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A second Trump presidency would target IEA's green focus, advisers say

Published 05/16/2024, 06:12 AM
Updated 05/16/2024, 06:19 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol poses during an interview with Reuters in Paris, France, December 15, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier/File Photo

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump would likely push to replace the head of the International Energy Agency if he wins the U.S. presidential election to shift the energy watchdog's focus back to maximizing fossil fuel output instead of fighting climate change, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Paris-based IEA has provided research and data to industrialized governments for more than half a century to help guide policy around energy security, supply and investment. The United States provides around a quarter of the group's funding.

In recent years, the organization has broadened its focus beyond oil and gas supply to include clean energy, as member governments seek input on meeting their goals under the Paris climate agreement and accelerate a transition away from fossil fuel reliance.

That shift gathered pace during President Joe Biden's tenure – resulting in prescriptions on energy policy that angered global oil producers including Saudi Arabia, and which clash with Trump's self-described ‘drill, baby, drill’ energy agenda aimed at boosting the traditional oil and gas industries.

Reuters spoke with five people familiar with Trump's thinking on energy, including donors, policy experts and former Trump administration officials, all of whom said Biden's predecessor would likely pressure the IEA to bring it in line with his pro-fossil fuel policies if he was re-elected in November.

The Trump campaign declined requests for comment on the issue. Trump has not spoken publicly about the IEA.

Fellows at the Heritage Foundation, an organization that has drafted a policy blueprint for a new Republican administration and which is in regular contact with the Trump campaign, said they are suggesting the U.S. use its clout within the agency to push for the replacement of the IEA's director, Fatih Birol.

"The U.S. should definitely come up with a strategy to replace the leadership at the IEA," said Mario Loyola, a senior research fellow at Heritage, attacking what he called Birol's focus on "net-zero [emissions] fairytales" as "fossil fuel demand continues to increase."

Birol declined to comment for this article.

The IEA's director is elected by member nations, but the U.S. has outsized influence in the group because of its funding and geopolitical clout. The IEA's other 30 members are predominantly European, but also include Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico and South Korea.

A Trump push for the IEA to tilt back toward emphasizing fossil fuels in the global energy mix would go against the stated position and energy policies of the EU and other key members of the IEA.

A new Trump administration would prioritize other energy policy moves first, like reversing the Biden administration's pause on liquefied natural gas export licenses, expanding domestic drilling or withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate accord, said Heritage fellow Mike McKenna, a former Trump energy policy adviser who is in contact with the campaign.

"I could see it being a year-two focus to change leadership at IEA," he said.

Trump considered cutting U.S. funding to the IEA during his presidency but opted to keep it in place, in part because of the relatively low price tag, Dave Banks, special assistant for international energy and environment at the National Security Council when Trump was president, told Reuters.

The U.S. pays about $6 million per year in IEA dues.

But things could change if he is re-elected.

"There is a feeling among Republicans that the IEA is really run by the Europeans and prioritizes European energy security views, which aligns with Democratic priorities," Banks said.


Since his 2015 appointment as director of the IEA, Birol has pushed the agency to make fighting climate change central to its analyses. The agency projects oil demand will peak at the end of this decade.

In 2021, shortly after President Joe Biden took office, the IEA published a report that said a swift end to new drilling investment globally was necessary if countries were to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius as targeted by the Paris Agreement.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which groups Saudi Arabia and other big oil producers, has repeatedly clashed with the IEA since, and last year accused it of vilifying oil producers.

Birol had worked for OPEC at its Vienna headquarters in the early 1990s.

Birol's green turn led U.S. Republican lawmakers to accuse the IEA of aligning too closely with the policy agenda of the Biden administration, with two top Republican lawmakers saying in March that the agency has morphed into an "energy transition cheerleader".

John Kerry, who served as Biden's top U.S. climate envoy until March, told Reuters just before he stepped down from the post that the Biden administration "worked very closely with the IEA," relying on its modeling and analysis to shape some of its key policies to decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2050.

Kerry pushed back against the assertion that the IEA has an ideological bent towards green causes.

"Because of the climate crisis, and the leadership at IEA, they're really focused on becoming the truth teller about the climate challenge," Kerry told Reuters in March.

The IEA has defended its analyses as independent and fact-driven.

“The IEA scenarios…are the product of an independent and detailed analytical effort, informed by the latest data on markets, policies and technological costs,” Birol said in an April letter in response to Republican lawmakers.

But if Trump were re-elected as president, the agency would face pressure to return to its original focus on oil and gas supply issues.

"I strongly expect that if President Trump wins, the U.S. will use its leverage in the IEA, working with like-minded members like Japan, to restore the agency to its past role as an objective, non-political security watchdog and energy analysis and forecasting agency," said Bob McNally, president of consultancy Rapidan Energy.

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol poses during an interview with Reuters in Paris, France, December 15, 2023. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier/File Photo

Dan Eberhart, a Trump campaign donor and CEO of Colorado drilling firm Canary, said it was all a matter of perspective.

"Trump's priority has always been energy security for the U.S.," he said. "As far as the IEA's work is discouraging needed investment in traditional energy development, Trump is going to view that as a risk to America's economy and security."

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