Energy & Environment
Where Does Hillary Clinton Stand on Environmental Policy?
In the first part of Law Street’s look at the presidential candidates’ environmental policies, we evaluated Donald Trump’s plan to deregulate the energy industry and peel back many of the existing efforts to address climate change. His plans largely focus on undoing as many regulations as possible to allow greater operational freedom to American businesses and using his executive powers to undo previous president’s attempts to protect certain areas of land from fracking and mining.
In the second part, we will review Hillary Clinton’s environmental record and policy proposals. Since Donald Trump’s plans focus more toward energy production rather than protecting the environment and combating climate change, it is not surprising that Hillary Clinton’s positions do more from an environmental perspective. She has committed to some extremely ambitious goals with regards to renewable energy implementation. At the same time, she has chosen to forgo several of the traditionally recommended policy tools used to combat climate change, such as the carbon tax. Are her plans really attainable or are they just empty claims used to attract alienated far left voters to her side? Is she even likely to follow through on her promises based on her political track record? Read on to find out.
Read Part One: Where Does Donald Trump Stand on Environmental Policy?
Hillary Clinton the Environmentalist?
In stark contrast to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton believes in climate change, believes it’s man made, and believes it’s an urgent threat. She has publicly spoken on the importance of combating climate change since the early 2000s; however, her legislative track record on major issues doesn’t always indicate that she’s driven by environmental interests. When asked her position on current issues related to the environment, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline, she has often avoided taking a stance. Clinton chose not to take a final position on the Keystone XL Pipeline for over a year, even stating that she wished to declare a position after the election ended. But in September 2015, she announced her formal opposition to the pipeline.
Whether you interpret this as anti-environment is up for debate; Clinton has maintained that her lack of a stance on the issue stemmed largely from the fact that the analysis of whether the pipeline was beneficial to national interest was incomplete. If you see her lack of a choice as her withholding a stance until all the facts were clear, then her decision is understandable. However, many environmental activists, including her primary challenger Bernie Sanders, saw the issue as much more simple: the pipeline endangers U.S. waterways and sets the United States on a track toward dependence on oil instead of investing and committing to renewables. Your interpretation of her stance largely depends on how hard-line of an environmentalist you are.
As Secretary of State, she openly supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which critics claim would prevent individual countries from being able to establish environmental trade regulations. Critics also argue that the TPP openly supports anti-environmental practices such as over-fishing and deforestation. As the Trans-Pacific Partnership evolved it has been modified to include wildlife protection mechanisms to promote the sustainable management of forested zones and fisheries. However, most of these efforts are considered to be small in scale, without any monitoring system in place and the long lasting negative impacts of the TPP are projected to outweigh any potential benefits.
Read More: Growing Holes in Our Ocean’s Fisheries
As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton has reversed her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well–recently coming out against the final deal, while having supported the effort during her term as Secretary of State. It bears noting that Donald Trump has historically opposed the TPP on the grounds that it will damage American manufacturing. If Clinton hadn’t doubled back on her original stance, this would make the deal one of few issues where Trump is effectively taking a more environmentally progressive position.
Clinton’s voting record also tells a confusing story. While serving as a Senator she voted for a variety of small-scale bills supported by environmental groups and co-sponsored a number of unsuccessful bills to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. But she’s also given her support to several policies that have had seriously detrimental effects on the environment. Possibly the most notable example of this is Clinton supporting the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the legendary bill that gave hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies to fossil fuel companies and allocated only a fraction of this money to renewables. The bill also contained Dick Cheney’s infamous Halliburton Loophole, which gave fracking companies special permission to inject toxic chemicals underground and essentially opened the doors for hydrofracking within the United States.
Hillary Clinton has also taken flack over the years for taking donations from fossil fuel interests. According to the most recent analysis by Open Secrets, Clinton has raised a total of $2,203,018 from energy employees, with $2,167,333 of this going to the campaign and the remaining $35,685 going to associated Super PACs. While there’s no way to connect the money she’s taken directly with particular policy decisions, some have claimed that this represents a conflict of interest in terms of her claims of being an environmentalist. Given her confusing voting record, recent shifts on controversial issues and her willingness to take fossil fuel funds, many accuse Clinton of green-washing her public persona for the election, especially in order to compete with Bernie Sanders’ pull with the environmentally-minded millennial generation. Objectively speaking, Hillary Clinton has supported environmentalism out loud but has generally done little to help the movement and on several occasions has directly supported policies that will hurt the environment.
Hillary Clinton’s Plan
Of the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton is the only one with an environmental policy at all, unless you call dismantling E.P.A. regulations an environmental policy. She has publicly committed to supporting and building upon President Obama’s Clean Power Plan as well as ensuring that the United States lives up to its COP 21 Paris Agreement commitments. Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta have both stated that while she would like to see a carbon tax imposed, given the current makeup of Congress such a law would be highly unlikely to pass. In its place, Clinton is committing to more achievable goals, which include increasing funding for renewables, research and development, and energy efficiency, all in the context of increasing American jobs. Even though she has voted for large subsidies for fossil fuel companies in the past, she currently advocates for cutting back funding for oil and gas interests and she has proposed getting rid of tax expenditures for the fossil fuel industry.
