Zero-Sum Climate and Energy Politics Under the Trump Administration

AuthorMelissa Powers
Chapter 10
Zero-Sum Climate and
Energy Politics Under the
Trump Administration
Melissa Powers
I. Introduction
On June 1, 2018, President Donald Trump ordered the Secretary of Energy
to create a rule that would require grid operators to purchase power from
coal-red and nuclear power plants that are no longer competitive in energy
markets.1 President Trump’s eort to save a handful of power plants was the
second attempt in less than one year to save nuclear and coal plants from
market f orces.2 If enacted, the order would require electricity consumers to
buy power they do not want or need, at the expense of power supplies that
are more ecient, more cost-eective, and less environmentally harmfu l.3
e order could also disrupt wholesale electricity markets, undermine more
eective strategies to support nuclear power plants, and usurp traditional
1. Eric Wolf, Trump Calls for Coal, Nuclear Bailouts, P, June 1, 2018,
story/2018/06/01/donald-trump-rick-perry-coal-plants-617112; Press Release, e White House,
Statement From the Press Secretary on Fuel-Secure Power Facilities (June 1, 2018), www.whitehouse.
gov/briengs-statements/statement-press-secretary-fuel-secure-power-facilities/; and Draft Addendum
to Justify Action to Support Fuel-Secure Power Facilities (May 29, 2018) [hereinafter Fuel-Secure
Justication Memo], available at
pdf (last visited July 10, 2018).
2. Although the order states that it would support both nuclear and coal-red power plants, coal plants
would be the primary beneciaries. Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Trump Prepares Lifeline for Money-Losing Coal
Plants, B, May 31, 2018,
grant-lifeline-to-money-losing-coal-power-plants-jhv94ghl (noting that 16,200 megawatts (MW) of
coal-red power and 550 MW of nuclear power are expected to retire in 2018).
3. See Daniel Shawhan & Paul Picciano, Costs and Benets of Saving Unprotable Generators: A
Simulation Case Study for U.S. Coal and Nuclear Power Plants (2017), available at www.r.org/
les/document/le/RFF-WP-17-22.pdf?stream=top-stories (last visited July 9, 2018) (evaluating
impacts of the rst attempt to save coal and nuclear plants); Press Release, American Petroleum
Indus., Broad Energy Coalition Condemns Action to Subsidize Failing Coal, Nuclear Plants (June
1, 2018),
220 Beyond Zero-Sum Environmentalism
state authority to regulate retail electricity procurement.4 Any benets to
coal producers and coal-dependent communities would likely be short-lived
at best.5 So, why pursue it? Simply stated, the Trump Administration view s
the energy transition as a zero-su m political “war on coal 6 and other fossil
fuels, and it wants fossil fuels to win.
e concept of “zero-sum” derives from economics and game theory,
but its political meaning is less techn ical and objective. e zero-sum ga me
theory refers to a contest in which one player wins at the expense of another
player losing.7 Zero-sum game theory assumes that the stakes of a game are
xed and that win-win solutions do not exist.8 In a zero-sum scenario, com-
promise and cooperation have no value, and winner-take-all scena rios are
the inevitable, perhaps even desired, outcome.9 Economic theory suggests
that zero-sum states may ex ist at the end of successful negotiations, but,
unlike some game theorists, economists reject the idea that real life presents
many situations that are truly zero-sum at the outset.10 Economi sts t ypi-
cally believe that pa rties will negotiate win-win outcomes until they reach a
zero-sum, or Pareto-optimal, state.11 In concept, this should promote eec-
tive bargaining a nd yield an outcome that ensures that al l of the bargaining
partners receive a benet and none ends up an absolute “loser” at another’s
expense.12 In political parlance, however, zero-sum has come to stand for
the idea that there will be winners and losers in every transaction.13 While
President Trump may consider himself a great negotiator (who presumably
understands zero-sum ga me theory), his decisions as president embody the
4. Brad Plumer & Nadia Popovich, Trump Wants to Bail Out Coal and Nuclear Plants. Here’s Why at
Will Be Hard, N.Y. T, June 13, 2018,
coal-nuclear-bailout.html; Federal Power Act §201(b), 16 U.S.C. §824(b) (2018) (probiting federal
regulation of retail electricity sales), Federal Energy Reg. Comm’n v. Electric Power Supply Ass’n,
136 S. Ct. 760, 766 (2016).
5. Plumer & Popovich, supra note 4.
6. See Umair Irfan, Trump’s Perennial “War on Coal” Claim, Fact-Checked, V., Jan. 21, 2018, www.; Michael Grunwald, Trump’s
Love Aair With Coal, P M., Oct. 15, 2017,
7. Michael Bacharach, Zero-Sum Games, in T N P G T 253, 253 (John Eatwell
et al. eds., 1989); see also Jessica Owley, Successful Land Conservation: Neither Zero-Sum Nor Win-Win,
in S B  ., Z-S E (ELI 2018).
