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Red Washington, greener states

Market forces will keep hurting coal, strengthening gas and supporting renewables—whatever Trump thinks about climate science

Four months after Donald Trump's inauguration his federal government has already started rolling back years of federal climate policies. It's not yet clear, though, what the union's states will do.

So far, President Trump has announced Executive Orders that cut the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) budget by a third, overturn regulations governing toxic coal-mine waste, suspend work on the Clean Power Plan (CPP) and loosen restrictions on emissions of methane from oil and gas production.

That fulfils some of the campaign promises, although the market and its cheap gas, wind and solar—not DC—will decide whether Trump's measures bring back the coal jobs he pledged.

For now, Trump is slashing climate rules—and it marks a profound shift in US policy, says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer with the Near Zero climate group. "A great many federal programmes with the word 'climate' in them are being unfunded. Practically everything that has an explicit climate focus has been stopped at the federal level."

Under the Obama administration, the EPA developed the CPP, requiring states to reduce emissions through methods like carbon trading or emissions standards. Almost all states had been working to develop their schemes.

20GW - Installed wind power capacity in Texas, Q4 2016

Since March, when the CPP was suspended, several seem to have stopped. "The CPP was aimed primarily at coal, and none of the states that are taking action are big coal-producing ones, so there is limited impact there," says Michael Gerrard, a professor at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. "We have several almost entirely Democratic-leaning states that are taking action, but most of the rest of the country isn't."

But Cullenward sees signs that other states are beginning to plan ahead. "It's too soon to say what will happen, but certainly there are many signs that states are taking this transition to heart and are trying to act more aggressively than they would had the election gone the other way.

"We see a number of carbon tax proposals floating around in some of the northeastern states," he says. "It's very early days, but there's more and more discussion about whether, if we can't have the CPP and other federal programmes, individual states could come up with carbon-pricing policies."

Doug Vine, a senior energy fellow at the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), says some states are "not backing down". He describes a "vacuum at the federal level" that is inspiring state regulators to step up their efforts.

Greening the power market

The market is also having its say. Years of federal and state-level subsidies have built up a growing renewable-energy sector, which is now competitive without the government handouts, many of which are being cut anyway.

"The costs of both wind and solar have radically declined to the point that even without subsidies they have become competitive with fossil fuels," says Gerrard. "It won't help to see them go away, but they are no longer essential for many developments."

The country's Energy Information Administration predicts that wind-power generation will increase by 5.4%, to 2.26 quad British Thermal Units (Btu), in 2017. Solar generation will jump by a third to 0.78 quadrillion Btu. (Despite the growth, by 2018 solar will still only hold around 1% of all utility-scale electricity generation in the US.)

Gas is the other force coming to bear—wiping out coal-based generation with cheap and reliable supply. "We're looking at a sustained period of low natural gas prices," says Vine, "and that is having a very strong impact on what technologies are being chosen."

More generally, renewable energy—and conservation—are shaking off their do-gooder hair-shirt image and now simply look like good business. That's a factor in an administration that prizes entrepreneurs over ecologists, especially when market forces have been so clearly at play.

"The federal government for more than a decade largely deregulated oil and gas production," says Cullenward, "and so a huge part of what we see in the US energy market is not driven by regulation but by the absence of regulation. That was true under Bush and Obama, and it will continue under the Trump administration."

It's that kind of deregulation that has helped Texas—hardly a bastion of greenery—to become one of the US' renewable-energy powerhouses. According to the American Wind Energy Association, installed wind capacity in the Lone Star State in Q4 2016 reached more than 20 gigawatts. That's more than the next three largest wind states—Iowa, Oklahoma and California—combined.

At the same time, tighter federally mandated fuel-economy targets—the Cafe standards—have improved efficiency in the transport sector, now the US' biggest emitter. The EPA said last year that its latest revision to Cafe standards, which will take effect from 2021 to 2027, will reduce emissions by around 1.1bn tonnes.

"The states do a lot of the implementation of energy-efficiency standards and that's been the biggest driver of the fall in US greenhouse-gas emissions," Cullenward says. "We've continued to decouple our economy from energy consumption, and between those trends and the continual shift from coal to natural gas on the basis of economics, those trends are set to continue, whatever this administration wants to say about its preferred energy mix. Trump talks a good game on coal, but utilities aren't planning new coal plants."

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