Few issue platforms have more closely mirrored each candidate’s trek towards November than that of energy and the environment. For Hillary Clinton this has meant a steady shift to the left and support for the aggressive environmental agenda advocated by Bernie Sanders, while Donald Trump has embraced traditional Republican positions of expanding oil production and reversing climate regulations implemented during the Obama years.
In some ways, this has allowed Clinton the opportunity to highlight her long-term support for clean energy and Trump the ability to show off what he does best: build. However, many unanswered questions remain for both candidates. There are unprecedented changes facing the energy landscape – from the climate commitments made at COP 21, to continued low global oil prices, to the potential impact of sweeping rules like the Clean Power Plan. As debate season dawns, both Clinton and Trump may be forced to get more specific than ever on their plans for our energy future.
For years now energy and environmental policy has been reliably polarizing across the United States. Much like the parties themselves, the two sides have grown further apart – the left spurred by a growing pressure to address climate change and promote an off-oil agenda, the right by a desire to leverage our newfound resource wealth and block what they see as job-killing environmental regulations.
This has presented challenges to both candidates, especially Clinton, as demonstrated by the debate over hydraulic fracturing. As Secretary of State, Clinton strongly supported the development of natural gas, both in the U.S. and abroad, as a way for countries to both reduce emissions and increase energy security. During the campaign, however, Sanders’ staunch opposition to fracking forced Clinton to tack left, and during the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, she stated her support for greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing.
In contrast to Clinton, Trump is more of a blank canvas when it comes to energy issues. In January, he broke with traditional Republican attitudes to oppose the transfer of certain western lands from the federal to state governments, citing resource protection and drawing criticism from energy producers and miners. For the most part, however, he has called for continued production of domestic oil and gas resources. In a speech in North Dakota, Trump positioned energy production as a question of “wealth versus poverty,” and called for the lifting of permitting restrictions for pipelines and other infrastructure projects.
While the candidates and parties dig into their respective trenches, energy companies have developed more nuanced business strategies and communications efforts that transcend partisan battles around “climate denial” and calls to “drill, baby, drill.” Major energy producers continue to invest in sustainability initiatives, and renewables are beginning to stand on their own. For the first time in decades, the U.S. is in a position to export crude oil and liquefied natural gas, upturning the geopolitical balance of the international energy market, while at the same time dramatically reducing emissions.
It is against this backdrop that the industry has an opportunity to position itself for success, regardless of who wins the presidency. While Edelman’s 2016 Trust Barometer showed that the energy industry ranked third to last among trusted industries (above only pharmaceuticals and financial services), it also found that people trust the industry more than they trust government to solve problems and keep pace with changing times.
This presents a clear opportunity for energy companies to take the lead in discussions around energy and environmental issues, and to position themselves as drivers of prosperity and innovators working to solve the challenges of climate and energy security, as well as creators of jobs and good corporate citizens positively impacting peoples’ daily lives. If they can do so, then energy companies will be well positioned to play an important role in the policy debates that will continue long after November 8.
Amy Hemingway, executive vice president, Energy.
Rebecca Brown, senior account executive, Energy.