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The Energy 202: Two things you should know when Trump administration talks about Paris climate accord

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with Paulina Firozi


Over the weekend, there was big news in the world of energy and environmental policy.

Until there wasn’t.

On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a story titled “Trump Administration Won’t Withdraw from Paris Climate Deal.” Citing a European climate official speaking in Montreal, the newspaper reported that “the U.S. wouldn’t pull out of the Paris Agreement, offering to re-engage in the international deal to fight climate change.”

“The U.S. has stated that they will not renegotiate the Paris accord,” the newspaper quoted Miguel Arias Cañete, European commissioner for climate action and energy, as saying, “but they will try to review the terms on which they could be engaged under this agreement.”

At first glance, the implications of the statement seemed huge. A move to reverse President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the landmark climate accord would have been a step toward mending relations with allies abroad and toward further repudiating the Stephen K. Bannon wing of the White House after the president’s apparent deal with Democrats to find some way of allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country.

But it was not to be. Shortly after the Journal published the article, the White House pushed back furiously against the story. Trump, administration officials said, stands firm in his commitment to end United States involvement in the Paris accord as it exists today. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, quickly tweeted:

And the following morning, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster used appearances on Sunday morning news programs to push back further.

“That's a false report,” McMaster said. He added: "The president decided to pull out of the Paris accord because it's a bad deal for the American people and it's a bad deal for the environment."

Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive who advocated for staying in the agreement, criticized the Paris accord on CBS's “Face the Nation
 as being “out of balance” for the United States and China but said the administration is seeking “other ways” to work with other countries on tackling climate change “under the right conditions.”

National security adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump is still withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord as of Sept. 17. (Video: Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

Cañete, it seems, had overstated the content of his conversation with the White House. And the Wall Street Journal, it seems, had overplayed its headline.

Here’s the thing: It’s only been three months since Trump announced in the Rose Garden that we won’t always have Paris, and we’ve already played this is-he-in-or-is-he-out? game at least once before.

During a joint July news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump  said: “Something could happen with respect to the Paris accords. Let’s see what happens.”

Speaking separately later, Macron sounded optimistic. “Donald Trump listened to me,” he said. “He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”

Those comments set off another round of media coverage about Trump’s apparent waffling on the climate agreement. But nothing, it seems, has happened yet.

To figure out why this is happening, you have to go back to June and understand two things about what Trump announced.

First, what White House officials apparently expressed to both Cañete and Macron is not widely different from what Trump said when announcing the Paris withdrawal.

In June, Trump told the nation he was willing to “reenter either the Paris accord” or an “entirely new transaction” if changes are made to make it “fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers.

Many Democrats and environmentalists doubted that Trump, who labeled climate change a “hoax” before running for office, was sincere in his desire to renegotiate. Trump officials did little to clarify what changes were necessary to make the Paris accord "fair." Given Trump’s lack of conviction about the scientific consensus behind climate change, that very well could be the case.

But it’s not a press-stopping news event when the Trump administration does what it says it was going to do, and talks with foreign counterparts about what it would need to stay in the agreement. Indeed, Trump's top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, is expected Monday to brief allies attending the United Nation General Assembly meeting on the administration's proposals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, The Journal also reports, even as the Environmental Protection Agency and others slash the previous administration's emissions-cutting measures.

Second, we must understand Trump’s announcement in June for what it was: a piece of political theater that is legally unnecessary even if it is, as Trump seems to believe, essential for fulfilling a campaign promise to his base.

 Or as Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, put it:

No party to the agreement, the United States included, can begin the process of withdrawing from the accord until three years after signing it. For the United States, that date is Nov. 5, 2019. And because the withdrawal takes one year to finalize, the earliest the United States can officially exit is Nov. 5, 2020 — two days after, perhaps not coincidentally, the presidential election.

So that original Journal headline, “Trump Administration Won’t Withdraw from Paris Climate Deal,” was correct in a strictly technical sense. Trump won’t withdraw from the Paris climate deal. Not yet. Not until 2020.

Meaning that for the next 38 months we’ll probably be treated to false alarms like this.


-- An Arctic fight is heating up: Over the weekend, The Post's Juliet Eilperin reported on a memo indicating the Trump administration is quietly moving to allow energy exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for the first time in more than 30 years. The proposal for seismic testing, in order to probe just how much oil exists under the refuge, is a twist in a political fight that has raged for decades. 

The politics of the move: Congress has sole authority to determine whether oil and gas drilling can take place within the refuge’s 19.6 million acres. Indeed, opening ANWR to drilling has long been a political priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). The fact that the Interior Department is taking steps toward allowing drilling on ANWR is an indication of warming relations between the Alaska senator and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after the former did not yield to pressure from Zinke and others in the Trump administration to vote to overhaul Obamacare.

The economics of it: Murkowski and other Alaskan politicians want access to ANWR in order to replenish the state's oil reserves, which funds the annual dividend each Alaska resident receives. But with oil prices averaging around $50 per barrel, potentially too low to justify a significant investment in drilling in the refuge, it is unclear how much interest companies would actually have in exploiting the oil there — for now, at least.

