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By Dean Scott
White House officials appeared at the Bonn climate summit to tout cleaner and more efficient fossil fuels as a tool to fight climate change, but that message appears to be getting lost in translation with U.S. diplomats engaging in the international talks.
The negotiators have not centered on fossil fuels in their meetings with other delegations, including bilateral talks earlier Nov. 13 with China and Fiji, several delegates told Bloomberg Environment. Several of President Donald Trump’s political appointees—who flew here in part to keep a watchful eye on those career diplomats and ensure fossil fuels get a proper hearing—said they haven’t had an easy time getting their message heard.
The State Department reflects the U.S. position that fossil fuels are an important part of an emissions-reduction effort in relevant discussions, though many parts of the agenda deal with procedural issues, a department official who asked not to be identified told Bloomberg Environment.
David Waskow, who tracks the annual climate talks for the World Resources Institute, said State Department negotiators know they only have so much flexibility to advance a Paris deal rulebook, given Trump’s vow to withdraw from the pact. “To some degree, they’re queueing up the same policy positions” as the Obama administration did, including pressing China, India, and other nations to adhere to one system for reporting and verification for developed as well as developing nations, Waskow, who heads WRI’s International Climate Initiative, told Bloomberg Environment.
By the end of the day Nov. 13, the U.S. had not yet held a single news conference since the talks opened Nov. 6. But Paul Bodnar, who served as senior director for energy and climate at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, said he doesn’t think U.S. negotiators are in Bonn to push President Trump’s pro-fossil fuels message into the negotiations.
“No, the delegation here is not instructed to promote fossil fuels within the context of the negotiations,” Bodnar told Bloomberg BNA.
While Trump has announced he wants the U.S. to leave the 2015 Paris climate pact, that will take four years under the agreement, and its negotiators—led by Tom Shannon, a career State diplomat, and Trigg Talley, a longtime climate negotiator—have been working in Bonn to push some of the same issues that Obama had pushed.
Those issues include more transparent reporting and verification on countries’ emissions and blocking developing nations from trying to insert “differentiation” into the Paris deal that would allow them to comply with essentially weaker reporting requirements.
But that focus on quiet implementation of Paris procedures is not as popular with some Trump political appointees, who note that Trump campaigned on helping coal regions and boosting U.S. energy production—and on getting out of the Paris deal. Several political appointees who share those views say they are here in Bonn to make sure that message isn’t being lost when State Department negotiators get in the room with other countries.
The political appointees, who spoke to Bloomberg Environment on condition of anonymity, are being housed an hour away from the summit and not in two downtown hotels that serve as home to the rest of the U.S. delegation. The appointees also said they have been cut out of U.S. bilateral meetings with other delegations, including the China and Fiji meetings.
“They don’t want us here,” one of the appointees said.
A spokeswoman at the U.S. consulate in Berlin referred questions on the U.S. delegation housing to the State Department and U.S. consulate representatives working at the Bonn talks, and they did not respond to several requests to comment.
The White House has thus far made one big splash promoting its fossil fuel message at a Nov. 13 event in Bonn, drawing an overflow crowd to hear a panel led by the top Trump political representative here—George David Banks, White House special assistant for international energy and environment.
Banks seemed to acknowledge that presenting fossil fuels as a climate-friendly policy might be a hard sell at a summit of more than 190 countries on climate, formally the 23rd Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP 23.
But Banks said many developing countries would need highly efficient coal-fired power plants to meet the pledges they put toward the 2015 Paris deal, in which industrialized and developing nations committed to address rising global temperatures.
A description of the U.S. fossil fuel event stated that as “the world seeks to reduce emissions while promoting economic prosperity, fossil fuels will continue to play a central role in the energy mix.”
Also on the panel were Francis Brooke, from the office of Vice President Mike Pence, as well as energy company representatives including Holly Krutka, Peabody Energy’s vice president of coal generation and emissions technologies.
Discouraging coal plants, Banks said, “runs counter to what the Paris agreement offers us when it comes to flexibility” for countries to tailor their own emissions reduction pledges.
“That is the view of the United States and many others—even if you’re not going to hear that in any other place at the COP” summit in Bonn, he said.
But Banks also made clear that the U.S. doesn’t plan a massive campaign promoting fossil fuels, at least not publicly at events through the summit’s end Nov. 17.
“I’m happy to join other panels,” Banks said near the end of the U.S.-led panel, after being asked if the U.S. planned other public events here.
Banks didn’t touch on the friction between career State Department negotiators, who are walking a tightrope in negotiations to implement the Paris deal, even as Trump political appointees want the fossil fuel message front and center in Bonn.
The World Resources Institute’s Waskow said environmental groups are under no illusion that State Department negotiators have unfettered independence from a White House that wants out of the Paris pact.
“At the end of the day, it’s critical to keep in mind that the decision-making about the Paris Agreement is in the White House,” Waskow said. “The president has let it be known that he intends to withdraw, so I don’t see any reason not to see that as real policy.”
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