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Congress Dons the Green

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
January 10, 2007

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Environmentalists couldn’t help but sound enthusiastic after the Democratic midterm election victory in November. After years of wrestling with the Republican Party’s more skeptical approach to environmental regulation, they were anxious for an opportunity to play offense. “We’ll be setting the agenda,” said Melinda Pierce (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), a Sierra Club lobbyist.

That agenda runs the gamut of environmental issues. Measures to ban drilling (AP) in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, manage the health of the oceans (ENS) and protect the population from contaminated drinking water already have been introduced. Analysts expect the new Congress to increase oversight over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as propose legislation to speed the cleanup of toxic waste dumps. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch summarizes the environmental initiatives which had no hope of enactment under Republican leadership—including the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act and the Clean Power Act. These now appear revived under the 110th Congress.

Yet with 2006 the United States’ warmest year on record (WashPost), most experts believe global warming will dominate Congress’ environmental agenda. Over the years, Congress has held 239 fact-finding missions on the issue but failed to produce any substantive legislation. Politically, as CFR Senior Fellow David G. Victor noted in this seminal 2004 Critical Policy Choice report, “Climate change has become a lightning rod.” This recently spurred the Economist to write, “When the subject is global warming, the villain is usually America.”

Key committee chairs hope to change that assessment. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has taken over the Environment and Public Works Committee from James Inhofe (R-OK), who once called global warming “the greatest hoax (CSMonitor) ever perpetrated on the American people." His final act as chairman was a hearing featuring some of the few remaining skeptics in the scientific community. Boxer says climate change tops her agenda (SFChron); she plans to push for federal legislation modeled on the landmark legislation California passed last summer that places a mandatory cap on all greenhouse gas emissions.

Any global-warming legislation will be complicated by debate over U.S. energy policy. The production, distribution, and use of energy accounts for over 95 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, notes Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), cosponsor of the newly proposed National Energy and Environmental Security Act of 2007. Ethanol, the alternative energy source with burgeoning political support (WSJ), draws criticism from some environmental groups. They claim it may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and could also entail the use of more fertilizers and pesticides.

Even within the Democratic Party, climate-change legislation faces hurdles. Democrats from auto-producing states, such as Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, oppose efforts (LAT) to limit vehicle emissions and impose stricter miles-per-gallon rules. If such a bill did pass both houses of Congress, it could fall prey to a veto by President Bush, who has resisted efforts to curb emissions. Yet many—including the U.S. business community—still think federal greenhouse gas standards are imminent (Pew). This expectation has some U.S. businesses calling for more stringent federal regulations of carbon emissions, says this Backgrounder, reasoning it will give them the opportunity to shape the regulations early on. This CFR Independent Task Force examines the foreign policy and national security consequences of America’s fossil fuel addiction. 

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