The Trump administration is looking to keep a number of joint collaboratives open with China on clean energy, although many of them were established under the Obama administration to fight climate change.
The move shows that the administration may be looking to leverage funding from both countries to develop more advanced coal technologies. President Trump has said he wants to develop clean coal technology, according to industry officials.
The Energy Department's website details a number of clean energy collaboratives that date to 2009 and former President Barack Obama. At first glance, it appears the Trump energy agency may have overlooked the web page in updating it under new management. But all it takes is a few clicks to find out that isn't true at all.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry is listed as co-chairman of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center steering committee, with his Chinese counterpart, Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang.
The clean energy center is set up with a budget from 2016-2020 with coal as a top priority.
"CERC's mission is to generate a diversified energy supply and accelerate the transition to an efficient and low-carbon economy while mitigating the long-term threat of climate change," its Energy Department-managed website reads. The Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment on the collaboratives.
Energy industry groups, some of which have been fighting the administration over its proposed cuts to clean energy programs, said government officials have confirmed that the clean energy center and other joint initiatives with China will remain intact. Even amid Trump's proposed cuts to the Energy Department's clean energy programs, the U.S.-China alliances on clean energy are set to stick around.
Trump announced this month that he had worked out a number of deals with the Chinese government involving trade, but the only energy initiative mentioned was on increasing natural gas exports. There was no mention of coal or any other developments on energy.
Industry sources say it appears the CERC and another U.S.-China collaborative on energy efficiency, called the Energy Efficiency Action Plan, are continuing.
Energy efficiency proponents said it makes good business sense to keep those efforts afloat, especially given the access it creates for U.S. companies to sell to the Chinese market, which is one of the top goals of the collaborations in addition to making cleaner fossil fuels a reality.
"These two programs particularly are vehicles for helping American companies and technologies gain a foothold in China's enormous and growing market," said Alliance to Save Energy President Kateri Callahan.
"Maintaining these programs will keep the United States on the forefront of advancing energy efficiency," Callahan added in a statement to the Washington Examiner. "With countries all over the world moving to use energy more wisely and productively, sustaining a competitive advantage for American companies in key markets is clearly in our economic national interest."
Other industry sources privy to talks within the government said it appears the administration wants to keep the forums afloat, but they aren't saying anything about what the funding levels will be.
The CERC website showed the U.S. Energy Department's contribution in 2016-2020 is set at $12.5 million per year, with U.S. industry partners providing at least another $12.5 million. The Chinese government and its partners are listed at providing $25 million annually. The total amount is $250 million over five years. That's up from the previous five years, which was capped at $150 million.
One path the administration could take is to ask China to pony up more money, which is a common theme in Trump's talks with other countries.
"I wonder if some of the same thinking would apply to these types of efforts," said Janet Gellici, the CEO of the National Coal Council, a top federal advisory committee that reports directly to the energy secretary on coal policy. "What I'm seeing with this administration is if this is an international issue, then we should be sharing the cost of this on an international basis, and I think you are seeing that in other areas, defense, for example," she said.
"This is not just a U.S.-only [venture]. We're not going to foot the bill ourselves," she said. If the international community is interested in deploying and developing the technologies, they have to help support them, she added. "I think that is something that the [coal council] has advocated for as well. This is a shared responsibility. I think that is keeping with the administration's interest and what we've seen in other areas."
Charlene Murdock, a spokeswoman for coal mining giant Peabody Energy, which is a member of CERC, said "any approach to energy and climate policies [should] consider economic growth and impact on jobs." Peabody is recommending "a technology approach toward reducing emissions," but one that also looks at what is doable in the near term, as well as longer-term solutions for coal.
The U.S. climate policy should encourage "high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fueled plants today" and more advanced "carbon capture technologies over time," Murdock said.
Peabody and other large coal companies have pressed Trump to remain a member of the Paris climate change agreement. Trump is expected to make a decision on whether to withdraw the agreement after next week's meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations in Sicily.
But any climate or clean energy program must "acknowledge the importance of all energy sources and recognize that coal is an essential part of the energy mix given its scale, affordability and reliability," Murdock said. The coal companies want to remain in the Paris Agreement to keep negotiating on that point.
But one thing is for certain, if the U.S. wants to develop commercial clean coal technologies, China will have to be key. The Asian power has invested enormously in advanced coal technologies and is nearing a point where they are becoming commercial, Gellici said.
An area where the U.S. and China lead is on the development of carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS, which take the carbon dioxide from burning coal and turns it into a usable commodity for oil drilling. Gellici said another joint collaborative between the U.S. and China, called the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, continues to hold talks on those developments.
"The U.S. and China have been really leading in terms of CCUS project deployment, and I think that it is important that effort continue, specifically the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum effort, which is a ministerial level initiative," she said. "There is still a very strong feeling among industry folks that are participating in that effort … to get CCUS deployed on an international basis," she added. There is support from the coal industry, from the oil and gas industry on that effort, she said. "I think that is critical."
"A lot of new projects [are] being deployed in China" on coal gasification and coverting coal into liquid fuels that "might provide a low-cost way for us to improve global knowledge" and might be commercialized sooner rather than later, she said.
It's especially important that the U.S. participate in efforts such as CERC and others "because of the opportunity we have with the new facilities in China," she said. Meanwhile, the coal council is holding preliminary discussions with Energy Department staff on the direction of the advisory group and what areas the secretary wants it to focus on, Gellici said. But Secretary Rick Perry hasn't given them marching orders yet.
A conservative clean energy advocacy group called ClearPath said Perry and Trump support the U.S.-China clean energy efforts. The group supports nuclear, clean coal, hydropower, natural gas and innovation, and has been working closely with the GOP on shaping a conservative clean energy agenda.
"Secretary Perry and President Trump support equitable partnerships and CERC," said ClearPath Executive Director Rich Powell. "It's smart policy and politics in underscoring that the U.S. will not back away from clean coal development and our global energy leadership role."