A Democrat in the White House Could Do Plenty to Fight Climate Change

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(Bloomberg) -- There’s a playbook for U.S. presidents using executive authority to curb climate change, and it was written by Barack Obama. Rules to curtail air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and oil drilling took hold under his administration, all without cooperation from Congress. Together, they made it more expensive to develop fossil fuel and hastened the closure of coal power plants.

Though President Donald Trump is using the same executive powers to reverse many of those rules—exposing the weakness of the approach—it's still the go-to strategy for Democrats seeking to unseat him. From Democratic front-runner Bernie Sanders to insurgent would-be challenger Michael Bloomberg, Trump's potential opponents have tried to outdo each other by proposing policies such as eliminating coal plants, banning mining on public lands, and restricting gasoline-powered vehicles that would be difficult, if not impossible to get through a divided Congress. (Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

There are some meaningful differences among the plans—most notably when it comes to fracking—but any Democrat entering the White House would have to pull the same levers of executive authority to put them in motion. The strategy under Obama was “death by a thousand cuts,” says Wayne D’Angelo, an environmental lawyer at Kelley Drye and Warren LLP, and he doesn’t expect an incoming Democratic administration would do any differently. “The president has got lots and lots of power to put a hurtin’ on the energy industry,” he says.

Here’s how they might use it:

Slow down production

Federal lands and waters together produce 24% of U.S. crude oil. If a Democrat winds up in the White House, much of the climate policy narrative would likely play out on that real estate, over which the president has broad control. Take the drilling leases the Interior Department sells to oil and gas companies. “Yanking existing leases is hard,” says James Lucier, managing director of research firm Capital Alpha Partners LLC. But the president can make these contracts more difficult to exploit through incremental policies that would restrict drilling or raise the royalties paid for extracted oil. Simply by increasing scrutiny of applications to use federal rights of way, the Interior Department could make it more difficult for developers to build pipelines and other necessary infrastructure.

Stop new drilling

Blocking companies from securing new drilling and mining rights would be easier still. A future Democratic president could take another cue from Obama by initiating a broad environmental analysis of selling federal oil leases and coal mining rights—and then pausing those sales in the meantime. Although the Trump administration swiftly lifted an Obama-issued moratorium on coal leasing and canceled the underlying environmental study, the next president could restart it just as easily, plus use the same strategy to freeze new licenses to export natural gas.

Encouraging alternatives

The power of the presidency can also be marshaled to propel alternative power—something all of the Democrats have committed to doing. The regulatory cudgel used on extractive industries can also be wielded to hasten the retirement of coal-fired power plants and encourage utilities to invest in emission-free renewable power instead. While that’s happening, new government loan guarantees could be used to spur research and development on energy storage, which will be necessary to rely and wind or solar power at scale. And while presidents can’t ban gasoline-powered vehicles outright, they can ratchet up fuel economy standards and tailpipe emissions limits so only electric-powered vehicles make the cut.

Top Democrats already have vowed to go far beyond the 54 mile-per-gallon target charted by Obama, with both Sanders and Elizabeth Warren insisting on zero-emission vehicles by 2030. Both tougher mileage standards and clean power rules can be imposed without Congress—a virtue celebrated by Amy Klobuchar during the debate in Nevada earlier this month.

The nuclear option

While some policy shifts would have to go through the same cumbersome review process that’s slowed down Trump’s deregulatory ambitions, others could be deployed immediately via one of the president’s own strategies: the declaration of a national emergency. Trump used the tactic in February of last year to divert $3.6 billion of the Department of Defense’s military construction budget to build a wall along the southern border. A future president who was so inclined could use it to shut down some 2.56 million barrels a day of crude exports, suspend offshore drilling, and curtail the movement of fossil fuels on pipelines, trains and ships.

Tom Steyer made the issue a central promise of his now-defunct campaign, vowing to declare a national climate emergency immediately after taking office. But he was hardly alone; Sanders and Warren have both made similar pledges, a recognition of the move’s rhetorical power as well as its practical might. And while Democrats blasted Trump’s border wall declaration and challenged it in court, even a legal defeat could help the White House make a climate emergency proclamation airtight.

