Environment & Science

What Trump's energy and environment cabinet picks mean for CA

Pumpjacks are seen in an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation on March 23, 2014 near McKittrick, California. President-elect Trump's Cabinet appointees have strong ties to the oil and gas industry.
Pumpjacks are seen in an oil field on the Monterey Shale formation on March 23, 2014 near McKittrick, California. President-elect Trump's Cabinet appointees have strong ties to the oil and gas industry.
David McNew/Getty Images

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This week, we got a sense of President-elect Donald Trump's environment and energy priorities through the proposed cabinet members he's chosen, and key appointments have ties to one industry in particular -- oil and gas.

In order to understand what that could mean for California, let's examine four of the recent picks– Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil and nominee for Secretary of State; Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas and nominee for Department of Energy; Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General and nominee for the EPA, and Ryan Zinke, Congressman from Montana and nominee for Department of Interior.

DEPARTMENT OF INTERIOR

Called the “Department of Everything Else,” because it’s in charge of so much, the Department of Interior oversees the national parks, endangered species protection, dam construction and water management, working with Indian nations and energy development on federal land. It is best known as the agency in charge of 500 million acres of federal land -- one fifth the area of the United States -- including nearly 50 percent of California.

Trump's choice to lead the Department of Interior is first-term Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, a man that Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, called "all over the map on public lands" in an interview with the LA Times due to his shifting opinions on transferring federal lands to the states. 

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and native Montanan, questions whether humans contribute to climate change. In a 2014 debate for his U.S. Congress seat, Zinke said, “The evidence strongly suggests that humans have had an influence on higher CO2...however, the evidence is equally as strong that there are other factors, such as rising ocean temperatures, that have a greater influence.”

Zinke's home state of Montana has had an oil boom in recent years, and he is a proponent of increasing oil and gas production on federal lands. Indeed, the oil and gas industry was a top donor to his campaign. 

Although California is the No. 3 oil-producing state, any push to open more federal land to oil and gas drilling isn't likely to have much impact here.

That's because just seven percent of fossil fuel production in California comes from federal land. The vast majority comes from private land, where the state has oversight.  

"I think regardless of who’s in the White House, people in California and producers in California aren’t going to see a dramatic change in the experience of oil and gas production," said Dave Quast of the California oil and gas advocacy group Energy in Depth.

The Department of Interior does control offshore drilling, something president-elect Trump has expressed his support for expanding.

However this fall, President Obama passed a five-year moratorium on drilling off the California coast that would be difficult to reverse. Gov. Jerry Brown is now asking Obama to make the moratorium permanent. And Quast says he's unaware of any companies interested in drilling offshore.

Another significant way Zinke's Department of Interior could affect California is through the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act.

"California is a biological hot spot in terms of biological diversity. We also have a lot of development pressures, and administration of the Endangered Species Act is really important," said Dan Farber, the co-director of the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment at Berkeley Law.

Zinke could instruct the US Fish and Wildlife service's biologists to favor agricultural and development interests over efforts to protect endangered species, Farber said.

DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is Trump's choice to head the Department of Energy, which is tasked with overseeing nuclear weapons and cleaning up nuclear waste, not energy development (that's an Interior Department responsibility). The DoE is also in charge of 17 national laboratories, including four in California, which do research on things like renewable energy technology, advanced physics and climate change.

Texas is America's No. 1 oil-producing state, and Perry is loyal to the industry. He sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners, the company building the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline. He also oversaw an expansion of wind energy in Texas, even though he has been a climate change denier.

"The science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet to me is just nonsense," he said in 2011 while running for president.

Under President Obama, the Department of Energy passed a lot of energy efficiency standards for appliances. Farber said Perry's DoE could be less willing to do so, leaving California to enact its own. 

Perry could also throttle back subsidies and loan guarantees for renewable energy companies and cut funding to the national labs, impacting the advancement of climate science and research into new renewable energy technology, which California has a vested interest in. Already the Trump transition team has asked the DoE for the names of employees working on climate science, so Perry could potentially steer the department away from that kind of work.

This week, Gov. Brown told scientists gathered at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco that he was going to fight back against any such cuts. 

“I am the president of the Board of Regents. I am going to say, ‘Keep your hands off. That laboratory is going to pursue good science,'" he said.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment, and it does this by enforcing the environmental laws that are passed by Congress. To do so, the agency writes regulations and makes sure they're being followed. It enforces them if they aren't.

In conservative, fossil-fuel dependent states like Oklahoma, where Trump's choice to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is from, EPA is a four-letter word. One in in seven jobs in Oklahoma is in the oil and gas industry. When Pruitt ran for re-election for Attorney General, the CEO of the oil company Continental Resources was the co-chair of his campaign. While in office, Pruitt allowed oil companies to write letters on state stationary and send them to the EPA, according to The New York Times. 

As Attorney Genral, Pruitt filed many lawsuits against EPA. He was so eager to sue over the Clean Power Plan, the Obama Administration’s proposal to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, that he filed his lawsuit before the rule was finalized, causing his suit to get tossed out of court.

Under Pruitt, the Clean Power Plan is most certainly dead. For California, that means a difficult, expensive and lonely road in pursuing carbon reductions. California has a goal of cutting its emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

As written, the plan requires state to cut carbon emission from power plants any way they want as long as they hit mandated targets. California had hoped states would adopt its "cap and trade" program, which incentivizes plants to cut pollution through market-based carbon trading. 

"If there are more states cooperating it makes it cheaper for us," Farber said. "We can link our cap and trade system with other states."

Without nationwide carbon regulations, companies that are unhappy with California's rules could also move out of state, although California lawmakers have instructed regulators to try to prevent that.

Another way Pruitt's EPA could impact California is by denying the state the ability to pass environmental laws that are stricter than the federal equivalent, something the state has done more than 50 times, according to The New York Times. For example, during the Bush Administration, the EPA denied California's request to set carbon dioxide emissions standards from cars and trucks. According to The New York Times, it was the first time that had happened.

Still, Ken Kimmell, head of the Union of Concerned Scientists, says California's existing laws are safe.

"California has some very strong laws and regulations in place to protect the environment, to protect public health, to move forward on climate change, and none of those law and regulations will be stopped or impeded by a new administration," he said.

That said, "it really is adding up to what I call a government of by and for the oil and gas industry," he said.

SECRETARY OF STATE

Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil CEO, for Secretary of State is perhaps the most obvious example of oil influence. His impact on climate and the environment in California would be most obvious in whether the United States sticks with commitments made in the 2015 Paris Agreement (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below the 2005 level by 2025) because, as with the Clean Power Plan, pulling out would further isolate California in its climate goals.

Tillerson supports the Paris Agreement, even though Trump does not, so it's unclear what will happen.

Meanwhile, California's leadership is strongly committed to Paris, and has even wondered whether they can sign the agreement in place of a US representative (they cannot).