8. Bacharach, supra note 7, at 254-55.
9. Id. For example, in a zero-sum game like chess, two competitors compete until one player wins.
10. See, e.g., Tim Harford, Trump, Bannon, and the Lure of Zero-Sum inking, E, Aug. 25,
2017; Owley, supra note 7.
11. Shalanda Baker et al., Beyond Zero-Sum Environmentalism, 47 ELR 10328, 10330-31 (Apr. 2017)
(essay written by J.B. Ruhl and James Salzman).
12. Id.
13. Id. at 10329 (essay written by Jessica Owley, demonstrating that zero-sum rhetoric is increas-
ingly common).
Chapter 10: Zero-Sum Climate & Energy Politics Under Trump Administration 221
political concept of zero-sum, in which winner-loser scenarios are t he desired
ends, so long as Trump is on the winning side.14
His Administrat ion has continually espoused zero-sum ideas about energy
and the climate, although its zero-sum framing focu ses more generally on
pitting fossil fuels (winners) against clean energy (losers). is framing is
exhibited in the White House’s strategy of U.S. “Energy Dominance,”15 the
president and his cabinet members’ refusal to accept the legitima cy of climate
science,16 and steadfast support for fossil fuels at the expense of upholding
other conservative va lues, such as federa lism.17 Where fossil fuels a re pitted
against ca rbon-free resources, fossil fuels are t he Trump Administration’s
chosen vic tors.18
is chapter explores whether the Administration’s zero-sum politics will
pose long-term damage to the United States by delaying energy transition
and climate mitigation eorts. A s of mid-2018, the Trump Administra-
tion’s eorts had little impact. From January 2017, when the Administration
took oce, through June 2018, energy markets continued to favor renew-
able resources and natural gas,19 and U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
14. See Dylan Matthews, Zero-Sum Trump, V., Jan. 19, 2017,
15. T W H, N S S   U S  A 22-23 (2017),
available at
(last visited July 9, 2018) [hereinafter W H N S S]; Leo Kabouche,
Assessing the Trump Doctrine of “Energy Dominance,” G R I, Apr. 13, 2018, https://
16. See Carol J. Miller, For a Lump of Coal and a Drop of Oil: An Environmentalist’s Critique of the Trump
Administration’s First Year of Energy Policies, 36 V. E. L.J. 185, 194 (2018); Alana Abramson,
No, Trump Still Hasn’t Changed His Mind About Climate Change After Hurricane Irma and Harvey,
T M., Sept. 11, 2017,
irma-hurricane-harvey/; Scott Waldman, Judge Orders EPA to Produce Science Behind Pruitt’s Warming
Claims, E&E N, June 5, 2018, www.scienti
science-behind-pruitts-warming-claims/ (noting that Scott Pruitt has rejected the science of climate
change); Scott Martelle, Interior Secretary Zinke Reportedly Dressed Down Joshua Tree Superintendent
Over Climate Change Tweets, L.A. T, Dec. 15, 2017,
17. For example, EPA Administrator Pruitt stated he would seek to overturn California’s vehicle emis-
sions for GHGs and argued that cooperative federalism did not justify the state standards. Timothy
Cama & Miranda Green, California to Fight Trump’s “Politically Motivated” Car Standards Plan,
H, Apr. 2, 2018,ght-trumps-
politically-motivated-car-standards-plan. See also Scott Galupo, Beware Idealogues in Federalists’ Clothing,
U.S. N, Mar. 10, 2017,erson-street/articles/2017-03-10/
epa-head-scott-pruitt-hides-his-climate-change-opposition-behind-federalism. But see Kenny Stein,
Limiting California’s Waiver Authority Is Not a Federalism Issue, I  E R
(Mar. 27, 2018) (arguing that the Trump Administration’s eorts to override California’s greenhouse
gas emissions (GHG) regulations do not implicate federalism, because California’s regulations play
an outsized role in aecting national vehicle design trends).
18. See Kabouche, supra note 15.
19. See E I. A., S-T E O S: E F 
R E C  G 1-3 (July 2017) [hereinafter EIA 2017 R
S] (demonstrating increases in solar capacity from 2014 through mid-2017 and forecast-

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT