By Valerie Volcovici and Devika Krishna Kumar
(Reuters) - Forget the accusations of groping, bigotry and email mismanagement.
If the American voter had to choose between Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton based on their energy policies alone, the presidential election would still be a remarkable drama, amounting to the biggest referendum on global climate change since the term was coined.
How the country decides on Nov. 8 will have far-reaching implications for the price of electricity and gas at the pump, as well as the future of the U.S. energy industry, which employs about 10 million people.
Trump's vision is an America where oil derricks pump furiously again, coal miners get back to work, and the country puts its own economy ahead of foreign nations worried about the effects of fossil fuels on sea levels, droughts, and storms.
Clinton sees an America where half a billion solar panels power homes, cars run on electricity, oil use is cut by a third, and the clean energy sector provides a deep well of new jobs supported by government mandates and subsidies.
"At a very basic level, it would be a climate vote," said Sarah Emerson, the head of Energy Security Analysis Inc in Boston. "Do you want fossil fuels, or renewables?"
MAKE AMERICA DRILL AGAIN
Trump has said he wants to unleash a U.S. “energy revolution” by streamlining environmental regulation, easing infrastructure permitting and pulling the country out of a global pact to combat climate change – moves he says would promote increased oil and gas drilling and revive the dying coal mining industry without compromising air and water quality.
The proposals align neatly with both the Republican Party’s opposition to government overreach, and Trump’s own campaign theme of making “America Great Again” by restoring traditional industries, including many that have been hurt by international trade agreements.
While the plan has earned him some support within an oil and gas industry naturally opposed to regulation, it has also given rise to skepticism among even his closest allies over whether he can deliver.
“Obama hasn’t shut down drilling – what has shut down drilling is price,” Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, a Trump supporter, told Reuters. “I don’t know what Trump can do to help the industry.”
A technology-driven drilling boom has pushed U.S. oil and gas production up 70 percent since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, making America the top producer in the world, but it has also triggered a slump in prices as demand has failed to keep up.
Oil prices are running at four-month highs around $50 a barrel after the OPEC cartel signaled in September it may make its first production cut in eight years, but prices remain less than half their levels from mid-2014.
While the price crash has been a boon for consumers and energy-intensive businesses, dozens of energy companies have gone bankrupt, putting blue collar workers in the coal mines, shale fields and oil rigs out of work.
Critics have said Trump’s plan to revive natural gas drilling would finish off the very coal industry he promises to restore, because the two fuels compete. It would “seem to defy basic market laws of supply and demand,” said Jason Bordoff, a former energy adviser to Obama.
The coal industry, once a large employer in parts of America, now employs less than 60,000 miners. It has become a symbol of Trump's vow to revive dying industries. Clinton suffered political damage when she said "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business."
Trump’s energy plan would also force the United States to make an abrupt turnabout on the environment: He wants to withdraw from the global climate change pact agreed in Paris last year.
He has called climate change a hoax and has argued the Paris deal would cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars and put it at a disadvantage.
Trump wants to rescind the Clean Power Plan to limit carbon output and downgrade the Environmental Protection Agency to a commission, not a cabinet level agency, and refocus it on its “core mission: clean air and clean water for all Americans, regardless of race or income.”
An oil industry lobbyist in Washington D.C., who asked not to be named, said that even if Trump’s policies were unlikely to solve the root problem facing the industry right now – the low price of oil and gas – his ideas were still mainly welcomed.
“Regulation is a killer, and if it can be streamlined, it helps,” he said.
Trump’s campaign has drawn about $99,000 from employees of the oil and gas industry since July, when he was formally nominated, while Clinton has received about $114,000 from the industry over the same period, according to the latest federal campaign finance disclosures.
CLEAN ENERGY SUPERPOWER
Environmental advocates argue that a failure to agree on strong measures like the Paris accord would doom the world to ever-hotter average temperatures, bringing with them deadlier storms, more frequent droughts and rising sea levels as polar ice caps melt.
Clinton says she wants to address that by making America a “clean energy superpower." Her plan calls for phasing out fossil fuels, embracing clean energy sources like solar and wind, strengthening environmental protections and leading the world in curbing carbon dioxide emissions blamed for climate change.
“We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels. We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid. That’s a lot of jobs. That’s a lot of new economic activity,” Clinton said in the first presidential debate in September.
Solar development is aided by a federal tax credit worth 30 percent of the cost of a system. That credit was set to expire at the end of this year, but received a five-year extension from Congress in late 2015. Even so, the cost of electricity from large-scale solar installations has dropped to a level that is now comparable to natural gas-fired power, even without incentives.
Clinton has also signaled increased regulation of fracking to prevent water and air pollution, continued support for the Obama administration’s efforts to curb carbon output that would pressure fuels like coal, and a tougher approach to infrastructure permitting.
Her approach appears much more likely than Trump’s to lift consumer prices for gasoline, heating oil, and electricity, given that increased regulation typically increases costs of production, many analysts said.
Still, Clinton will likely face stiff resistance from U.S. Congress - if Republicans retain control of one or both houses. She could follow in Obama's footsteps by relying on executive orders to implement her agenda, but opponents would almost certainly challenge her in the courts.
Jay Faison, a North Carolina entrepreneur who calls himself a conservative advocate for clean energy, agrees with the need for more lower-carbon sources of energy, but says Trump’s plans to cut regulation could provide a more effective way to get there. They could potentially make it easier to build nuclear power plants and hydro-electric dams, which produce no carbon dioxide, for example.
Environmentalists, who have helped mobilize mass protests against energy infrastructure projects during Obama's presidency, hate Trump's proposals. But they are also suspicious of Clinton. She promoted fracking technology to European allies while America’s top diplomat to help them reduce their dependence on Russia, according to leaked diplomatic cables, and was slow to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline proposal that would have piped in more oil sands from Alberta to U.S. refineries.
“It’s a shame that were going to have to spend four or eight years pressuring her at every turn but we will,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, which advocates a complete halt to fossil fuels development.
(This version of the story was refiled to change "powers" to "power" in the headline)
(Additional reporting by Nichola Groom, Richard Valdmanis and Jessica Resnick-Ault, editing by Ross Colvin)