A House ally of President Trump circulated a "Dear Colleague" letter to the president yesterday challenging him to make the Paris Agreement a better deal for U.S. fossil fuels.
North Dakota Republican Rep. and Trump adviser Kevin Cramer's letter proposed "conditions" for remaining within the landmark 2015 climate deal, including swapping weaker emissions and aid commitments for more power over the process.
"Our engagement must prevent the development of harmful policies which undermine economic growth and energy security here and abroad," Cramer wrote in a letter he has asked colleagues to sign with him. "We should work closely with our allies to develop, deploy, and commercialize cleaner technologies to help ensure a future for fossil fuels within the context of the global climate agenda, including support for the deployment of highly efficient and low emission coal, as well as carbon capture, utilization, and storage technologies, in global markets."
Cramer's staff did not respond to inquiries about support for his letter. The office of Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), an outspoken opponent of climate action, said the congressman did not have plans to sign.
This is not the first time a Republican has floated staying in Paris as a possible boon to U.S. industrial interests. White House officials who favor staying for strategic and diplomatic reasons have met with fossil fuel interests and European diplomats to argue for a U.S. role in Paris that helps fossil fuel companies find a path to survival in a post-Paris world.
But some GOP opponents say remaining in the deal would run counter to everything Trump has done since assuming office on Jan. 20. That includes last week's budget, which would kill funding for climate change across a host of federal agencies.
"The entire administration budget proposal was a pretty big middle finger to the idea of Paris, the [Green Climate Fund], etc.," said Mike McKenna, a member of Trump's Energy Department transition team.
He dismissed the idea of a new concession for fossil fuel companies as "a smokescreen to keep people from talking about the uncomfortable fact that the president explicitly promised to exit Paris. Repeatedly."
'We should use our power'
It's clear that Republicans' fierce opposition to Paris has thawed some since President Obama left office, as the advent of Trump made it clear that new aid dollars and tough domestic policies that underpinned the previous administration's commitments would not be in the picture anymore.
Some, like Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and even Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), have suggested that without domestic regulations, there's little urgency to leave Paris.
Few think the Trump administration will do much to comply with Paris or its commitments.
Obama funneled $1 billion toward the Green Climate Fund, which helps poor countries cope with warming. The remaining $2 billion he promised is explicitly barred from Trump's budget blueprint. But Cramer argues in his letter that the Obama dollars should continue to buy the United States influence over the $10 billion fund's investments.
"We should use our power to veto any projects deemed wasteful and harmful to global energy security efforts and poverty eradication objectives in the developing world," he said in the letter.
Cramer also took aim at Obama-era regulations that made possible the former president's Paris pledge to cut emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Trump is still poised to kill U.S. EPA's Clean Power Plan via executive order, has rescinded car emissions rules and is working with the GOP-controlled Congress to undo other steps taken by the last administration to control emissions.
Cramer said Trump should submit a new pledge that would "reflect a range of economic scenarios, and take in adequate input from the private sector and other interested parties." The idea of swapping the Obama pledge for a business-as-usual target has been floated for a while now, though it is likely to prove controversial internationally.
Both sides dismiss fossil concessions
Still, it appears that some Trump officials want to show that remaining in the agreement will yield immediate leverage in the form of a concrete "concession" for fossil fuel companies — a prospect that has environmentalists, diplomats and McKenna scratching their heads.
"This is borderline incomprehensible," McKenna said. "What kind of 'concessions' for fossil fuels could we be talking about? Paris is silent on compliance mechanisms, so why would anyone need 'concessions'?"
Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow on energy with the Progressive Policy Institute, echoed that sentiment.
"This notion that the U.S. is somehow going to get a fossil fuel exemption or carve-out is absurd and strikes me as just posturing for the far-right Bannon wing," he said.
The climate deal allows countries to set their own nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which is the reason Trump might have room to revise the U.S. commitment. It doesn't mandate the cessation of coal or petroleum use or set portfolio standards. It does set a long-term goal that increasingly strict NDCs are supposed to trend toward, and that would keep warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of 1.5 C.
The new, laxer Trump targets are likely to be seen as making those goals less achievable, but any change to them would anger countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change and already view Paris as insufficient, said Jake Schmidt, international climate change director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Obviously I think they're looking for some political cover for why they're sticking to the Paris Agreement but changing the contours of U.S. engagement in that agreement," he said, noting that some of Trump's supporters "want to blow up international effort on climate change because that's what they've wanted to do for almost 30 years now."
Europe seems to be a possible source for this "concession," though what it might be remains murky. White House staff members including National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn have met with European officials in the last few weeks, and there are widespread rumors that Europe is being approached about some form of request, even one that might normally fall outside the auspices of the climate negotiations process.
But Christoph Bals of Germanwatch said European officials would be hard-pressed to justify offering the Trump administration new trade benefits or other significant asks in exchange for remaining in Paris, particularly as voters in Germany, France and other countries head to the polls.
"If the E.U. Commission would do this to make life easier for coal exports of the U.S., it would be such a big scandal in Europe that I don't believe this would be possible," he said. "Those governments would be crazy to accept such a deal."
Reporter Kavya Balaraman contributed.