With regard to renewable energy, Hillary Clinton has an incredibly aggressive plan to increase proliferation of renewables throughout the country. The plan has two main parts, the first being the goal of installing half of a billion solar panels across the nation during Clinton’s first term. The second is to generate enough renewable energy to power every U.S. home within a decade. To do this she wants to expand upon the Clean Power Plan with a Clean Power Challenge, which would utilize competitive grants, tax incentives, and other market-based incentives to encourage and enable states to independently work toward renewable proliferation. The challenge also places a huge emphasis on updating the grid, improving its infrastructure, and thus also the reliability and efficiency with which it transmits energy. The challenge would include the creation of a fund or a prize that would help enable low-income families and communities to install rooftop solar panels. In addition to increasing renewable energy implementation in American communities, Clinton has championed utilizing public land in the West for solar arrays and wind farms as well as opening up offshore wind farming.
If these goals sound incredibly lofty and ambitious it’s because they are. In fact, they are more ambitious than really anything proposed by anyone before, with the possible exception of Clinton’s primary challenger Bernie Sanders. Many critics have projected that it would be literally impossible to make such a policy work without a carbon tax to make renewables competitive with America’s incredibly cheap natural gas supply. The fact that Clinton has chosen to not pursue a carbon tax and instead attempt to pass smaller scale measures through Congress have made many skeptical that she’s not going to be able to actually do enough to turn her plan into reality.
Realistically, she’s almost certainly right that a carbon tax wouldn’t make it through Congress, but it’s pretty unclear if her alternative plan would be any more welcome. The Clean Power Challenge would cost $60 billion, and its main selling point to Republicans would be that it is designed to create new job opportunities. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the challenge’s commitment to renewable energy flies against what the majority of Republicans are interested in supporting. To bypass Congressional gridlock, Clinton’s plan places a strong focus on using executive power to make these things happen. While it’s not Clinton’s fault, there’s only so much she’ll be able to accomplish solely through executive action; large chunks of her plan will certainly require Congressional approval.
So What Can Actually be Accomplished?
There have been numerous claims over the years that if X or Y region was properly utilized, it could provide enough energy to power the entire United States. While it is technically possible to power this country completely with renewable energy, these claims are often touted by people who don’t understand the engineering behind energy systems or by people with a zealous and innocent belief in what policymakers are capable of or willing to do. Currently, one of the most comprehensive plans for how the United States could run on 100 percent renewable energy has been created by renewable research heavyweight Mark Z. Jacobson and the Standford Precourt Center for Energy. Even this highly ambitious plan projects that if the necessary massive social and economic change were to happen in order to make such policies possible, and it was followed to the letter, the United States still wouldn’t be able to convert fully until 2050. One of the biggest impediments to such a nationwide conversion to renewable energy is that it would require every fuel source to be changed, including the liquid fuel we use to power our cars, trucks, boats, and planes. To completely transform the American transportation sector is a borderline impossible goal because while a solar panel or a wind turbine can feasibly connect to and power any home, most of our cars still run on gas. Electric cars just don’t have the mass circulation that would make such a change possible and to completely eliminate gas-powered cars would go against fair business laws.
What’s truly interesting about Clinton’s renewable plan is that she’s one of the first major politicians to call for opening up the use of offshore wind farming. There’s a good reason why the coastal regions of the United States have been called the “Saudi Arabia of Wind.” There is a massive amount of unused energy lying along our coasts that has been incredibly difficult to tap into thus far due to the extremely high cost of launching such projects, combined with the many public interests that bitterly oppose the industry. It is nearly impossible for Hillary Clinton to live up to her goal of powering the United States on 100 percent renewable energy. However, if she aggressively pursues spreading renewable energy throughout American communities, on public lands and offshore, she could still have a gigantic impact on our renewable energy makeup. The real question is whether she’d actually be able to make any of that happen or if her efforts will be completely blocked off by Congress. Unfortunately, we will simply have to wait and see what happens if she’s elected.
One of the more original and intriguing elements of Clinton’s plan is her proposal to create a Western Water Partnership with the goal of coordinating water use between the West Coast states and the different agencies that control water use within the region. Furthermore, she has proposed creating a Water Innovation Lab dedicated to utilizing and recycling water more efficiently. This proposal is one of the first of its kind in terms of addressing water scarcity in the West on a large scale and could be part of a much-needed solution to help alleviate the burden of the California drought. Clinton has also called for significant revisions to water infrastructure in the United States, including dams, sewage, and waste water systems. This is actually one of few ideas that she and Trump might actually agree on; Trump has stated that he believes water to be a vital issue and that it’s crucial that we update our water infrastructure. However, unlike Clinton, he has given no details on how to do this and has stated that he wants to remove restrictions on drilling near waterways, which would ultimately worsen the American water crisis. Clinton has also promised to protect public lands and prioritize wildlife conservation, in stark contrast to Trump’s announcement that he would open up all federally protected land to oil and gas companies.
Neither candidate has a sterling history of environmentalism, but only one candidate has actually made a commitment to combat climate change. If Trump were to become president, it would be possible for him to hinder progressive environmental policy by replacing the EPA leadership with climate deniers while fighting to remove environmental regulations. If his preferred candidates to lead the EPA were to get approval from Congress, then it would be feasible for him to undo a lot of the progress that has been made thus far with American environmentalism.
Clinton has a spotty record when it comes to the environment and has made dubious choices about many important issues in the past, such as the Energy Policy Act, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Keystone XL Pipeline. However, her current environmental platform has made her commitment to the environment clear and she has doubled back on all of her previous controversial positions (at least with regard to the environment). Whether her current stance is due to green-washing for the 2016 election, or due to Obama’s legacy of the Clean Power Plan influencing her opinions, or due to Bernie Sanders forcing her to move further to the left in the primaries, the end result is that she’s pursuing an aggressively progressive environmental policy. Whether her methods to make that policy a reality will be effective remains to be seen, but when it comes to environmental policy, Hillary Clinton is the superior candidate.