The 2016 U.S. presidential nominees' starkly different views on energy and environmental policy reflect the growing divide between Republicans and Democrats on these issues. Donald Trump has largely dismissed climate change science, proposing an energy plan focused on the increased production of fossil fuels that would establish "American energy dominance" as a strategic economic and foreign policy goal. In contrast, Secretary Clinton has described climate change as an "urgent threat" and pledged to accelerate the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and make America the "world's clean energy superpower." Secretary Clinton prefers to view all future energy development through the lens of climate change policy.

These dramatic differences are likely to generate substantial attention in the general election campaign, particularly in closely contested battleground states such as Colorado, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where energy and environmental issues are especially important. As Mr. Trump's post-convention campaign is already underway and Secretary Clinton's is set to kick into high gear now that the Democratic Convention has ended, we provide the following framework for understanding what the two candidates propose to accomplish in this important policy area.

Background: Increased polarization on climate, energy and environmental issues

Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton's positions on energy and environmental policy reflect the growing polarization between their respective parties. Republicans and Democrats have drifted further apart in their approach to these issues, with areas of consensus that existed in the recent past giving way to increasing disagreement.

In 2008, Republicans nominated for president Senator John McCain, who helped author and actively promoted legislation to establish a cap-and-trade program on GHG emissions. Further, the Republican Party platform that year, while highlighting the benefits of increasing oil and gas production, also included a section titled "Addressing Climate Change Responsibly." The platform endorsed efforts to reduce carbon emissions and acknowledged that human activity has contributed to climate change (while decrying "doomsday climate change scenarios").

In 2011, the Obama White House issued a "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" whose first section focused on the development of energy resources and declared that "we are encouraging exploration, development and production" of oil and gas, including "new ways to safely make use of domestic assets like our vast reserves of natural gas." In President Obama's 2012 State of the Union address, he claimed that "we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration." These actions were part of President Obama's so-called "all of the above" energy strategy, which also touted the benefits of renewable energy and underscored the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Fast forward to the present and there is little overlap in the positions expressed by Trump and Clinton. That said, their differing rhetoric and approaches are, in many ways, the culmination of trends in both parties in recent years. Many Republicans, including Trump, have been increasingly and openly skeptical in recent years about the science of climate change, and most congressional Republicans have strongly opposed EPA regulation of GHG emissions and supported pro-fossil fuel policies, such as approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and increased oil and gas drilling on federal lands.

Meanwhile, President Obama, for his part, has pursued more stringent regulation of carbon and methane emissions, signed the Paris Agreement, rejected the Keystone XL pipeline and reversed course on allowing oil and gas drilling off the Atlantic coast.

To be sure, there are Democrats who have opposed the President on some of these policies and Republicans who support clean energy incentives, but the overall trend—as with so many policy debates in Washington—has been increasedpolarization.

Trump's America First

On May 26, the very day Mr. Trump clinched the GOP nomination, he outlined his "America First" energy plan while speaking at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND, home to the Bakken Formation. The plan's centerpiece is increased oil and gas production and greater utilization of coal to establish "American energy dominance" and thus achieve "complete American energy independence." Mr. Trump cast his approach as part of a pro-worker, pro-economic growth agenda.

The "100-day action plan" would:

  • Rescind all of President Obama's executive actions, including his Climate Action Plan (which includes regulations of new and existing coal-fired power plants) and the Waters of the U.S. rule.
  • Cancel the Paris Agreement and stop all payments of US tax dollars to UN global warming programs.
  • Request that TransCanada Corp. renew its permit application for the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Save the coal industry and other industries "threatened by Hillary Clinton's extremist agenda."
  • Lift all moratoriums on energy production on federal lands.
  • Revoke policies that impose "unwarranted restrictions" on new drilling technologies.
  • Eliminate any regulation that is "outdated, unnecessary, bad for workers, or contrary to the national interest" and shift more responsibility to state and local authorities.

While Mr. Trump was harshly critical of President Obama's energy policies, he said that "Hillary Clinton will be worse. She'll escalate the war against the American worker like never before and against American energy, and she'll unleash the EPA to control every aspect of our lives, and every aspect of energy." He also pointed to Secretary Clinton's own statements that coal miners will lose their jobs as a result of environmental regulations and market forces (statements she later sought to clarify and soften).

In a nod to clean energy, Mr. Trump said he supports the promotion of wind, solar and nuclear energy. However, in a subsequent interview with reporters, he said he would end federal subsidies for clean energy, noting that "other forms" of energy are "working much better" than clean power technologies. He also criticized wind and solar as "very expensive" and said that wind turbines pose a hazard to birds.

Mr. Trump's various statements regarding the Paris Agreement seem to reflect some confusion about its terms. Declaring that he would "cancel" the Agreement, he said that under it "foreign bureaucrats control how much our energy costs and how much we use right here in America."

While the US made a pledge as part of the Paris Agreement to meet certain carbon emission reduction targets, that pledge is voluntary and based upon the implementation of domestic policies such as the Clean Power Plan, CAFÉ standards for automobiles and federal energy efficiency regulations. The Paris Agreement is only binding with regard to signatories' obligation periodically to review, update and report on the status of implementation of their pledges.

