Remaining Presidential Contenders Differ Radically on Climate, Fossil Fuels

Published May 27, 2016

Donald Trump would reverse many of the regulations the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposed on the economy—regulations he says are costing coal, natural gas, and oil jobs—while Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) want to build on EPA’s regulations to end the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

Those are the messages Trump, the only remaining Republican presidential candidate, and Sanders and Clinton are delivering on the campaign trail.

On his campaign website, Sanders calls climate change “the single greatest threat facing our planet.” To prevent climate change, Sanders says he wants to halt fracking for oil and gas production entirely, expand the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) to regulate methane emissions, and cut U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by over 80 percent by 2050, in part by creating a tax on carbon dioxide.

Clinton says climate change is “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our times,” and she has joined Sanders’ call to substantially increase subsidies for renewable-energy production. Clinton recently announced she would support a plan to force energy companies to produce enough renewable energy to power every home in America by the end of her first term.

Clinton and Sanders’ energy policies are not exactly the same. Clinton rejects Sanders’ call for a carbon dioxide tax, and she says she would allow fracking to continue, although she says there would need to be increased regulatory scrutiny for fracking businesses.

Clinton also says carbon dioxide emissions would need to be reduced by 30 percent over the next decade. To meet that goal, Clinton said at an early March campaign stop in Ohio, “We’re going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”

Trump Rejects Carbon Restrictions

In stark contrast to Sanders and Clinton, Trump is openly skeptical of scientists, advocacy groups, and politicians who say humans are causing dangerous climate change. On Twitter, Trump has called climate change a “con job,” a “canard,” and a “hoax.”

In a September 21, 2015, appearance on the Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Trump said, “I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. I mean, Obama thinks it’s the number-one problem of the world today, and I think it’s very low on the list … we have much bigger problems.”

In response to a questionnaire provided by the American Energy Alliance, which Sanders and Clinton failed to return, Trump says he would cut EPA’s budget dramatically and review all EPA regulations. Trump says many EPA regulations would be eliminated because, “Over-regulation presents one of the greatest barriers to entry into markets and one of the greatest costs to businesses that are trying to stay competitive.”

Among the EPA decisions Trump has singled out for review and likely reversal are the conclusion carbon dioxide endangers public health and welfare; the social cost of carbon dioxide calculation, which is used to justify climate regulations; the Clean Power Plan; and the Obama administration’s recent restrictions on oil and gas exploration and production on public lands.

Trump has also used social media to voice his support for traditional energy businesses, tweeting, “Obama’s war on coal is killing American jobs, making us more energy dependent on our enemies & creating a great business disadvantage.” 

The Unknown and the Known

Policy analysts and state legislators enmeshed in energy policy see the choice between Trump and the Democrat nominee as a choice between the unknown and the known.

“With respect to the presidential candidates on energy and climate policy, borrowing a phrase from former U.S. Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld, we have two ‘known knowns’ and one ‘known unknown,'” said Merrill Matthews, resident scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation. “We know both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will likely double down on President Obama’s war on fossil fuels and expand crony capitalist efforts to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to various green-energy companies, most of which are likely to be big Democratic donors.

“Donald Trump is the known unknown, as he is in so many policy areas,” Matthews said.  “He has expressed support for fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and he has raised questions about climate change.  He would almost certainly be more supportive of the fossil-fuel industry than Clinton or Sanders, but at this point, we don’t know by how much.”

West Virginia State Del. Joshua Nelson (R-Boone) says Trump’s support for coal miners will almost certainly help him in states dependent on the coal industry during the general election.

“Donald Trump is doing well in coal country, especially in West Virginia, because he is speaking directly to mine families, talking about the value of coal to the nation’s energy security,” said Nelson. “By contrast, Clinton and Sanders would continue and expand the policies implemented by the Obama administration, which have resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and expanded poverty in rural Appalachia.

“If either Sanders or Clinton becomes president, it could mean the final nail in the coffin for the coal industry in this country,” Nelson said. “Fossil fuels are vital to the economic and national security of the country, yet the democratic candidates’ proposals, by limiting their use, would hurt America.

“Based on what they’ve said and their records, we know Sanders and Clinton would be bad for the fossil-fuel industries, because of that, despite being somewhat of an unknown, people in coal country have little choice but to trust Trump,” concluded Nelson.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.