively lax emissions standards of their own, they wrote.
A key technology for solar developers also could be affected by the results of the election.
The Trump administration has tried for several months to apply tariffs on foreign-made bifacial panels, which can produce electricity from both sides of the panel and could make up 40% of all deployments in the coming years. A U.S. trade court has repeatedly blocked the tariffs from going into effect, finding that the administration violated federal procedures for rulemaking.
Whether those tariffs are instituted and kept in place over the longer term will probably hinge on the election, analysts at ClearView Energy Partners said in a note last month (Energywire, Oct. 27).
Biden would probably remove those duties in order to improve the efficiency of solar installations, they wrote, while Trump would almost certainly take "another bite at the bifacial apple."
Coal and CCS
The administration has embraced fossil fuels, and Trump turned fracking for oil and gas into a household word during the campaign.
In a second term, the Energy Department has pledged it would continue efforts to help fossil fuels, such as finding new uses for coal.
"The industry is on its heels," Brouillette last week told Fox News about coal, adding, "And as you know, we’re bringing it back very strongly."
Among DOE’s efforts: research into next-generation coal-fired power plants that have zero emissions, and research and development into the production of critical minerals, rare earth elements, carbon-based products and other mining material.
"It’s too early in the game to sideline any energy resource," Steve Winberg, DOE’s assistant secretary of fossil energy, said last week at an event sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
A report last month from Moody’s Investors Service, however, said the coal market would continue to wither under either a Biden administration or a second term for Trump (Greenwire, Oct. 20).
Many fossil fuel proponents also say carbon capture will continue to be necessary to meet climate targets and expect it to retain bipartisan support, no matter what happens on Election Day.
Winberg said last week that a DOE focus has been on driving down CO2 capture costs, which he said have fallen from roughly $60 per ton three years ago to about $45 per ton.
"We are well on our way to get it down to $30 a ton for capture cost, so we’re going to cut the cost of capture in half," Winberg said, who added that’s important considering federal tax credits under Section 45Q of the tax code.
For CO2 stored geologically through enhanced oil recovery, companies can claim a credit of up to $35 per ton.
"So if you can capture CO2 for $30 and you can get a $35-a-ton tax credit, the beauty of that is that industry will pick that up because they can make a business out of it," Winberg said.
"They can make money on it," he said. "And I keep telling people, when that happens, and private industry picks this technology up, the federal government can back away because that’s when the learning will really begin."
In September, DOE announced $72 million in investments for carbon capture technologies, including $21 million for projects looking to pull CO2 from the air through direct air capture.
Trump and Biden are being pressed by groups like the Carbon Capture Coalition, which sent memos last week to both campaigns listing priorities for the first 100 days such as expanding cost-share programs at the Department of Energy for CCS research, development and deployment.
John Noël, a senior climate campaigner with Greenpeace, said the interest in carbon capture, however, is often driven less by the White House — which he said doesn’t acknowledge "the urgency or severity of the climate crisis" — and more by the Senate, especially Republicans from top oil- and gas-producing states.
"In concrete terms, it’s the fossil fuel industry and their allied politicians who are driving the policy design and the enthusiasm and the funding for all of these projects," Noël said. "Theoretically, [carbon capture] could be applied to limited applications in the industrial sector, yes, but in practice that’s not how it’s going, and it shouldn’t move forward without being fully decoupled from the fossil fuel industry, who is not a good faith partner in climate politics."
Four more years would enable DOE to progress on a series of nuclear energy policy proposals that have had preliminary success but need follow-through to come to fruition.
Among those pending policies is the siting and construction of a host of facilities needed to test and advance the designs of the next generation of nuclear reactors, also known as advanced reactors.
Under Trump, DOE has launched projects like the Versatile Test Reactor and advanced nuclear demonstration projects that have set aside hundreds of millions of dollars for complicated reactor designs. While the projects remain in the planning and siting phases, an additional four years would put their construction and deployment on pace for the end of the decade.
That would align with the broader Trump administration road map to aid the domestic nuclear industry and uranium production industry, outlined by DOE and the Nuclear Fuel Working Group in a report in April.
A second term also would give DOE officials time to follow through on policy proposals in that report.
Chief among them, DOE would look to secure congressional approval for a national uranium reserve — a storage program to bolster domestic supplies and ensure against global trade disruptions for the nuclear fuel needed to run reactors across the country and in the military.
It would entail a renewed focus on the export of nuclear technology to countries that have expressed an interest in a nuclear working relationship with the United States.
A new Trump term could provide the needed time to secure "123 agreements," the nonproliferation "gold standard," with countries like Saudi Arabia that have so far eluded negotiators.
Such an export focus would also entail money moving through the Export-Import Bank. The long-stalled organization has hinted that U.S. energy projects abroad would be part of its focus when sending out dollars.
If Trump wins, the administration could better ensure its first-term policies last.
Susan Dudley, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs director under President George W. Bush, noted a second term would allow Trump to cement regulations that have been mired by legal challenges.
"The Trump administration will be defending the actions they’ve already taken as opposed to Biden’s lawyers are less likely to defend them," she said.
Biden can "relatively easily" reverse many of the regulatory changes Trump made, said Cary Coglianese, a University of Pennsylvania professor.
"But if Trump gets another four years, it will be much harder for a new Democratic administration in 2025 to undo them and will take longer," he said.
In addition, the Trump administration is scurrying to finalize a number of high-profile regulations, including changes to how EPA calculates cost-benefit analysis for air pollution regulations.
Among about 70 proposed rules, an Interior Department plan would open up more oil drilling and mining in western Alaska, according to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities.
Nick Loris, an energy policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, yesterday released a report detailing several recommendations for the next four years.
The report included allowing oil and gas production on federal lands; delegating more environmental review to states; encouraging the private sector to tap into research to spur innovation; removing tariffs on imported solar panels; providing access to nuclear waste storage; and repealing the Jones Act, a 100-year-old law that requires ships moving goods between U.S. ports to be crewed and owned by U.S. companies.
"Eliminating subsidies, opening access to markets, and reducing regulatory barriers would supply Americans with dependable energy, expand innovation, and result in a more prosperous society and healthier environment," Loris wrote.
To accomplish many of those broad goals, though, Republicans would also need to control Congress.
"Agency regulations have grounding in statutes, and as long as the statutes remain unchanged there will only be so much that an administration can do," Coglianese said via email.
Reporters Lesley Clark, Carlos Anchondo, Jeremy Dillon, David Iaconangelo and Kelsey Brugger contributed.