As we look back at 2016, it’s not hard to pick the biggest news story of the year: the presidential election, from the whiplash poll numbers to the candidates’ “faux pas of the week” to the surprising outcome, which threw Democrats for a loop. A year that started off in the after-glow of the Paris climate summit ended with the triumph of a presidential candidate who has labeled climate change a scam and a hoax.
Since the election, President-elect Donald Trump appears to be softening that position, even sharing a recent sit-down with Al Gore to discuss global warming. But David Baker, energy reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, isn’t convinced by the téte-a- téte.
“If you look at some of the names he's floated or settled on for picks for his cabinet, you have a stunning number of climate skeptics, contrarians, deniers, whatever term you want to use,” says Baker. Case in point: Trump’s selection of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.
“This is the man who has led the states that opposed the clean power plan in suing the EPA,” Baker warns. “So that doesn't really give me a great feeling about how effective Mr. Gore was in their conversation.”
Trump has also threatened to back out of the 2015 Paris agreement, in which the U.S. and China led the world in pledging to reduce carbon emissions. But that scenario isn’t likely, says Cassandra Sweet, energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “I think the train has left the station in terms of U.S. utilities cutting their greenhouse gas emissions,” she says. “The fact is, most utilities plan very far ahead. They plan ten or twenty years into the future…they've shut down old coal plants. Electricity demand in the United States is flat or falling in many parts of the country.”
“And so the markets are actually expected to help the United States reach its climate pledge under the Paris agreement.”
Former Fortune Magazine writer Katie Fehrenbacher cites the rise of solar and wind power as one of the top environmental stories of the year. “I mean, utility scale, solar and big wind farms,” she says. “Warren Buffett is investing massive amounts of money in wind, big utility scale solar farms in California. I think that’s huge.” Offshore wind power is also becoming a reality in some areas.
Governor Jerry Brown has pledged to fight any attempts by the Trump administration to “mess with” California’s climate battle. And Baker doesn’t believe that the new administration can slow the state’s environmental progress. “California can keep pushing ahead because most everything that we do is based in state law and not in federal law,” he says. “So even if federal law change or federal regulations change, that doesn't change what we do here in the state.
“You know, our cap and trade system is based on a state law, our renewable power mandates that you are just talking about again, that’s a state law…So there's not much that the feds could do to change.”
And other states have followed suit, Sweet points out. “New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Vermont…we’re not alone.”
Even the Department of Defense has shown a commitment to transitioning to renewable energy. “They do it very quietly, but they are definitely on that path,” says Sweet. “And I don't see them wavering from that, and I don't see Donald Trump being able to stop that either.”
Other top energy stories of 2016 included the Dakota Pipeline standoff, the impending closure of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the strides being made in energy storage technology and the decline of the coal industry. Despite Trump’s campaign promises, parts of the country that rely on a coal economy are facing an uncertain future.
“Duke Energy is switching to gas,” Sweet reports. “They’re building gas pipelines. They still have coal, but they are not planning to build any new coal plants.”
“So there's been kind of the civil sort of a civil war going on between the two industries” she continues. “But…gas is going to win out because it's cheaper, it's cleaner. It's cheaper to build, the gas plants. It requires fewer people to run it.
“I mean, coal is just going to continue to decline,” Sweet predicts. “I don't think there's much that Donald Trump can do to bring that industry back.”