POLITICS
01/08/2019 01:58 pm ET

U.S. Emissions Spike Undercuts Trump Administration Push For Fossil Fuel Use

Officials have justified gutting of climate policies by pointing to declining emissions.
CNBC

The Trump administration has repeatedly pointed to declines in U.S. carbon emissions to justify its fossil fuel-focused “energy dominance” agenda. But a new analysis has delivered a blow to that defense, concluding that the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions rose sharply in 2018.

Emissions in the country jumped 3.4 percent last year, the second largest annual increase in more than two decades, according to a preliminary estimate by the economic research company Rhodium Group.

The analysis comes on the heels of two gut-wrenching climate reports, one by the United Nations and another authored by scientists from more than a dozen federal agencies in the U.S., that warn the world is running out of time to stave off catastrophic, and potentially irreversible, climate change.

The Trump administration continues to dismiss and downplay the crisis. “I don’t believe it,” President Donald Trump, who has a long history of climate change denial, said of his own administration’s report. He added that “we’re the cleanest we’ve ever been.”

Between 2005 and 2017, CO2 emissions in the U.S. fell by about 14 percent. Administration officials have touted these declines to explain their push to boost fossil fuels, as well as to defend the president’s decision last year to withdraw the U.S. from the historic Paris accord on combating climate change.

At a Dec. 11 briefing on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to gut an Obama-era clean water rule, acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler credited Trump’s leadership for a 2.7 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from 2016 and 2017.

“We are moving forward, but we are not moving forward in a detrimental impact to our economy as what the Paris climate accord would have called for,” Wheeler said. “We are reducing our CO2 emissions faster than most other developed countries. We have our own plan. We’re moving forward. We’re addressing the issue.”

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned Jan. 2 under a cloud of ethics scandals, told the National Petroleum Council last month that the administration’s “regulatory philosophy” is to partner with the fossil fuel sector, which he said was at “the leading edge of technology.” The U.S. has “lead the charge” in cutting emissions of CO2 and methane, a potent greenhouse gas, he added.

“We’re doing the right thing,” Zinke said. “But it’s a narrative that’s very difficult to get across.”

Zinke repeated this defense in a parting interview last month with Fox News’ Bret Baier.

“Everyone else is up,” he said, referring to other countries’ overall emissions. “We’re going down while we have our record-breaking oil and gas production.”

The U.S. was already off track in meeting its Paris Agreement targets. The gap is even wider headed into 2019. Rhodium Group analysis

But as Rhodium Group’s new analysis makes clear, that was not the case in 2018. The emissions uptick ― the largest since the economic bounce back from the recession that ended in mid-2009 ― comes despite a record number of coal-fired power plants going offline, replaced largely by the use of natural gas.

Along with an 1.9 percent spike in power sector emissions, increases occurred in the transportation, industry and buildings sectors, according to Rhodium. Contributing to the overall increase were the growing U.S. economy, a cold start to the year that required additional energy for heating, and the “limited progress made in developing decarbonization strategies,” the analysis found.

“The U.S. was already off track in meeting its Paris Agreement targets,” it stated. “The gap is even wider headed into 2019.”

Responding to Rhodium’s analysis, May Boeve, executive director of climate advocacy group 350.org, stressed that the Trump administration energy and environmental policies come with consequences.

“With a new Congress in session, we demand they heed these warnings (about climate change) and step up to act at the scale of the crisis,” she said in a statement.

The administration has aggressively rolled back environmental and climate regulations, including President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a policy limiting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. At Interior, Zinke overturned an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases on federal land, scrapped a hydraulic fracturing rule meant to better protect public health and curtailed a rule limiting the amount of methane that can be released from oil and gas operations on federal and Native American lands. 

Even amid the current partial government shutdown, the administration has prioritized fossil fuels. The Interior Department, one of the main agencies affected by the shutdown. is still issuing permits for oil companies, according to Bloomberg. And the agency is continuing its push to open Alaska’s fragile Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, holding public meetings as part of its ongoing environmental review process, Alaska Public Media reported.

CONVERSATIONS