Midterm Election Results and the Fate of U.S. Environmental Policy

Richard Matthews

What do the Republican gains in Congress mean for the nations energy and environment policy? The fate of US environmental policy is tied to the fate of President Obama.

What do the election results mean for environmental policy?

If the next two years are anything like the past two years, Republicans will resist the President's agenda on energy and the environment.

In the absence of a working legislature, many will look to regulation as a viable avenue to advance the environmental agenda. However, the Tea Party candidates fiercely oppose government regulation and some Republicans have made it clear that they will do everything they can to limit the power of government agencies like the EPA.

Republican control of the House of Representatives means that through annual agency funding bills, they can restrict the funding required to administer regulations. This includes the EPA's efforts to regulate CO2, ozone and other elements of the Clean Air Act.

Republicans also want the EPA to justify the costs associated with regulating greenhouse gas emissions. Some Republicans even want to reduce regulations governing the use of leaded aviation fuels, or airborne mercury pollution.

Although the new Republican Congress may want to expand nuclear power and offshore oil drilling, they also want to avoid passing any legislation that President Obama can claim as an accomplishment in 2012.

Republicans may choose to spend the next two years deriding the President and the Democrats. Tea Party Republicans can be expected to bolster the Republicans’ anti-science stance on climate change and many of the new Republicans reflexively oppose the President.

Although the new Congress will not be installed until next January, some Republican leaders have already started gathering evidence for sweeping investigations of the President's environmental agenda. Congressional committees will be turned into investigating committees and members of the Obama administration can expect to be called into hearings.

Some Republican leaders have said they would immediately disband the select committee on global warming. Republican leaders have also said they are looking for ways to reopen last year's climate science controversy, the so called "climate-gate" scandal, even though five separate inquiries exonerated the scientists and reaffirmed the science on climate change.

Even with an influx of conservative lawmakers, there may still be room for some progress. Republicans may opt to work with the President to avoid being labelled as "do nothing" in 2012. Republicans will no doubt remember the re-election of Bill Clinton in 1996 after the Democrats’ 1994 midterm defeat.

The President understands that tackling climate change bit by bit is the only remaining option. If any legislation has a chance, it will have to be done in "chunks" of bills as there is no chance of passing comprehensive legislation.

Republicans may consider passing Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) legislation which has some bipartisan support. RES requires big electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021.

Bipartisan support is also possible for a bill that reduces emissions of sulphur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide from smokestacks, including coal-fired power plants.

Even in the absence of legislative action, President Obama can still move the US away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner energy.

The Interior Department can continue to provide federal licenses for the operation of solar plants on public land and leases for major offshore wind projects. The administration can also continue to move ahead with cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from trucks, buses and cars.

Republican threats to de-fund the EPA will fail because the veto is part of the executive privileges of Presidential power and the Republicans do not have the two thirds majority needed to override him. Although the Congress has power, the President’s powers are paramount, that is why what happens in 2012 is of great importance.

In the past century, every time a sitting president's party has lost its majority in at least one house of Congress, the president went on to win re-election.


Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.


Climate Politics & Policy