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Foreign Policy and the 2010 Midterms: Energy and Climate Policy

Author: Toni Johnson
Updated: October 14, 2010
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

Editor's Note: This is part of a series on the foreign policy implications of the 2010 midterm elections.

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President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in the 111th Congress took office with promises to produce comprehensive energy and climate legislation. But lingering questions over economic recovery, a bitter debate over healthcare reform, and a massive oil drilling accident in the Gulf of Mexico have disrupted policy goals in both areas. And action in the next congressional session is uncertain, with Congress facing a potential transfer of party power in the House and Senate in the November midterm elections. Environmental and energy advocates foresee post-election challenges to some of Obama's energy initiatives, especially the EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Still, some experts say clean energy, which could provide a much needed economic boost, could benefit regardless of which party controls Congress after the election.

Energy in the Midterms

Energy and climate have traditionally been secondary election issues, unless, as in the 2008 campaign, Americans feel the economic pain of high gas prices or there is an energy emergency like the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Still, some Democrats, especially in the House, are being challenged this election cycle on their push for a climate bill, which has been painted by a number of Republicans as economically harmful to consumers and business. The 2008 Republican mantra of "drill baby drill" has been subdued by the summer's oil spill, but increasing access to domestic resources remains a focus for party candidates.

The legislating calendar in the Senate is filling up, and it looks likely all energy issues may be off the agenda during the lame duck session no matter who wins in November.The likelihood that the November 2 elections will be a referendum on the economy (WashPost) has posed difficulties for the Democratic agenda on energy and climate change, in part because of fears over increasing energy prices via a cap on carbon. Democrats had hoped to enact comprehensive climate legislation but have since backed off. Though the Waxman-Markey bill, which would have created a U.S. cap-and-trade system, was passed by the House in June 2009, the Senate has yet to take up similar legislation. And a much anticipated energy debate expected in the Senate before the end of the summer session was tabled, even though its centerpiece was a pared-down bill that did not contain controversial provisions such as carbon cap and trade or a federal renewable energy standard. Instead, the bill focused on creating clean energy jobs and removing the oil liability cap to address the environmental damage from the Gulf spill.

Crisis Guide: Climate Change At the beginning of the 111th Congress in January 2009, green energy featured heavily on the agenda as a means of economic stimulus. As of June 2010, the administration had spent nearly $500 million on green job training, the idea being that jobs created by expanding the clean-energy and energy-efficiency sectors helps the economy in the short term and the environment in the long term. Democratic candidates in midterm races in Iowa and Pennsylvania continue to tout the need for more green job creation. And several Democrats have gotten behind a union petition to the U.S. Trade Representative to take China to task for alleged trade subsidies, which they say hurt the creation of clean-energy jobs (TheHill) in the United States.

But environmental advocates question the Democrats' green jobs approach since it takes focus away from advancing comprehensive policy. "In total, failure to enact legislation that promotes industries heretofore classified as green really hurts the economy more broadly," says Treehugger blogger Matthew McDermott. He says the green job mantra also opens the door to "pointless debate" over where the jobs are--a subject still being surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics--and whether or not a particular job is really green. While many agree there are obvious green jobs such as solar panel technician, critics note (WashingtonExaminer) that the Labor Department is using a broad definition so that numerous jobs seemingly unrelated to the green sector are included, among them positions like financial analyst.

The Obama administration has introduced a number of energy and climate regulatory initiatives, most notably increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (CAF…) in May 2009 to lower greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles. But the April 2010 Deepwater oil spill cast a pall on the administration's overall energy and climate strategy. The four-month-long spill helped derail Senate negotiations on climate and energy legislation, which would have included a compromise to open up new areas offshore to drilling operations. Instead, the spill led to questions about the administration's oversight, the offshore drilling regulation regime, and a controversial temporary ban on new offshore drilling, which the administration ended six weeks earlier than the expected November 30 deadline. Though the moratorium is over, the new permit requirements set in place by the administration coupled with the long lead time for drilling contracts, mean that drilling is unlikely to resume anytime soon. Republicans criticized Obama's handling of the spill, the impact of the moratorium on employment, and attempts to remove the oil liability cap. Republicans are also using the incident in campaigns to continue to hammer home the need for domestic energy exploration, as they did in the 2008 race.

Another hot button issue is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announcement in April 2009 that it would pursue greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act. Most Republicans and some powerful Democrats oppose such a move. One major issue for the agency is that the air law is written so narrowly that including greenhouse gases under the regime could put millions of new commercial facilities under onerous regulation. Currently, the EPA has proposed a tailoring rule that targets only the biggest greenhouse gas emitters, but the rule is already under legal challenge (TheHill).

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in both houses has tried to hold votes to weaken, delay, or block EPA activities related to EPA greenhouse gas rulemaking, but has failed so far. No matter which party controls Congress after the elections, experts say the EPA rule will remain targeted for elimination. Another potential target is the EPA's stronger oversight of mountaintop removal mining for coal, which has become an issue in the Senate race in West Virginia (WSJ), which had been held by Democrat Robert Byrd.

