Rare Energy Policy Window for Republicans After Election Sweep

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Rachel Leven, Brian Dabbs, Rebecca Kern andPatrick Ambrosio

Nov. 9 — Republicans have a rare opportunity to dictate energy and environment policy starting in 2017—if they choose to do so—following their electoral sweep.

Congressional Republican leaders touted intentions to rescind landmark environmental rules, and industry cheered them on. However, some approached the prospect of forcing partisan bills throughout next session cautiously, even as environmentalists signaled they are ready to fight.

“I don’t think we should act as if we’re going to be in the majority forever. We’ve been given a temporary lease on power, if you will. And I think we need to use it responsibly,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a Nov. 9 press conference in Washington, D.C.

“I think what the American people are looking for are results, and to get results in the Senate, as all of you know, it requires some Democratic participation and cooperation,” McConnell said.

The Republicans kept control of the Senate and the House in the Nov. 8 election, and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump took the White House in a stunning defeat of Hillary Clinton (D). Now it is up for debate whether these results should serve as a mandate for change, specifically rolling back landmark climate action.

The Results

Republicans kept their Senate majority with a 51-48 margin as of Nov. 9, and House Republicans retained their House majority with a 239-193 margin, as Trump won many of the major fossil fuel producing states, including West Virginia.

Republicans in and out of congressional leadership said these results signified that the American people want change. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said a unified Republican government will give the party the ability to address problems such as coal mining layoffs and rules like the blockbuster Clean Water Rule.

Some political observers told Bloomberg BNA it is possible that the shift to a Republican-controlled Washington could lead to different types of legislation making their way out of Congress. That shift could begin in the lame duck, Kevin Book, managing director at the energy analysis firm ClearView Energy Partners LLC, told Bloomberg BNA.

Book pointed to the broad energy bills currently in conference as a prime example of an area where there could be less incentive for Republicans to compromise. That could mean no movement on the high priority bill in the lame duck, he said.

“Republicans in the House might have been willing to swallow a consensus bill, and might still be willing to swallow a consensus bill, but they’re probably less willing now because they have a chance of carving out some stronger provisions that they can get through a president who will sign it,” Book said.

In the next session, while it is hard to guess, the shift could translate to the all-of-the-above energy strategy returning to center stage for legislation, Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, told Bloomberg BNA. That could translate into bills such as those on carbon capture and sequestration that focus on using fossil fuels more “responsibly” gaining momentum, he said.

Lost Bills May Reappear

And environmental and climate change advocates told Bloomberg BNA that they are bracing for a barrage of industry-friendly bills. Those range from legislation to scale back Endangered Species Act protections to ones that would return federal lands to the states and loosen federal mining regulations.

For example, legislation such as the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny Act (H.R. 427), which would require congressional approval of some regulatory actions could reappear, Yogin Kothari, a Union of Concerned Scientists policy adviser, said.

That bill passed the House in 2015 with unanimous Republican support but only two Democratic votes in favor.

“We anticipate some of these kinds in the House very early on in the next Congress,” Kothari said. “We are prepared to push back on interference in the federal regulatory process.” Kothari also pointed to a moratorium on regulations that cost the economy more than $100 million, among other criteria, as a likely priority for Republicans.

Going Nuclear

But when it comes to Congress, moving full steam ahead with an entirely Republican agenda without Democratic consensus may prove difficult. Especially in the Senate.

Chris Vieson, a partner at PSW Inc. and former director of floor operations for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), cautioned that even with a Republican-stacked Congress and executive branch, the Senate will still need to reach 60 votes to move bills.

Some Democrats need to be on board with those bills unless McConnell chooses to alter the rules and get rid of the filibuster altogether, Vieson said. The Senate leader seemed to brush off the prospect of no filibusters at his press conference, reminding reporters that Republicans are temporarily in control.

Getting rid of filibusters could have negative consequences, Vieson said.

“Then you’d basically just have two majority ruled bodies,” Vieson said. “Our democracy wasn’t set up to have one running over the other.”

Also, the White House

But many politicians and political observers, including McConnell and Popovich, emphasized that many of the changes to energy and environment policy wouldn’t need to be executed by Congress at all.

Some actions—such as rescinding the coal leasing moratorium put in place in January by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell—could be done using Trump’s executive authority.

McConnell, for example, said he hoped Trump would drop the Clean Power Plan, which limits carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, on “day one.”

“We will likely see the new president use that same pencil, but on the eraser end of it and erase those regulations that have put the government squarely against the development of coal and fossil energy,” Popovich said.

Environmentalists Ready to Fight

Environmentalists are preparing to fight, either way. On a Nov. 9 call with reporters, representatives of key environmental groups said this push to roll back environmental regulation isn’t new. Some pointed to the 2000 transition from President Bill Clinton to George W. Bush as an example.

“We stopped the roll backs,” Anna Aurilio, Washington, D.C. director for Environment America, said.

Environmentalists also told reporters that the election results didn’t signify an anti-climate action sentiment from the public. The election was close, and “a close election is not a mandate,” Kevin Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund, said on a Nov. 9 call with reporters.

Curtis later added, “Progress is not linear.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Rachel Leven at rleven@bna.com; Brian Dabbs at bdabbs@bna.com; Rebecca Kern at rKern@bna.com; and Patrick Ambrosio at PAmbrosio@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.

Try Environment & Energy Report