-- Like the president, Eilperin had a second scoop over the weekend: Zinke has recommended that President Trump modify 10 national monuments, including shrinking at least four western sites, Juliet reported on Sunday evening:

The memorandum, which the White House has refused to release since Zinke submitted it late last month, does not specify exact reductions for the four protected areas Zinke would have Trump narrow — Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, Nevada’s Gold Butte, and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou — or the two marine national monuments — the Pacific Remote Islands and Rose Atoll — for which he raised the same prospect. The two Utah sites encompass a total of more than 3.2 million acres, part of the reason they have aroused such intense emotions since their designation.

Nothing is set in stone yet. It's the White House, not the Interior Department, that will make final decisions on the secretary’s recommendations. White House spokesman Kelly Love told The Post that the administration “does not comment on leaked documents, especially internal drafts which are still under review by the President and relevant agencies.”

-- Junking so-called "junk science": A new list of more than 100 potential candidates for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board includes people who have openly questioned scientific consensus on climate change, The Post’s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report following an earlier story from E&E News. There are 15 terms ending of the board’s 47 current members, according to the report. Of those nominated for the spots, five have challenged the EPA on global warming in court, one believes carbon dioxide will “confer great benefits upon future inhabitants of the globe” by driving plant growth and one boiled the climate change debate down to “scare tactics and junk science… used to secure lucrative government contracts.”

The caveats: The nomination process is open to anyone, and an EPA official warned the list had not yet been pared down. The list will likely be cut at after the public comment period wraps up later this month. But it's EPA chief Scott Pruitt who will make the final decision of who ends up on the advisory board. And the views of Pruitt, who once wrote that the "prosecution of those who question man-made global warming" was "un-American," are not widely out of line with some of the statements above.

In Irma's wake, millions of gallons of sewage and wastewater are bubbling up across Florida (Steven Mufson and Brady Dennis)


-- Rising gasoline prices lifts all boats: Fuel prices in the United States are poised to remain high for the rest of the year following back-to-back major hurricanes hitting the country. So some refiners with facilities in Texas inundated by Hurricane Harvey may actually be flush with profit from the higher prices at the pump, The Wall Street Journal reports. Valero, Phillips 66 and Marathon, which all have Gulf Coast refineries hit by Harvey, "are expected to see sizable increases in their third-quarter earnings compared with the same period in 2016," Lynn Cook and Bradley Olson report.


-- Another hot Arctic debate: Harvey and Irma have prompted climate scientists to discuss links between climate change and extreme storms with renewed vigor, with the consensus being that climate change can make hurricanes wetter and push storm surges higher.

But other theories are far more controversial. "And now," writes Chelsea Harvey in The Post, "recent events have once again raised one of the biggest debates in climate science — that is, whether the rapidly warming Arctic may be influencing the tracks of hurricanes and other weather patterns around the world."

The question is this: Can warming in the Arctic affect the trajectory of hurricanes? Mainly, over the past several years scientists have investigated whether a warmer Arctic affects the shape of the jet stream --  a huge, wavy air current that flows from west to east around the world. 

If Arctic warming is warping the jet stream — and that's still a big "if" among climate scientists — then everything from the intensity of winter cold snaps to the path of hurricanes could be affected further south. Harvey writes:

Some scientists have said this theory could help explain the remarkable trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, which crashed into the New Jersey coast in 2012. And now, they say that the unusual behavior of Hurricane Harvey — which stalled over Texas, dumping record amounts of rain — could be related to Arctic-driven changes in the jet stream, as well.

Warm waters off West Coast has lingering effects for salmon (Associated Press)


-- South Florida: The region is no stranger to hurricanes, but scientists are worried how continued storms and the effects of climate change are impacting the prized Everglades. One of the main culprits of the degradation: salt water, which is being pushed into the Everglades by sea-level rise, writes Chelsea.

"This is bad news for the freshwater plants and animals that live there, but it’s also a major threat to South Florida’s drinking water supplies," Harvey writes. "And some scientists believe that salt water intrusion may be contributing to the erosion and collapse of certain parts of the landscape."

As researchers wait for it to be safe to start surveying the impact of Irma, Harvey reports they will be looking to asses the extent of the salt water’s reach, and the beginnings of a recovery that will also help understand how storms will continue to affect the wetlands region.



  • The National Rural Water Associations WaterPro Conference starts today and continues through Wednesday.

Coming Up

  • The Southwestern Tribal Climate Change Summit begins Tuesday.
  • The National Hydropower Association Alaska Regional Meeting is set for Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a business meeting on various DOE, FERC and Interior nominees on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on land management requirements for electricity assets on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works committee holds a hearing on the nominations of Michael Dourson, Matthew Leopold, David Ross, and William Wehrum to be assistant administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Jeffery Baran to be a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Wednesday.
  • The Institute of World Politics holds an event on energy security on Wednesday.

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