Viewpoint: What Does Trump’s Election Mean for Hydroelectric Power in the US?

By now, we all know what happened.

We know that Donald J. Trump has been elected President of the United States, and we know that the Republican Party has won majorities in both the House and Senate.

What we do not know are what implications the 2016 election might have for the hydroelectric power industry — or, just as important, what it might mean for the climate change initiatives already set in motion by the Obama administration.

Based entirely on planks delivered by Trump throughout his campaign, however, it’s not impossible to form a legitimate view of the president-elect’s yet-to-be-announced energy plan which, perhaps unsurprisingly, bears an uncanny similarity to that pushed by Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the 2012 election.

The plan relies heavily on expanding petroleum and natural gas production as pillars of strategic and economic “American energy dominance”, with the resurrection of the Keystone XL pipeline project also being considered a strong possibility.

And though a reversion back to a fossil-fuel heavy policy is cause enough for concern given the steps the United States has taken toward a more renewables-based grid since President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address in which he promised an “all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” there are a number of other issues that will likely come into play given statements made by Trump throughout the campaign period.

Here are a few additional thoughts:

You’re (Fossil) Fired

Though he subsequently denied it, Trump tweeted in November 2012 that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Judgement on Trump’s reluctance to heed near universally accepted scientific research aside, it is notable that the president-elect made repeated allusions to “rescind all job-destroying Obama executive actions”, including the Climate Action Plan.

Unveiled in June 2013, the Climate Action Plan would particularly affect energy sources powered by fossil fuels — notably coal — in an effort to reduce the U.S.’ carbon dioxide emissions, while also accelerating the permitting of renewables, including hydro, solar, wind and geothermal.

Trump has consistently maintained, however, that the plan is a detriment to the country’s workforce, citing declining numbers of active oil rigs, refusals by the Obama administration to open Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling, and efforts by Sen. Hillary Clinton to relax proposed regulations on fracking.

This is reflected in Trump’s 100-day action plan, which says he intends to “unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves, plus hundreds of years in clean coal reserves.”

We’ll Always Have Paris. Or Not

The move by President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping to formally join the United Nation’s Paris Climate Agreement in September was seen as a watershed given that the U.S. and China represent the world’s two largest producers of greenhouse gasses. Through the agreement, the U.S. vowed to cut its CO2 emissions by at least 26 percent over the next 16 years compared to 2005 levels.

It is perhaps ironic then that Trump’s insistence that he would see the accord “scrapped and scrapped completely” led to a flurry of countries rushing to sign off on the agreement, which needed signatures from 55 countries that cumulatively contribute 55 percent of global emissions for ratification.

The immediate future of the Paris agreement seems, on its face alone, secure given that it received the necessary approvals to be made legally binding just last Friday, though Trump has indicated that he might shun international scorn by either renegotiating or ignoring its terms. Regardless, it would take the U.S. four years to formally withdraw from the treaty.

And Together We Are…. The Two Amigos

Just as symbolic as Obama’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement was a historic partnership announced by the heads of state from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. over the summer.

The North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan, signed by the so-called “Three Amigos” in July, calls for 50% of all North American energy to come from clean sources — including hydropower — by 2025.

The agreement was hailed by energy leaders both inside and outside the hydro sector not only for its comprehensive, long-term approach to environmentally sustainable infrastructure growth, but also its efforts to promote cross-border collaboration.

Trump has yet to specifically address the plan, though his emphasis on building America’s energy infrastructure on his own terms (read: fossil fuel-based) does not seem to bode well for what Obama called a “turning point for the world.”

Trump’s Choices for FERC and the Supreme Court will be Yuuuuuuuuuuuge

With the departure of Tony Clark from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September, the agency was left with a trio of Democrats in Chairman Norman Bay and Commissioners Cheryl LaFleur and Colette Honorable. Law states no more than three of the up-to-five commissioners can be of the same political party, however, so Obama’s appointees would still hold the majority until at least June 30, 2017, when Honorable’s five-year term expires. It would seem probable then that Trump would guide the agency to a Republican majority, and likely find Democrats more sympathetic to his philosophies when Bay and LaFleur’s terms end in June 2018 and June 2019, respectively.

Far more significant will be Trump’s appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, which already has one vacancy following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. The age of several other current members would also suggest other openings might be probable during Trump’s presidency. And since the judges hold indefinite tenures, Trump’s selections could have an influence on policy that extends far past the end of his administration.

Will the Pen be Mightier than the Congress?

It is important to note that the most significant pieces of hydro-specific legislation enacted by Obama — specifically the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act and Bureau of Reclamation Small Conduit Hydropower Development and Rural Jobs Act — were both bi-partisan bills that enjoyed immense support from both sides of the aisle. And even with a GOP-controlled House and Senate since the 2014 mid-term election, Congress has continued to push legislation like the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2015 that would benefit both America’s conventional and marine energy sectors.

The question then does not necessarily seem to be if a Republican Congress will support renewables, but whether or not Trump would exercise his authority to veto bills calling for their implementation.

The Money Has To Come from Somewhere

Federal budgets proposed and passed throughout Obama’s tenure have included significant funding for the conventional, pumped-storage and marine energy sectors across a gamut ranging from dam repairs to technology research and development.

Key amongst these have been allocations made for the Bureau of Reclamation’s WaterSMART and America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) programs, which include hundreds of millions of dollars in financing for infrastructure maintenance and watershed use studies.

Also not to be forgotten are the millions in federal dollars that have been spent not only on the Department of Energy’s Hydropower Vision plan that seeks to establish a long-term roadmap for American hydro growth, but also DOE’s HydroNEXT initiative that will provide funding for non-powered dam, pumped-storage and new stream-reach development.

Though it is still too early to say, the unknown is still if Trump will value momentum built during the Obama administration, or if he would rather move the attention — and money — back toward fossil fuels.

Power Still Rests with the States

Even lacking guidance toward renewables from the White House, the fate of America’s energy future still largely falls to the state level. States still have the authority to dictate their own portfolio standards, and though Trump’s projected policies will likely be a boon for states already opposed to national legislation like the Clean Power Plan, the number of other states that have adopted or are considering renewable portfolio standards continues to increase.

This article was originally published by HydroWorld.com and was republished with permission.

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