Donald J. Trump (1946), former real-estate developer and reality-TV host and currently the 45th President of the United States, has not published the energy and climate strategy he would pursue if reelected. This may be because his intentions are obvious: he and his administration would simply continue along the course he set in late June 2017, namely: “to usher in a golden age of American energy dominance.”
From importer to exporter
Energy dominance, for the Trump administration, has two facets. First, it means “self-reliant … [and] free from the geopolitical turmoil of other nations who seek to use energy as an economic weapon.” Second, it means that “America will export to markets around the world, increasing [its] global leadership and influence.” The first facet is unremarkable: seeking to minimize energy imports and thus exposure to foreign influence is a policy objective many countries share. The second, in the case of the United States, isn’t only remarkable; not many years ago it would’ve been unimaginable.
Throughout the 2000s oil prices rose steadily, peaking in 2008 at nearly $100 a barrel. Prices at this level made two relatively expensive extraction methods – horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” – profitable. This development dramatically increased recoverable reserves of oil and gas, particularly in China, Argentina, and the United States. More than any other country, America has assiduously exploited these new reserves, enabling it to become not only the world’s largest producer of natural gas and petroleum but also – despite its own voracious energy appetite – a net exporter of both. Ironically, many of the fracking-driven production gains occurred during the Obama administration. Nevertheless, the entrenchment of America’s status as a fossil energy superpower – along with apathy toward climate protection – is the cornerstone of President Trump’s energy policy.
License to drill
As part of his fossil-first strategy, Trump rescinded Obama’s moratorium on new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Through mid-2019, the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) had opened federal lands totaling at least 68,000 square kilometers – an area roughly the size of Lithuania – to extraction, with companies buying leases to develop about 9,300 square kilometers. Similarly, in mid-August 2020 the DOI moved forward with its plan to auction drilling leases for about 6,000 square kilometers, or 7.5 percent, of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Roughly the size of the Czech Republic, the ANWR is America’s largest protected and pristine wilderness, notable for its polar bears and caribou. It also likely harbors abundant fossil-fuel resources.
A second Trump administration would doubtlessly continue to promote resource extraction in the ANWR and on federal lands generally (and continue to face fervent and litigious opposition from environmental groups). Joe Biden, by contrast, would reinstate the Obama-era moratorium on new development. But even if elected, he may find it difficult to block companies that have already purchased drilling leases under his predecessor.
The drilling moratorium on federal lands wasn’t the only energy or climate policy Trump undid. He has also:
withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate agreement (effective November 4, 2020)
revoked an exemption enabling California – the world’s fifth-largest economy – to pursue stricter vehicle emissions standards than the federal government
relaxed decarbonization standards for fossil-fueled power stations (albeit, according to the White House, thereby saving American households nearly $80 billion in higher electricity prices)
moved forward with the Keystone XL oil pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to southeast Nebraska, a controversial project the Obama administration had abandoned in November 2015.
Altogether, the Trump administration has undone, or is in the process of undoing, about 100 environmental rules on everything from air and water quality to the protection of endangered species (the New York Times has compiled a list). If reelected, Trump would almost certainly continue to deregulate.
President Trump and his supporters would argue that such rules are onerous and needlessly hinder business activity for the sake of ill-defined – and perhaps illusory –environmental and climate benefits. His opponents would argue that the rules are crucial safeguards for the health of people and the planet. That’s how polarizing U.S. energy and climate politics are. Whether America voters embrace Trump’s “golden era of energy dominance” or Biden’s “clean equitable energy future” will be decided on November 3.