While a President Trump would take immediate steps to undo the regulatory framework—the Clean Power Plan, regulations limiting methane emissions, limits on fracking on federal lands— at the center of the Obama Administration's energy and environmental agenda, his options to do so may be limited. In some cases—most notably with respect to the Clean Power Plan—he would need to initiate a new rulemaking, a step that could be challenged in court. Moreover, while his pledge to "cancel" the Paris Agreement would extend only to US participation, a failure of the US to live up to its commitments under the accord, including its promise to help fund developing countries' climate change efforts, would almost certainly make it more difficult to hold other nations' to their pledges to reduce carbon emissions. Finally, while Mr. Trump could relax leasing restrictions on federal lands for oil and gas production and coal mining, his efforts to revive the coal industry could collide with recent market trends that have seen utilities purchase cheap natural gas to displace coal in electricity generation.

While Mr. Trump's energy plan stands on its own, Republican activists included in the party's platform his emphasis on the production of fossil fuels, the elimination of environmental regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, and ending the US commitment to the Paris Agreement and US funding of UN climate programs. The platform also includes a new proposal that the Environmental Protection Agency be transformed into an independent bipartisan commission (similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission), and it explicitly opposes any carbon tax. In addition, the document urges that long-range projections about a "changing climate" must be based on "dispassionate analysis of hard data."

Hillary Clinton: Making America the world's "clean energy superpower"

Secretary Clinton's energy plan, which is based upon "meeting the climate challenge," stands in direct contrast to Mr. Trump's proposal to undo Obama Administration policies. She would defend and expand upon the President Obama's Climate Action Plan, including the US commitment to reduce GHG emissions made in the Paris Agreement. Like Mr. Trump, she portrays her plan in national security and economic terms, but unlike Mr. Trump, she envisions US leadership in the clean energy industry as a potential source of new jobs for American workers.

Secretary Clinton asserts that without new legislation the US can reduce GHG emissions by up to 30 percent of 2005 levels (a slightly higher number than the President's Paris pledge of 26-28 percent) by 2025 and, by 2050, reduce GHG emissions by 80 percent of 2005 levels. Notably, her plan makes no mention of increased oil and gas production (only its "safe and responsible" production "as we transition to a clean energy economy") or any reference to an "all of the above" energy strategy. Instead, her plan focuses on achieving a substantial increase in the use of renewable energy resources and gains in energy efficiency.

Secretary Clinton's plan establishes the following broad national energy goals, to be achieved within ten years of her taking office:

  • Generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America, with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of her first term.
  • Cut energy waste in homes, schools, hospitals and offices by a third and make American manufacturing the cleanest and most efficient in the world.
  • Reduce American oil consumption by a third through cleaner fuels and more efficient cars, boilers, ships and trucks.

More specifically, Secretary Clinton pledges to:

  • Defend, implement and extend pollution and energy efficiency standards, including the EPA's Clean Power Plan.
  • Launch a $60 billion Clean Energy Challenge in which the federal government would partner with states, cities and rural communities to incentivize local action that goes beyond federal regulatory standards.
  • Invest in clean energy infrastructure, innovation, manufacturing and workforce development, including a North American climate compact with Canada and Mexico to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate clean energy development (President Obama laid the foundation for this pact with a similar agreement reached in June).
  • Ensure safe and responsible energy production, including ensuring that areas "too sensitive for energy production are taken off the table."
  • Reform fossil fuel leasing on public lands and "significantly expand" clean energy production on public lands.
  • End tax subsidies for oil and gas companies.
  • Cut methane emissions by 40-45 percent and put in place standards for reducing leaks from new and existing sources.
  • Revitalize coal communities by investing $30 billion to create new jobs and industries and diversify their economies.
    • Setting a goal to eliminate lead poisoning as a public health risk within five years.
    • Cleaning up 450,000 toxic brownfield sites.
    • Expanding solar and energy efficiency in low-income communities.

Clinton's plan expands upon Obama Administration policies, and in negotiations over the Democratic party platform she went even further by agreeing to address concerns raised by primary opponent Bernie Sanders and other progressives in the Democratic Party. While stopping just short of their calls for a direct carbon tax and a nationwide ban on fracking, the platform supports putting a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases to reflect "their negative externalities," and calls for strict regulation of fracking. (Separately, Clinton has stated that she would only support fracking if the following three conditions are met: (i) the state and local communities are not opposed to it, (ii) the chemicals used in the fracking process are disclosed, and (iii) methane emissions are mitigated.) In addition, the platform explicitly favors the permitting of transmission infrastructure for renewable energy "over the development of new natural gas power plants."

Secretary Clinton has commented that natural gas has a role as a "bridge fuel," providing, in the near-term, a source of power for electricity generation that's cleaner than coal. However, both this language in the platform and her ambitious goals for the use of renewable energy sources reflect her stated hope that "we want to cross that bridge as quickly as possible…in order to deal with climate change."


Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton both believe energy can play an important role in creating American jobs and promoting national security. But they have very different views on how those goals should be achieved and their disagreements are a reflection of the sharp and growing divide between Republicans and Democrats on these issues. Secretary Clinton's approach would largely build upon and expand current Obama Administration policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions and promoting clean energy resources, while Mr. Trump would seek to increase fossil fuel production, undo what he considers burdensome regulations and end the US commitment to the Paris Agreement. While each candidate will face challenges in achieving their agendas, it is clear that this presidential election will have a profound impact on the future course of US energy and environmental policy.