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What Election 2016 means for the chemistry enterprise

Less federal research funding and regulation expected; expansion of legal marijuana could be a boon for analytical testing companies

by Cheryl Hogue , Britt Erickson
November 9, 2016

Credit: Shutterstock
President-elect Donald Trump
Photo shows U.S. president-elect Donald Trump
Credit: Shutterstock
President-elect Donald Trump

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and a Republican-controlled Congress portend significant impacts to the chemistry enterprise.

Given Republican's campaign statements, academic researchers are likely to feel a federal research funding pinch while the chemical industry could benefit from new energy policies and relaxed regulation.

“It is too early to tell what his defined policies and approaches will be toward science,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, director of public affairs for the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN. 

With Trump in the White House and fiscally conservative Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, cuts in federal spending are likely. This means chemistry researchers are apt to see the dwindling of federal grant money from the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department, and other federal agencies.

ACS will underscore to Trump’s transition team the importance of robust federal investments in R&D, science, technology, engineering and math education, and other efforts that support innovation, Ruskin says. He says the society is recommending that Trump “retain top scientific talent for key agency posts.” 

Budget cuts sought by Republicans could also limit federal regulatory agencies, which could trammel the chemical industry’s expectations for modernized regulation of its products. If its resources are tightly limited, the Environmental Protection Agency might struggle to implement Congress’ revisions earlier this year to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which had strong backing of the chemical sector.

Trump has been quiet on the topic of chemical regulation, with one exception. He has spoken out about the benefits of asbestos, a known human carcinogen that activists are calling on EPA to ban under its new authorities. The chemical industry is calling for continued use of asbestos, which is used in some chlor-alkali plants.


“Scientific advances do require long term investment. This is why we must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.”

Photo shows U.S. president-elect Donald Trump

“Scientific advances do require long term investment. This is why we must have programs such as a viable space program and institutional research that serve as incubators to innovation and the advancement of science and engineering in a number of fields.”

Trump answers 20 questions on science

During the campaign, Trump described his positions on key problems facing the science community. Here’s what he had to say.

On energy, the president-elect has pledged to overturn the Obama Administration’s keystone climate change regulation: the Clean Power Plan to curb carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel-fired electricity-generating plants. Trump supports domestic coal mining. He has said he will restore jobs in that industry, many of which have been lost to the recent boom in cheap natural gas due to fracking.

The chemical industry has benefitted significantly from abundant natural gas. The leading lobbying group of the U.S. chemical industry, the American Chemistry Council, says, “The business of chemistry will be a partner with leaders in Congress and the Trump/Pence administration to ensure the right policies are in place to support robust and responsible energy and infrastructure development.”

Chemical stocks, like most of the market, were up modestly after the election. Laurence Alexander, a stock analyst at Jefferies, says Trump’s plans to relax EPA regulations would likely be viewed as a net positive for the chemical sector. A firm such as FMC would benefit from moves to reduce the regulatory cost of launching new agricultural chemicals. But plastics producers could suffer if Trump softens auto fuel-efficiency standards, which boost demand for lightweight polymers.

Meanwhile, the president-elect has repeatedly called climate change a hoax and has pledged to “cancel” the 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls for virtually every country on Earth to control greenhouse gas emissions. But John Morton, senior director for climate and energy at the National Security Council, says momentum for the Paris deal is strong, with international businesses already shifting investments from fossil fuels to more climate-friendly technologies.

Trump has also vowed to act against an international issue dear to the U.S. chemical industry—major trade agreements. Chemical manufacturers, which constitute the one of the nation’s largest exporting sectors, backed the Obama Administration’s efforts to hammer out trade deals with Pacific Rim and European trading partners.

Meanwhile, in state elections, the outcome of several ballot initiatives will foster the legal marijuana industry that uses chemical products and employs chemists.

This industry is poised to continue its rapid growth in the U.S. Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada legalized recreational cannabis this year, joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia. More than half of all U.S. states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes and four additional states—Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota—voted in favor of medical marijuana this year. Experts predict that the cannabis industry will continue growing rapidly and become a $32 billion industry by 2020.

2016 U.S. Election: Cannabis legalization
A map showing states that have legalized medical and recreational use of marijuana.
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
The legal marijuana industry will continue to grow rapidly as a result of state elections.

Note: Montana legalized medical uses in 2004, but imposed restrictions in 2009.

Cannabis comes in many different forms—flowers or buds that are smoked, baked goods like brownies and cookies, oils, waxes, and other products.  This large variety of different kinds of cannabis products makes quality control a challenge, particularly when it comes to pesticides.

States are on their own to set safe levels of pesticides on marijuana. They are getting no help from the EPA, which generally evaluates pesticides for safety, because the federal government categorizes marijuana as a controlled substance with no accepted medical uses and a high potential for abuse.

In an election outcome not yet final, the plastics industry appears to have lost its campaign against the nation’s only statewide ban of single-use plastic bags. In a California ballot initiative, voters affirmed the state’s prohibition, which state lawmakers passed in 2014 with support from environmental activists and the grocery industry.

The American Plastic Bag Alliance, founded by The Society of the Plastics Industry, a plastics trade association, unsuccessfully fought the ban. Hilex Poly, Formosa Plastics, Superbag, and Advance Polybag collectively spent $6 million to defeat the ban, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research organization. 

UPDATE: This article was updated on Nov. 10, 2016, to include additional reaction and analysis.


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