JUICE: Trump & CA’s Clean Energy House

5 Apr 2017

President Donald Trump’s growling about climate-friendly federal laws, rules and programs could be worse than his greenhouse gas emissions bite to California’s climate protection efforts, at least in the short term.

But, threatened financial chomps are a concern with the possible slashing of federal funding for state renewable energy programs and low-income energy assistance. Sharp teeth also are being barred at energy savings in California with the possible elimination of the federal Energy Star program budget.

The Golden State relies heavily on energy efficiency to help meet its carbon reduction mandate.

The California Energy Commission, utility efficiency programs and some cities rely on the voluntary federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program.

Energy Star appliances and buildings sold in California generally exceed CEC energy efficiency codes and standards. The voluntary program covers 70 categories of energy efficient products.

California can only set mandatory appliance efficiency standards for devices not regulated by the federal government.

The voluntary federal Energy Star program is used as a benchmark for utility energy efficiency programs. California’s private utilities spend $1 billion a year on energy savings.

If Energy Star disappears, 90 percent of consumers will lack energy efficiency information, and utilities will lack a critical tool in their energy programs, said Lowell Unger, senior policy analyst with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

However, given its technical expertise and dedication to energy savings, the CEC is fairly well positioned to recreate Energy Star in California’s large market.

Trump has threatened to cut the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which provides financial assistance to struggling customers with utility bills and programs to cut wasteful energy use.

The $3 billion 2016 federal program budget included $159 million to California.

Another considerable source of funding for the state is the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy. Trump said he wants to do away with this office’s state renewable and weatherization programs. DOE’s State Energy Program provides grants to advance clean energy.

California was awarded more than $8 million last year from the State Energy Program and Weatherization Assistance Program. Since 2010, it has benefited from a total of $45.5 million in grants from the program, according to DOE.

Getting rid of the new Bureau of Land Management’s rules to reduce emissions from  flaring natural gas in oil and gas fields on federal land won’t cause the Golden State’s temperature to rise immediately. The Methane & Waste Prevention Rule was only finalized last November. Also, it was to be rolled out in phases to attain a 50 percent reduction in flaring.

However, oil and gas production on public lands is not an insignificant source of emissions.

BLM managed public lands in California had 6,854 producing gas and oil wells last year, covering more than 200,000 acres. About 95 percent of the leases are in Kern County, according to BLM.

Nationally, oil and gas production operations on federal land vent 30 billion cubic feet a year of methane to the atmosphere and flare some 80 billion cubic feet.

A BLM spokesperson said that last year oil and gas producers on federal land in California flared 71 million cubic feet of methane. It’s unknown how much methane was vented by these operators, but all things being equal based upon the proportion of wells in California on federal land the number could be quite high, at more than 2 billion cubic feet a year.

California is developing its own requirements for well operators—beyond those already in place—and conceivably could enforce them in lieu of BLM requirements. However, it likely would face a fight with the oil industry and federal government in doing so, according to independent legal experts.

Meanwhile, other proposed reversals of federal pollution emission reduction rules can be offset by state specific clean energy programs. In addition, some federal programs on the chopping block won’t impact California.

Among those are Trump’s plan to rescind Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

First, the regulatory program to get the power industry to cut emissions 30 percent by 2030 was stayed by a court. Mid-week, the suing parties asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to reject the Trump Administration’s request to halt the case. In addition, the plan doesn’t require real action by the power industry to cut carbon emissions until 2022.

Additionally, nothing in Trump’s order prevents California from going forward with its own renewable portfolio standard requirements, greenhouse gas reduction efforts, energy efficiency standards, or its requirement that state utilities phase out their interests in out-of-state coal power plants.

The practical impact of eliminating the clean power plan is that it will allow states with predominantly coal power supplies to continue to operate as they did before Obama. That would affect the atmosphere toward the middle of the next decade compared to how it would have been under the clean power plan, but even that is not a foregone conclusion as a lot can happen between now and then, and coal is not a fuel favored by the market.

Trump’s call for the federal EPA to reopen automotive fuel efficiency standards for the years 2022-25 has been decried by environmentalists, but may not amount to much in the final analysis. Also, despite non-specific scuttlebutt about Washington seeking to eliminate the Clean Air Act waiver that has allowed California to set its own automotive emissions standards since 1968, Trump’s actual executive order does not mention any such action.

It’s worth noting that the dynamic Hollywood Republican duo of former Gov. Ronald Reagan and Sen. George Murphy managed to soft shoe through Congress the amendment that allows California to set its own standards. Ever since, it’s had bipartisan support.

What’s really at issue in reopening the review of the standards, which the Obama Administration reaffirmed before leaving office, are auto company doubts about the willingness of the car-buying public to purchase the number of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles they’ll need to sell to comply with a 54.5 mile a gallon fuel efficiency standard. Auto companies don’t question the need to continue to make and sell electric vehicles, but don’t want to be penalized if consumers don’t buy them.

Low gasoline prices and the inability of many to rely solely on an electric car to meet their driving needs has put the dream of electric transportation beyond the reach of most consumers. That’s true even in California where state officials remain bullish about the prospects of electric cars and have bent over backwards to advance them by subsidizing vehicle purchases and installations of charging stations. They’ve even given electric vehicle owners the right to drive in carpool lanes with only one person in the car.

Our hunch is that Trump won’t discard the mileage standard, but modify it in a way that allows California and those states that have opted to adopt California’s version of the requirement to continue in their bids to electrify cars. At the same time, he’ll probably reduce the mileage standard enough to allow higher mileage gasoline and hybrid vehicles alone to suffice everywhere else.

Whatever happens, mileage efficiency seems likely to continue to improve. Auto companies and their supply chains have just invested too much money in the capacity to build fuel efficient cars to throw it all away and go back to the days of heavy steel gas guzzlers whatever NASCAR fans may think.

—The Editors

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