Fierce Opponent of Climate Action to Chair Environment Panel

Energy and Climate Report provides current, thorough coverage of clean energy, efficiency, and climate change legislation, regulation, policy, legal developments, and trends in the U.S. and...

By Dean Scott and Stephanie Beasley

Nov. 9 — Republicans who nearly ran the table election night and will hold the Senate will likely bring a fierce opponent of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda to head its Environment and Public Works Committee: Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso.

Barrasso would succeed current EPW Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is term-limited under Republican Senate rules. Most expect the same level of opposition to climate change policies and what Republicans argue was overzealous environmental regulations under Obama.

The crucial difference: Barrasso, unlike Inhofe, will hold the gavel with a Republican in the White House and continued Republican control of the House, making it a near certainty that he and other opponents of the Paris climate pact, Obama climate and environmental regulations, and international climate funding will be on the offensive. The committee also is likely to spend much of early 2017 confirming President-elect Donald Trump’s (R) nominee to administer the Environmental Protection Agency.

Barrasso also shares Inhofe’s skepticism over the links between human activity and climate change. One slight distinction: Inhofe represents an oil state, while Wyoming is a coal state, suggesting more of an emphasis within EPW on the coal industry, which might be welcomed by coal state Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (W. Va.), who is the most senior committee Republican after the new chairman.

“Barrasso is a solid yes as chairman,” a Republican EPW committee aide told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 9, adding that the ranking Democrat on the committee is a little less clear.

Asked to elaborate on the prospective chairman’s agenda, Barasso’s spokeswoman, Laura Mengelkamp, said Nov. 9 the senator would have no comment “at this time.”

Minority Spot Opens for Carper

With Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) retiring, the top Democratic spot would fall to the most senior Democrat left, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

But Carper also could opt to stay on as ranking minority member at the Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, an arguably less divisive committee.

Carper is still not showing his cards, however. He insists he’s focused on work in the lame-duck session—the agenda includes keeping the government open after mid-December—when the House and Senate resumes the 114th Congress after the election.

“I have not yet made a decision and think we have a lot of important work to accomplish in the 114th Congress before we start planning what we will do in the 115th,” Carper said in a prepared statement.

Path for Senator Whitehouse?

Democrats could also eye a more combative Democrat for the EPW minority post such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a leading Senate advocate of climate action who has taken on Exxon and other fossil fuel companies for their alleged efforts to undercut climate science and low-ball climate risks to the companies from investors and the public.

Whitehouse would have to leapfrog other Democrats with more seniority—Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Bernie Sanders (I/D-Vt.) but they also have options for ranking committee slots elsewhere. Whitehouse might have more enthusiastic backing among many environmental groups that see him as more passionate on the climate issue than the more measured Carper.

Cooperation on Infrastructure?

Infrastructure investment was one area where Inhofe and Boxer, the departing ranking Democrat, agreed and the peace on that front is unlikely to be disrupted by a change in committee leadership, Jack Schenendorf, former House transportation committee chief of staff, told Bloomberg BNA.

“I’d be quite surprised if things deteriorated in any substantial way,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said Barrasso is unlikely to pursue a dramatically different approach on transportation than Inhofe. Barrasso was a member of the conference committee that negotiated a five-year surface transportation reauthorization law known as the FAST Act and was especially supportive of a provision that created a new formula funding program for freight.

Carper is seen by those tracking infrastructure and transportation as continuing to show strong interest in establishing new funding mechanisms for infrastructure, if he takes the top committee Democratic slot. Last year, Carper voted against the $305 billion FAST Act because he said its non-transportation-related-pay-fors were a “grab bag of budget gimmicks.”

Carper, a former governor of Delaware and former chairman of the National Governors Association, previously floated a proposal to raise federal gas and diesel taxes to replenish the Highway Trust Fund that supports federal highway and transit programs.

The Delaware senator told Bloomberg BNA earlier this year that he would be tracking provisions in the FAST Act that provide states with incentives to experiment with different user fee models like vehicle-miles-traveled.

Senate EPW won’t have another major transportation reauthorization legislation like the FAST Act on its plate again this Congress. But as with other congressional committees with oversight authority of the Department of Transportation, the environment committee could be pulled into deliberations on any major infrastructure proposal released by the next administration.

President-elect Trump has laid out plans to pursue within the first 100 days of his presidency a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would give tax breaks to private investors for lending money to states and municipalities launching new projects.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott in Washington, D.C., at DScott@bna.com; Stephanie Beasley in Washington, D.C., at sBeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.