A total of 210,000 gallons of oil leaked Thursday from the Keystone pipeline in South Dakota, the pipeline’s operator, TransCanada, said.
What will Donald Trump actually do?
It’s a question many Americans are asking themselves now that the U.S. has wrapped up one of its least policy-specific elections ever. The president-elect has offered only the loosest of legislative prescriptions, including whatever plans he may have for the energy industry.
The mystery hangs over turbine manufacturers like Vestas Wind Systems, which fell 12 percent since the election, and coal companies such as Peabody Energy Corp., which soared 73 percent. In his only major energy speech, Trump, 70, said he would rescind “job-destroying” environmental regulations within 100 days of taking office and revive U.S. coal. It’s terrible news for efforts to slow the pace of climate change, but the impact on the renewable energy revolution may be limited. Here’s what it could mean for America’s clean-energy darling, Tesla Motors Inc.:
Tesla is, first and foremost, an electric car company. But on Nov. 17 shareholders will vote on final approval of CEO Elon Musk’s $2.2 billion deal to buy SolarCity Corp. The acquisition would make Tesla the biggest U.S. rooftop solar installer and the first major manufacturer to integrate solar panels with battery backup to extend power into the night.
The swift spread of rooftop solar in the U.S. has been made possible by two government policies. First, most utilities are required to credit homeowners for the excess power they send back to the grid. Those requirements are state-level and shouldn’t be affected by Trump. Second is the 30 percent federal tax credit to offset the cost of installations. The credits were first signed into law under Republican President George W. Bush in 2005 and extended by a Republican Congress late last year. Given their broad support, the subsidies are unlikely to be repealed.
Solar panel prices have dropped, on average, more than 15 percent a year since 2013. On a utility scale, solar power is already cheaper than coal-fired grid electricity across most of the U.S., after subsidies. Even if the incentives were suddenly removed next year—an improbable and economically destructive scenario—the industry would eventually recover as prices continue to fall.
Incentives are designed to make superior new technologies initially affordable, but once those technologies take off, economies of scale take over.
A loss of the federal tax credit could slow the rollout of Tesla’s unusual new rooftop solar shingles. Traditional rooftop panels, however, are almost ready to stand on their own. The payback period currently ranges from about 5 to 10 years, after subsidies and state rebates. If Tesla can achieve the cost savings it hopes for with the merger, it won’t be long before that’s the payback timeline without subsidies.
One of President Barack Obama’s most significant climate achievements was to push through ambitious fuel-economy regulations for U.S. vehicles. The Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled next year to re-asses rules intended to double the average efficiency of cars and trucks to almost 55 miles per gallon by 2025. Those goals could be delayed or dismantled under Trump, accelerating America’s shift to trucks and SUVs. Stocks of Detroit carmakers have predictably surged, while Tesla shares fell 4.9 percent in the two days after the election.
This is obviously bad news for human health and the environment, but it’s impact on Tesla won’t be catastrophic. The price of batteries is dropping rapidly, and by the early 2020s electric cars should be cheaper and better performing than their gasoline-powered equivalents across the board. Lowering efficiency standards will make gasoline cars a bit cheaper to manufacture, but it will also make them more costly to drive over the life of the vehicle.
The U.S. push for electric cars was set in motion by a $7,500 federal tax break. The Trump administration could eliminate the subsidy, but the impact would be short-lived for electric pioneers including Nissan Motor Co., General Motors Co., and Tesla. That’s because the electric-vehicle subsidies were already designed to phase out after each automaker reaches its 200,000th domestic EV sale. Tesla may be first to cross that finish line, probably in the first half of 2018.
The incentives were intended to overcome steep startup costs and slow initial demand for new electric vehicles. Removing the tax break now would effectively pull the ladder up behind Tesla and make it more expensive for other automakers to transition to battery power, a result that wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interest.
Some of the biggest incentives in renewable energy are offered by states, not the federal government. Each state has authority over its own solar and wind rebates, credits for power sold back to the grid, renewable-mix requirements for utilities, and electric-car subsidies. These policies cross ideological borders into deeply Republican states. For example, Louisiana residents can get an additional tax credit of almost $10,000 for buying a long-range electric car. In Colorado, it’s an extra $5,000.
Last week, I wrote that OPEC needs friends and a miracle to re-balance the oil market. Could President Trump be that unwitting buddy, providing the miracle by tearing up the nuclear agreement with Iran and removing almost a million barrels a day of supply at a stroke?
Trump’s number one priority is to dismantle the “disastrous” deal — although his to-do list might have changed since saying that back in March. As luck would have it, that daily million barrels is about the same size as the cut OPEC needs to make, as I calculated last week.
Can he do it? Yes, despite assertions to the contrary from Iran’s President Rouhani and a slew of analysts. Here’s how:
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the deal is snappily titled, wasn’t ratified by Congress, but brought into force by President Obama via executive order. Trump could rescind that. The fall-out would be messy, but it could be done (in theory).
There’s another way too, enshrined within the agreement itself. The dispute resolution mechanism allows any signatory to refer a perceived breach of the deal’s terms to the joint commission created to oversee the accord. If the complaining party isn’t satisfied with the outcome and believes the breach constitutes “significant non-compliance”, it can refer it to the U.N. Security Council. The Security Council would then vote — and here’s the killer blow — – not on whether to re-impose sanctions, but on whether to “continue the sanctions lifting.”
That might not sound like a big difference, but it’s critical. By framing the vote this way, the U.S. could, in theory, veto the resolution. All the U.N. sanctions on Iran would then be re-imposed. Simples.
That just leaves EU sanctions, which prohibited — among other things — the importing of Iranian oil into EU countries. We might expect some sort of European backlash against unwinding the deal, but it might not be very effective.
The tortuous process of re-establishing Iran’s oil trade with Europe shows that only too clearly. Although there were willing buyers and a very willing seller, the difficulty came in finding insurers who would underwrite the transactions, or shippers to carry the crude. All the big re-insurers had at least some U.S. involvement and they were extremely hesitant to pick up the business — even with the apparent backing of the Obama administration. They would drop the business like a scalding hot potato if the new president killed the deal. End of Iranian oil flows to Europe.
Elsewhere, important Asian buyers were threatened in the past with the loss of access to the U.S. banking system to persuade them to cut their purchases of Iranian. This tactic would probably work again.
Of course, Iran would treat the move as grounds to abandon its own commitments. Coming shortly before Iran’s presidential election in May, it would be a huge boost to Tehran’s hardliners. You’d expect life to become more difficult for the Americans in Iraq, where it’s engaged alongside Iranian-backed militias in ousting Islamic State from its last stronghold in the country — another Trump priority.
But at least the crude price would recover, which would be great for U.S. oil, if not so good for motorists. I guess the new president will have to choose who to please.