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Texas Climate and Energy Researchers Prepare for Worst-Case Scenario Under Trump

Renewables and carbon capture may be first on the chopping block.


A wind farm near Amarillo
Funding for renewables and carbon capture and storage research may be the first to get cut.  Jen Reel

Over the span of two days this week, the Trump administration froze EPA grants and then reversed itself, reportedly instructed the agency to scrub its website of all mention of climate change, revived construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and removed pages related to climate change from the State Department website. The new administration is also reportedly considering eliminating offices at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for renewable energy and carbon capture research.

As President Trump attempts to implement an energy policy that emphasizes fossil fuel development, energy and climate researchers are anxious about how they may be treated by the new administration, as well as potential cuts to federal research funding.

“We always worry about [funding], but this one seems to be particularly acute,” said Larry Lake, a professor of petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re cautiously optimistic. I would hope that when the dust all settles it won’t be as drastic.”

Climate scientists have long been in the crosshairs of Republican lawmakers. Many researchers regularly face harassment and death threats from climate change deniers and have weathered periods when Republicans in Congress tried to cut funding for climate and renewable energy research.

Still, Texas researchers told the Observer that the administration’s actions in its first week in office signaled that they should prepare for a worst-case scenario. A number of scientists at Texas’ higher education institutions depend on grants from the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other federal agencies. Texas is also home to the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory in Sugar Land and the Petra Nova carbon capture project, which received more than $160 million in funding from the DOE. With reports that the Trump administration is planning to eliminate departments at the DOE that work on renewable technology and carbon capture, funding for those fields may be first on the chopping block.

Carbon capture and storage research grew under the Obama administration and is a focus for several research groups in Texas. Although carbon capture is controversial among environmental advocates for supporting the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, it may be the only way to remove carbon dioxide that has already been emitted from the atmosphere and prevent some of the worst effects of climate change. Researchers are attempting to devise ways to collect carbon dioxide and store it underground.

With reports that the Trump administration is planning to eliminate departments at the DOE that work on renewable technology and carbon capture, funding for those fields may be first on the chopping block.

Lake, the University of Texas professor, works on carbon capture and said that if his funding was cut off abruptly, “it would be a disaster.” His group receives roughly $1.8 million from DOE, which is used to support about 10 postdoctoral students and 20 graduate students. The grant ends in about a year and a half.

“It would be a big strain,” Lake said.

But if “it’s a soft landing” and the funding cuts are not immediate, Lake said they would be able to graduate students and seek alternative sources of funding to keep their research going. Lake said he is already thinking about how to communicate his work in a way that deemphasizes climate change. Carbon capture is also of interest to the oil and gas industry because compressed carbon dioxide is used to enhance oil recovery. If carbon capture research leads to new and more efficient ways to collect carbon dioxide, oil and gas companies would benefit.

“If [oil and gas companies] can get a little bit more money, they’d be all over it,” said Lake.

Still, the Trump administration’s apparent pivot away from climate change research is refreshing for some. For Charles McConnell, who headed the Office of Fossil Energy at the DOE from 2011 to 2013, the new administration provides a “different drumbeat” — one where innovative technologies to reduce emissions from fossil fuel industries take precedence over research on renewables.

McConnell, who now heads Rice University’s Energy and Environment Initiative, said he “made it his life’s mission in Washington” to make the business case for carbon capture, rather than just an environmental one. But that that message was met by the Obama administration “often times in a very negative way,” he said.

“I believe this new administration will be much more open and see that mutual benefit [more] than the previous administration and for that I’m enthused,” McConnell said.

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