Backpedaling Our Energy Policy

Charles Landau, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The next administration has promised to reverse course on several centerpiece energy policies of recent years. Besides the politics behind doing so, let’s take a look at what the effects and consequences of backpedaling would be. The biggest changes will focus on two interconnected policy decisions, the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement.

The Clean Power Plan

Generally speaking, the Clean Power Plan is an EPA rule that requires states to create plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and submit them for approval to the EPA. The EPA assigned target emissions reductions for each state based on several factors, and each state’s plan needed to have a reasonable path toward meeting that target. States had broad leeway to decide how they would achieve those reductions, for example with a ‘cap and trade’ system, carbon tax, investment, and regulation to encourage energy efficiency or green energy production, and so on.


Lawsuits against the rule started almost immediately after it was announced, and there were many of them. Presently, the legal battle has been mostly consolidated into one lawsuit, which consists of  over 35 seperate lawsuits filed by utility companies and states attorneys generals.. Analysts widely expect the lawsuits will be moot now that the incoming administration is expected to withdraw support for the Clean Power Plan. However, it’s still worth looking at the map of states who support or oppose the suit because it might predict what they’ll do if the rule is cancelled.

Many of the states that have supported the Clean Power Plan may continue to act more or less as if the plan remains in effect regardless of whether the rule is struck down. However, those states only accounted for 28% of U.S. carbon emissions in 2014 (the last year in which EIA data is currently available).



As policy and investment shifts back toward fossil fuel, policy options for reducing carbon emissions in the future will be foreclosed. For example, most of the energy produced from coal as of 2012 came from power plants between 21 and 60 years old. Building new coal-fired plants to replace the oldest generators in the fleet would be a long term investment, and reversing course later would be painful and difficult in terms of sunk costs and jobs lost.

The Paris Agreement

The Clean Power Plan wasn’t just domestic policy – it was the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s effort to bring the global community together around an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 21 (COP 21). The Paris Agreement of December 2015 that came out of that conference was a landmark deal where practically every country on earth with meaningful greenhouse gas emissions resolved to reduce them.

The United States has invested a great deal of political capital in the agreement, which was ratified only a few days before the November 8th election. Although the agreement does not include any formal enforcement mechanism, the diplomatic consequences of pulling out could be severe. Speaking in an interview with the Washington Post, Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme sounded an optimistic note, saying, “Of course, we want the United States to play a role … The global community will judge the United States on its actions, and we’ll see what happens in the months to come.”


“An optimistic view is that China, India, Canada, and Brazil will assume that we’re going to come to our senses after one or two Presidential cycles and basically catch up by making deeper reductions later,” wrote Prof. Peter Linquitti of George Washington’s Trachtenberg School. “So they’ll go forward with their own reductions. The other view is that when these countries see a lack of U.S. commitment, they’ll be extremely wary of doing anything significant on emissions reductions.  That could be a severe problem for the global climate.” In addition to Prof. Linquitti’s concerns, the Paris Agreement is centered around a commitment from every country to try to keep the global average temperature from rising 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The U.S. is still a major emitter of greenhouse gases, and if emissions mitigation policy rolls back, then the target could become unreachable – and failing to hit the target is expected to have serious health and food supply repercussions worldwide.

Backtracking on our domestic and international commitments to combat climate change would be an unforced error. The longer it takes for policymakers to commit to a sustainable course of action, the more painful it will be to right the ship later on. The next administration should take a hard look at the science before committing to any course of action, because on this subject, having a data and science-driven policy is paramount.

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