PI Original Ellyn Fortino Thursday November 6th, 2014, 5:19pm

GOP-Controlled Senate Spells Bad News For The Environment, Some Say

Progress Illinois takes a look at what the pending GOP majority in Congress could mean for climate action and other environmental issues.

In Tuesday's midterm elections, Republicans took over the U.S. Senate and expanded their majority in the House -- and that has many in the environmental community worried.

"Incoming Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and their allies are poised to go after our nation's bedrock public health protections in what may be best described as an 'Environmental Contract on America,'" David Goldston, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in a post-election memo to reporters. "And in pursuit of this agenda, GOP leaders have threatened to push us to the brink of another government shutdown."

There are concerns in the environmental community that Republicans will try to force approval of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, for example, and attempt to halt funding for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposal to cut carbon emissions by existing power plants.

"We fully expect attacks on the environment ranging from our climate to our water to our air to our wildlife," said Sara Chieffo, legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters. "Doing so is radically out of touch with what the public wants, and the LCV will be there every step of the way to defeat these extreme attacks."

Efforts by Senate Republicans to advance extreme environmental policies, however, would likely fall short of the 60 votes required to end filibusters by Democrats. And Republicans themselves do not have sufficient votes to override a presidential veto.

As such, GOP leaders might attempt to move their agenda forward via the budget process.

Conservatives upset about President Barack Obama's health care reform law, for example, tried that tactic last year by refusing to pass a continuing resolution that did not delay or defund Obamacare. They didn't get their way on the Affordable Care Act, but their strategy did shut down the U.S. government for the first time in 17 years.

"As McConnell and Boehner and other leaders in both chambers have said, they will use all the tools that they have, including appropriation bills" to push their agenda, Chieffo said. "This a high-stakes fight we have ahead of us. We're confident the president will stand by his strong support for climate action and other environmental priorities. And there's a dynamic where it could come down to sustaining a presidential veto."

The Senate, Goldston said, will be "ground zero" for the Republican's "anti-environment agenda," which he said also includes "opening our coastal waters and the Arctic Refuge to risky oil drilling, blocking federal efforts to protect drinking water from oil and gas 'fracking' activity and opening our national forests to loggers," among other items.

But Allen Grosboll, co-legislative director at the Environmental Law and Policy Center, is more pragmatic about the pending power shift in Congress and what it means for energy, climate and environmental policy.

"We need to be a little bit careful about jumping to conclusions in this early stage at overstating what the implications are nationally," he said. "The first point is, these issues are dealt with one by one. And secondly, we have to recognize that some of them are supported by Republicans and Democrats, and it's not always just one party."

That being said, Grosboll said it is "certainly likely that some particular issues that the environmental community is concerned about may be lower priorities in the Congress."

"But I don't start with an assumption that with what happened Tuesday night there is a 180 degree reversal of the policies, because it's far more complicated and far more nuanced than that," he stressed.

Nancy Tuchman, founding director of Loyola University Chicago's Institute of Environmental Sustainability, suspects that many climate action issues will be put on the back burner in the new Congress.

"The headway we were making towards regulating CO2 emissions, for example, I'm a little concerned that might get slowed down or put on the side for a while," she said. "I don't have confidence that it will remain an important agenda item that will continue to get moved ahead."

There is also the possibility that Republicans will try to thwart rules put forward by the EPA, including the agency's proposal to slash power plant carbon emissions, by using the Congressional Review Act. The law allows Congress to stop a major administrative rule from taking effect if both the House and Senate pass a joint resolution that disapproves the measure. Such a resolution requires a simple majority vote to pass.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who has called man-made climate change a hoax, is expected to be the next chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which is currently led by environmental advocate Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). Inhofe has indicated he would use the Congressional Review Act to push back on EPA rules.

Tuchman said it would be "very shortsighted" to stall progress on the proposed carbon rule, stressing that "climate change isn't something that we can postpone."

Grosboll took a step back and noted that efforts on clean energy policy, energy efficiency and extraction regulations are mostly done at the state, not the federal, level.

"We all need to remind ourselves that much of the work that environmentalists and conservationists do is at the state level, and it's very common that as we do that, we have friends on both side of the aisle," he said.

Tuchman, however, wonders what impact state-level election outcomes might have on federal carbon-reduction efforts and environmental issues more broadly.

"The fact that so many of the governors have turned over from being Democratic seats to Republican also means there will be a different flavor at the state level, and they're probably going to take on different priorities," she said. "I'm thinking that there aren't very many Republicans for whom the environment is a high priority."

But the 2014 midterm elections are now over, and the fight to protect the environment must press ahead, Tuchman stressed.

"Just because Washington, D.C. is swinging in one direction, the rest of the world is, I think, really trying to figure out how to have a lighter environmental footprint on the planet," she said. "We need to keep our voices and our actions in that direction as well."

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