New Thinking: Contemporary US Political Party Energy Politics

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on Nov 10, 15 • posted by

New Thinking: Contemporary US Political Party Energy Politics

CM cropped medContemporary US Political Party Energy Politics – still a lot to play for 

Catherine Mitchell, IGov Team, 10th November 2015

Just once in a while one goes to a meeting where one learns an awful lot in a short time. A three-person slot at a University of Columbia’s Energy Symposium about US energy politics last week was one of those wonderful knowledge transfer events – not really because of the deep knowledge base of the speakers – which is often the case – but, much more rarely, because the speakers (Heather Zichal and Jeffrey Kupfer) were incredibly engaging and absolutely not up-themselves despite their impressive CVs, and because they gave direct and easy to understand answers. The meeting was helped by two things: firstly, being chaired by Jason Bordoff, himself an ex White House insider, who got the event off to a good start by asking a series of focused questions; and secondly, because President Obama had just announced his decision to reject construction of the Keystone Pipeline (KP) 3 hours earlier.

No one person at the event is responsible for the following points, but I took six main conclusions away from the discussion : that the Keystone Pipeline decision is in line with Obama’s determination to leave a green legacy; that it has empowered the environmental movement in the US; that the NY Attorney General’s decision to investigate Exxon will feed into the growing political importance of the ‘drill baby drill’ versus the ‘keep-it-in-the ground’ debate; that US environmental steps forward, like the Clean Power Plan, are still contested; that Republican views now differ on climate change, and the means to mitigate it, and as such, whilst a new Republican President may put road blocks in the way of new legislation, the current legislation, such as the CPP, is unlikely to unravel completely; and, finally, there is still a lot at stake between the two parties, even in the absence of new legislation.

The Keystone Pipeline Decision

It is agreed that a key dimension of the Keystone Pipeline announcement is about cementing Obama’s green legacy, and about placing him where he wants to be in the run up to Paris. A more long term point for the USA, is what it means for the USA environmental movement, and what lessons they will take away from it.

The anti-Keystone movement has largely come from university campuses; 360 degrees; NGOs and has not had a lot of money behind it. It symbolises that people / NGOs can make a difference and this will give them – and the keep-it-in the ground movement – a lot of confidence.

One could argue that both sides set out very black and white arguments for and against the pipeline. Quite apart from the rights and wrongs of this, the 7 year process is clearly not how an open and legitimate regulatory / infrastructural decision should be made. However, the jury is now out on whether the KP process is the first of many such decisions to be made as a result of this type of political campaign – not least because those involved in the campaign (on both sides) have learnt how to get across simple messages.

The NY Investigation of Exxon

The NY Attorney General recently announced that the state of New York is investigating whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors about the risks of climate change. This is a very complex and interesting move with lots of debate about the rights and wrongs of it, but one can expect that Exxon will increasingly become a focal point in the US environmental movement, as KP was.

One of the lessons learnt from KP, is that it is easier to get across a focused environmental issue to the USA public. It is harder to communicate to the USA people what a sensible energy policy is, and because of this the environmental debate over the next few years at least is likely to be between the ‘drill baby drill’ and the ‘keep-it-in-the-ground’ factions.

What is at stake in the next Presidential Election?

Another country’s political system can be hard to grasp, and I find that particularly so of the US. Despite a Democrat President, Republicans are in control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. This means that from the perspective of the Democrats, at the moment, there is an absence of sufficient power to get new legislation through. Failing something unexpected happening, this means that the Democrats have to work with what they have got – mainly the Clean Power Plan – and then on energy policy areas that Republicans are also broadly in support of. Republicans, on the other hand, are less and less a homogenous voice on energy and climate.

With respect to energy, if one looks at polling, fewer republicans would say climate change is a problem compared to Democrats but it is still over 50% who do say that it is an important topic which should be dealt with. The key difference between the Republicans and Democrats is no longer whether climate change exists or not but more what priority the environment has in relation to other issues; and the details of how climate change should be dealt with.

Overall therefore it would appear to be hard for a Republican Presidential candidate to run on a straight climate change denier ticket, and therefore Republican arguments are likely to be around ‘needing to be prepared’ for climate change impacts.

The Authority that the US Government has is mostly under the CPP. Different States have different positions on the CPP – some in support, and some against it. However, there are Republican States which are saying that they are broadly OK with it; and similarly some companies are also saying ‘ lets keep going with it’ . As a result, it seems unlikely that there will be a fundamental move against it.

Were there a Democrat President, in the absence of sufficient power to get new legislation through, then one can imagine there will be support behind the various tax credits used to support renewables; support for the CPP; and then probably moves against the ‘fractionistas’ – ie legislation to close loopholes around public disclosure of fracking which has broad support.

Thus, there is a lot at stake between the two parties, even in the absence of new legislation.


Obama has clearly taken the USA into a new era with climate and energy. Some individual States are very progressive; FERC – the trans US transmission regulator – is also pretty progressive – and together that means that there is a lot happening in the USA which is interesting to the rest of the world. That the President has made this symbolic KP gesture is also positive but it is also clear that this is early days of a progressive Federal energy and climate policy.

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