“Now that we’ve crossed the Rubicon of ‘declare an emergency and get what you want,’ the nice guy days of Democratic administrations are kind of over,” says David Goldwyn, a former State Department special envoy under Obama.

Prevent fracking

Even an emergency declaration wouldn’t be enough to empower a future Democratic president to outlaw fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, a drilling technique that involves pumping water, sand, and chemicals underground to free oil and gas from dense rock formations. Fracking is used on as many as 95% of U.S. wells and is largely responsible for driving domestic oil and natural gas to their current record highs. And under a 2005 law, the Environmental Protection Agency has almost no regulatory power over it.

Nevertheless, Sanders and Warren have made banning fracking a top campaign pledge, targeting young primary voters who support a “keep-it-in-the-ground” philosophy. But the issue divides the Democratic field, with Biden, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar all promoting greater limits on fracking instead of an outright ban. Bloomberg has even dismissed a moratorium as impractical, asserting during the Nevada debate that “we’re not going to get rid of fracking for a while.”

Kevin Book, managing director of research firm ClearView Energy Partners, suggests taking these pledges “seriously rather than literally,” as a statement of principle more than a policy proposal. A future president who wanted to clamp down on upstream oil and gas production in other ways could have the EPA restrain or even block oil companies from storing drilling-related wastewater underground, a move that could raise costs for other disposal techniques and make some wells too expensive to operate. Limits on emissions from oil wells and infrastructure also could prove too costly for some companies and effectively curb overall production.

Even as a metaphor, however, talk of a fracking ban could alienate voters in crucial swing states where voters depend on fracking-related jobs. Some 54% of swing voters in the one-time Democratic strongholds of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and drilling hotbed Pennsylvania think a ban on hydraulic fracturing is a bad idea, according to a survey from Kaiser Family Foundation and the Cook Political Report released last November.

A sea change

Outside domestic policy, Goldwyn, the Obama envoy, sees an opportunity for a Democratic president to advance climate policy through trade—just as Trump has used the might of American consumers to try and extract more favorable terms from longtime trading partners. “The carrot will be market access and resumption of trade agreements,” Goldwyn says. “The cost will be cleaning up your act on climate. And when you put it that way, it’s probably not that expensive.”

Democrats could do far more if they win control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, a political upheaval that would be less like a pendulum swing and “more like a catapult,” Book says. But having all these powers doesn’t mean a Democratic president would use them. No matter the vote count, they’d face economic and political headwinds once in office.

Fears of spiking gasoline prices and harming blue-collar manufacturing jobs in swing states would restrain some shifts, says Benjamin Salisbury, a senior policy analyst at Height Capital Markets. “For essentially all of the candidates, protecting poor people and economic justice are a more immediate priority,” Salisbury says. “So something that increases unemployment and reduces federal income—whatever the benefits may be—is working in the wrong direction.”

A federal bench filled with hand-picked Trump appointees could stymie even politically safe options. Even so, court reversals could take years. And in the meantime, energy companies could be blocked from prime drilling spots or forced to abandon some projects. Market changes could be locked in, too.

Consider the Obama administration’s rule requiring mercury pollution controls on power plants. Trump’s EPA has proposed tossing out the legal justification for those standards, potentially setting the stage for their reversal in court. But utilities estimate they’ve already spent at least $18 million installing the required equipment. Others have refitted coal power plants to run on natural gas or shuttered them altogether. Ultimately, analysts say, it doesn’t matter what happens to the requirements now. Those coal plants aren't coming back.

READ MORE: The Climate Gap Between Republican Voters and Lawmakers

Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. He has also committed $500 million to launch Beyond Carbon, a campaign aimed at closing the remaining coal-powered plants in the U.S. by 2030 and slowing the construction of new gas plants.

To contact the author of this story: Jennifer A Dlouhy in Washington at jdlouhy1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net, Aaron Rutkoff

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