Green gridlock

Will enviro-friendly Democrats spend the next two years kicking ass in Congress, or get blocked by Bush's veto pen?


Amanda Griscom Little
November 20, 2006 2:00PM (UTC)

"You'd have to go back to the Enlightenment to see such a big change in worldviews." That's how Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook characterized the environmental shift coming to Congress after the Democrats' triumph over the GOP last week.

But, hyperbole aside, what victories can environmentalists realistically expect on Capitol Hill over the next two years, considering that Congress is still narrowly divided and Dubya still wields a veto pen?

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Some key leadership shifts do point toward a dramatic about-face, none more so than Tuesday's announcement that California Democrat Barbara Boxer will replace Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Nowhere is there a greater threat to future generations than the disastrous effects of global warming," Boxer said at a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting on Tuesday. "One of my top priorities will be to spotlight this issue ... with the goal of ultimately bringing legislation to the Senate floor."

Boxer has promised to hold "extensive hearings" on climate change, and outlined plans to model federal legislation after the new California law that aims to reduce planet-warming emissions 25 percent by 2020. It's a radical departure from the approach of Inhofe, who once called global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind."

Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, who will bump fellow New Mexican Pete Domenici, a Republican, from the helm of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is also expected to push for action on climate change, as well as on stronger auto fuel-economy standards, a requirement that a percentage of the nation's electricity come from renewable sources, a boost in R&D funding for renewable energy, and reductions in oil and gas subsidies. Earlier this week, Bingaman joined Boxer and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in sending a letter to the White House exhorting the president to "work with the new Congress to pass meaningful climate-change legislation in 2007."

On the House side, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. -- who boasts a 92 percent lifetime voting score from the League of Conservation Voters -- has made rolling back roughly $4 billion of oil and gas subsidies doled out in the 2005 energy bill a key goal for the first 100 hours of the new Congress, according to her deputy press secretary, Drew Hammill.

In July, Pelosi signed on as a cosponsor of tough climate legislation introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.; it aims to slash greenhouse-gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Hammill says Pelosi will continue to support the bill. "In the new Congress, we expect there to be extensive, long-overdue hearings on climate change, which will inform the development of legislation on climate change in the 110th Congress and build upon the ideas put forward by Mr. Waxman and others," he told Muckraker.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who's in line to replace environmental bête noire Richard Pombo, R-Calif., as chairman of the House Resources Committee, will put the kibosh on Pombo's plans to undermine endangered-species protections, to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to open public lands to private development.

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Enviros are more ambivalent about Democratic Michigan Rep. John Dingell's return to the helm of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Dingell, who is 80, is the longest-serving member of the House and chaired the committee from 1981 to 1995.) A strong supporter of cleaning up Superfund sites, Dingell has also voiced intentions to investigate corporate influence behind both Vice President Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force and the fossil-fuel subsidies doled out in last year's energy bill.

Yet Dingell is a powerful ally of Detroit's automakers, and has indicated that he will stand in the way of efforts to raise fuel-economy standards; at a recent press conference, he said any fuel-economy increases would need to be weighed against the "economic ability of industry and the market to absorb these changes." He's also expressed skepticism about caps on greenhouse-gas emissions, though this week he said he would consider them if they weren't overly burdensome on the economy.

Some D.C.-based environmental groups are already tweaking their climate proposals to include Dingell-friendly features. "We realize that John Dingell will play an important role [in climate policy], and he'll be looking out for the interests of Detroit," Natural Resources Defense Council's David Doniger told Muckraker. Two weeks ago, Doniger coauthored an essay in the journal Science titled "An Ambitious, Centrist Approach to Global Warming Legislation," which proposes a cap-and-trade program that would, among other things, allocate government funds to help automakers retool their car fleets with cleaner, more efficient technologies.

Enviros are also leery about the prospects for sustainable-agriculture policy in the next Congress. While powerful agribiz enthusiasts like Pombo and Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., have been put out to pasture, there are plenty of Big Ag Dems to take their place, and even eco-darlings like Pelosi and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., are trumpeting environmentally dubious corn-based ethanol.

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Many of the big green groups in D.C. have yet to unveil detailed agendas for the 110th Congress. "We haven't had time yet for the conversation about legislative priorities, internally or with other groups or staffers on the Hill," Sierra Club's Eric Antebi told Muckraker. He cautioned against sky-high expectations: "Washington is still very divided, and whatever passes is only going to get through because it has bipartisan support. If you want any clues to what's going to work in Washington, look at what's already working at a state and local level."

Anna Aurelio, an environmental lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, agreed that it's hard to predict what will be possible over the next two years, but she outlined the broad policy objectives her group will be pushing: "Reducing oil consumption a third by 2025, getting 25 percent of our electricity from renewables by 2025, cutting energy use 10 percent in the same time frame, and tripling the budget for efficiency and renewables as soon as possible." She doesn't expect success on all fronts, but Aurelio is optimistic about the possibility of passing, in some form or another, mandatory targets for increased production of clean power and reduced consumption of oil.

Kevin Curtis of the National Environmental Trust pointed out that enviros have picked up more than a dozen sympathetic votes in the House and four in the Senate: Democrat Jim Webb, who ousted Republican George Allen in Virginia; Democrat John Tester, who unseated Republican Conrad Burns in Montana; Democrat Claire McCaskill, who beat Republican Jim Talent in Missouri; and Democrat Bob Casey, who bumped Republican Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania. These new allies, along with pro-environment leadership on key Senate and House committees, are "going to make it a lot easier to shift our defensive strategy on the environment to an offensive strategy," said Aurelio.

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Of course, if green-leaning bills do make their way through Congress, they could run up against a stone wall at the White House. But Doniger predicts that we might see cracks in that wall when it comes to, of all things, climate-change legislation.

"Business leaders are realizing that they could play a far greater role in shaping climate policy now, while the Bush administration is in office," than they could under a subsequent administration, Doniger said. Those leaders, who are increasingly acknowledging that greenhouse-gas restrictions are inevitable, will be pushing for action now.

Environmentalists will be pushing for action now too -- but they'll want much stronger legislation than industry will. The resultant wrangling over competing climate proposals stands to be the most high-profile environmental battle of the 110th Congress. Stay tuned.

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Amanda Griscom Little

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

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