WASHINGTON — It’s been a defining phrase of the Donald Trump presidency, “Energy dominance,” a doctrine that emphasizes the expansion of coal and oil production as well as the weakening of environmental regulations, including those that address climate change.
But at every turn, according to a broad scientific report on climate change issued last week, rising global temperatures threaten to undermine the president’s vision of an energy-dominant America. The blackouts and other energy disruptions of Hurricane Harvey were just harbingers, the report said. Across the United States, every element of the country’s energy infrastructure, like oil wells and nuclear power plants, will be stressed by droughts, heat waves, rising seas and fiercer storms.
“Climate change disrupts everything, including Trump’s agenda,” said Alice Hill, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution think tank who served as senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.
When it comes to fossil fuel production, the disruptions are particularly serious. And there’s a fundamental irony at play. Even as emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are warming the planet, the consequences of that warming will make it harder to drill for oil, mine for coal and deliver fuel through pipelines.
Mr. Trump wants to boost oil and gas drilling on public lands in the West, but drought is expected to affect the water necessary for hydraulic fracturing, the technique of injecting vast amounts of liquid into the bedrock to force out natural gas or oil. In the Arctic, where Mr. Trump has plans to open sensitive areas to oil drilling, equipment built to withstand Alaska’s freezing temperatures is particularly vulnerable to permafrost melting as the state warms at twice the rate of the rest of the country.
Coal-burning power plants are at risk as well. Rising temperatures from extreme heat events, the report notes, are expected to reduce their capacity to generate power and hamper the efficiency of the transmission grid.
The national climate report, mandated by Congress and made public by the White House, makes the case that global warming “is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health.” Soon after publication, however, President Trump and several members of his cabinet disavowed it. “I don’t believe it,” Mr. Trump said of the findings.
President Trump’s call for energy dominance has been a central ambition of his administration. He hit on the slogan in the early days of his presidency, predicting a “golden era of American energy” that would be asserted via the country’s booming natural gas, coal and petroleum exports.
Cabinet officials have taken up the mantra.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in announcing last year a lease sale of nearly 80 million acres of federal waters off the Gulf of Mexico, described it as “a pillar of President Trump’s plan to make the United States energy dominant.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry has described energy dominance as “exporting freedom,” particularly by delivering America’s liquefied natural gas and developing offshore oil drilling.
Even at the Environmental Protection Agency, where the core mission is to ensure clean air and water, Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator, has heralded ways he and his staff have advanced the president’s energy dominance agenda by saving polluting industries billions of dollars in regulatory costs.
The findings from the National Climate Assessment, issued by 13 federal agencies, comes as the new House Democratic majority prepares to conduct oversight next year into Mr. Trump’s rollbacks of federal climate change policies. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, who is expected to chair the House Science Committee, is part of a group of lawmakers planning two days of hearings in January into ways to both reduce planet-warming emissions and prepare for the consequences of rising temperatures.
“Our rapidly changing climate, and the Trump administration’s efforts to take us in the wrong direction, seriously jeopardize our future,” Ms. Johnson said.
Energy infrastructure is an expensive part of the problem, according to the assessment. The report does not provide firm estimates of expected costs. It does cite the fact that Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which resulted in gasoline lines stretching for miles, inoperable refineries and electricity outages affecting 8.7 million people, prodded utility companies in New York and New Jersey to invest billions of dollars in upgrades like elevating equipment and redesigning electrical networks to withstand extreme weather.
The report notes that Con Edison and Public Service Electric and Gas have invested about $2 billion in repairs in response to recent hurricanes. It also pointes out that the costs to reconstruct Puerto Rico’s electricity systems in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are estimated around $17 billion.
And while the report notes that energy companies and utilities are increasingly taking steps to harden their infrastructure — like planning for sea-level rise when building infrastructure — experts said the federal government needs to do more.
“When you lose access to energy, your entire economy grinds to a halt,” said Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and a former White House energy adviser to President Obama during Hurricane Sandy.
“The report lays out clearly the extent to which so many aspects of the nation’s critical infrastructure are at risk from climate change,” Mr. Bordoff said.
Energy systems in the Southeast are particularly vulnerable, the report said, with some 200 power plants and oil refineries exposed to flooding from hurricanes and fiercer storm surges. Scientists estimate, if sea levels rise nationally 3.3 feet (a figure it describes as on the “high end of the very likely range” for what the country could see by 2100) it could expose dozens of power plants currently considered to be in safe zones at risks of 100-year floods. That would jeopardize about 25 gigawatts of operating power capacity, or power for about 18 million homes.
Along the Gulf Coast — home to a significant proportion of the United States oil production and refining industry — energy infrastructure faces a similar and more immediate risk. A sea level rise of less than 1.6 feet could double the number of refineries in Texas and Louisiana vulnerable to flooding by the end of the century.
Yet energy analysts cautioned against expectations that the effects of climate change will cause irreparable harm to the fossil fuel industry or make oil, gas and coal production fundamentally unattractive to investors. Sarah Ladislaw, an energy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that the oil and gas sector has a long history of managing risks, including figuring out how to operate in politically unstable countries and prodding governments to loosen regulations they find too burdensome.
Climate change will add “headwinds” to fossil fuel companies, make production more costly in some areas and less competitive in others, Ms. Ladislaw said. But, she added, “If you’re waiting for climate impacts to be the end of the oil and gas industry, that’s not going to happen.”
For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.