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Industry measured, greens furious over possible Paris climate pact exit

Reports that President Donald Trump will likely pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change have angered environmental groups and proponents of climate action. But domestic electricity generators and other energy producers appeared unfazed, with the industry already anticipating a rollback in federal climate policies under Trump that could be offset by action at the state and local level.

Most major power industry groups declined to comment on the potential Paris pullout. The White House has yet to make an official announcement, but media outlets reported that Trump has made a final decision to withdraw. The president tweeted May 31 that he would announce a plan for the Paris agreement "over the next few days."

As part of the December 2015 agreement, the U.S. pledged to lower its economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% from 2005 levels by 2025. Much of the power sector's contributions would be met through the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan, which required states to hit individual carbon emissions rate limits at existing fossil fuel-fired plants. But Trump promised during his campaign to scrap the Paris agreement and recently directed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review and likely eliminate the Clean Power Plan.

His efforts to overturn Obama-era climate policies have prepared the utility sector for a potential removal from Paris, muting industry reaction to the recent reports. Three major electric power trade groups, the American Public Power Association, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Edison Electric Institute, all declined to comment on a Paris exit.

The power groups have a diverse range of members, some of which could benefit more from a Paris withdrawal than others. Although renewable energy groups could lose more from a Paris exit, they tried to remain upbeat on the potential Paris defection. State and local policies to incorporate more renewable energy and distributed generation onto the grid will likely proceed with or without U.S. participation in the Paris deal.

"We supported the Paris agreement when it was signed and believe the U.S. should stay engaged," said Dan Whitten, a spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association. "However, regardless of what the President decides on the accord, we expect America’s solar industry to continue to thrive and create jobs, boost the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions along the way."

Wind power proponents struck a similar tone. "The market has already decided, and wind power is now saving American consumers billions a year on each of the major regional grids," American Wind Energy Association spokesman Peter Kelley said. "Whatever the Administration decides to do about the Paris accord, we’ve been telling the White House and [U.S. Department of Energy] how wind power makes the grid more reliable, and contributes to national security, while sustaining over 100,000 jobs mostly in rural and Rust Belt America."

But key backers of the Paris deal blasted news of a likely withdrawal, pointing out that the U.S. would join Syria and Nicaragua as the only countries not signed onto the agreement.

"President Trump says we can't meet this general challenge of climate change, even though the private sector says we can," U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said. "It is downright un-American for a President to abdicate United States leadership to the great challenges facing our planet."

The Paris deal has backing from a diverse range of companies and industries, including in the energy sector. A majority of shareholders for oil company Exxon Mobil Corp., which promotes remaining in the Paris accord, voted May 31 in favor of enhanced climate change disclosures.

Even some large U.S. coal producers, which could lose market share under the global climate agreement, have supported staying in the accord so the U.S. can push support for technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration that could allow coal to be consumed even in a carbon-constrained economy. But at least one large coal producer said it expected Trump to support the industry either way.

"The president has been an exceptionally strong advocate for ensuring that coal plays a vital role in America's energy future, and we expect that to continue to be the case regardless of what he decides here," Arch Coal Inc. spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi said.

Sierra Club Global Climate Policy Director John Coequyt said Trump has listened to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who both lobbied the president to back out of the Paris deal, despite overwhelming evidence of support from business leaders and the public.

"If Trump moves forward he will surrender the standard of American leadership on climate to stand with Syria and Nicaragua as the only nations that aren't part of the climate accord," Coequyt said during a May 31 conference call with media. "Trump is burying his head in the sand while the seas are rising."

The Sierra Club pointed to a poll from Yale University's climate change program that found 69% of voters believe the U.S. should continue to participate in the Paris climate deal. Across the political spectrum most support staying in the Paris accord as well: 86% of Democrats, 61% of independents and 51% of Republicans agree that the U.S. should stay engaged. Even among Trump voters, 47% believe the U.S. should remain, 28% think the U.S. should not participate and 25% were unsure.

Coequyt said the Sierra Club is committed to continuing its work on the Beyond Coal Campaign, which seeks to shut down the nation's coal-fired power generators. He noted that since Trump took office, seven coal generators have announced plans to retire. While Trump has pledged to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, Coequyt said the nation's power generators are still expected to meet the rule's overall targets around 2025 — five years ahead of the initial deadline.