A Climate of Change

For Democrats, building consensus on climate policy was a tough sell among some party members. Coal state and rust-belt Democrats were worried about how provisions in the Waxman-Markey bill might adversely affect constituents and industries in their state. Despite negotiating provisions to protect constituents, these Democrats are now being hammered for their votes on the climate bill by their Republicans opponents. Representative Rick Boucher, a Democrat from coal-rich West Virginia, for example, has been targeted for voting yes (Reuters) on the Waxman-Markey bill, despite his push to have millions of dollars for clean-coal technology included in the bill. Similarly, several House Democrats in Ohio--the country's largest producer of steel--are facing tough reelection bids, and Republicans are using their votes on the cap-and-trade bill (WashPost) to paint them as out of touch or unfriendly to business.

The legislating calendar in the Senate is filling up, and it looks likely all energy issues may be off the agenda during the lame duck session no matter who wins in November.

According to the government watchdog OpenSecrets.org, the fossil fuel industry outspent environmental groups five to one in lobbying campaigns against the climate bill. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman wrote in September 2010 that the industry was using television ads to depict the cap-and-trade legislation as a massive energy tax and job killer. "Without tipping its hat in an obviously partisan way, the [American Petroleum Institute] Voter Guide leaves little doubt about what kind of candidates it wants the 'small people' to vote for in November," Norman writes. OpenSecrets.org says the energy and mining sector "regularly pumps the vast majority of its campaign contributions into Republican coffers." (Although Open Secrets data also shows that the energy sector gave more money to Democrats in the 2010 campaign cycle than in any other in the past decade and a half.)

A Republican takeover of the House or Senate could have significant consequences for climate legislation. The Washington Post's Andrew Freedman writes, "More candidates who simply do not believe Earth's climate is warming, or who hold the view that humans are not the primary cause of recent warming, may be elected this year than in any other election in recent memory."A survey from progressive blog Think Progress says nearly all Senate Republican candidates do not believe in manmade climate change and/or oppose cap-and-trade legislation.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who lost her primary race and is now running as a write-in candidate, opposed cap-and-trade legislation but still was criticized by her opponent for believing in manmade climate change (Nature). Murkowski is currently ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and works well with Chairman Jeff Bingaman. The committee, which has power over oil and gas exploration, renewable energy, nuclear power, the electricity grid, and the Energy and Interior Departments, could lose more than half of its current Republican members, leaving room for a vastly changed, potentially less-congenial dynamic.

Thomas Dennis, an energy and environment lobbyist, says that if Republicans take over one or both houses, GOP leaders might spend their time holding hearings on the Obama administration's response to the Gulf oil disaster, the EPA's regulatory activities on greenhouse gases, and the validity of scientific claims that climate change is the result of manmade activities. Energy lobbyist Frank Maisano says climate change legislation is still possible in the event of a Republican takeover, but it wouldn't be policy that environmental groups want. He points to a controversial proposal to have carbon pricing but with a "safety valve" that would cap prices at a certain level to limit the economic impact. Maisano says the key will be convincing skeptical Republicans that this is their best chance to control what climate policy will look like.

Paul Bledsoe, a strategist with the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center's National Commission of Energy Policy, agrees with Maisano that some kind of climate and energy legislation is possible, but it is unlikely to focus on cap and trade. "A strange dynamic can develop when the balance of power is narrower," Bledsoe told news website SolveClimate.com. "I think senators will feel a greater sense of urgency to initiate legislation together." There is already a bipartisan bill in the Senate that would mandate 15 percent of electricity generation come from renewable energy sources, introduced in September, which some thought might see action before the end of the year. But the legislating calendar in the Senate is filling up, and it looks likely all energy issues may be off the agenda during the lame duck session no matter who wins in November. But it is possible a similar bill could surface next year.

Meanwhile, William Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Network, says governorship races and state legislature races also could have a significant impact on climate policy. "The danger is that voters will elect governors, legislators, mayors, and city council members who are opposed to, agnostic about, or frightened to implement the climate and energy policies their predecessors embraced," Becker writes. Implementing all the currently proposed state initiatives along with using existing federal regulatory authority has the potential to collectively reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 14 percent by 2020, according to a recent World Resources Institute report.

Those cuts would encompass most of the president's UN Copenhagen pledge to reduce U.S. greenhouse emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Such figures could strengthen the U.S. negotiating position at the next UN climate treaty meeting in Cancun this December. California voters, meanwhile, will decide on a ballot initiative on whether to sideline their state climate change law (GreenBiz) until the unemployment rate, now at about 12 percent, drops to 5.5 percent for more than a year.

Obama, in a September Rolling Stone interview, noted that his Copenhagen pledge will be accomplished through increased efficiency, "some sort of carbon pricing," and technological breakthroughs. "One of my top priorities next year is to have an energy policy that begins to address all facets of our overreliance on fossil fuels," he said. "We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation." Obama might be using the promise to put his weight behind clean energy legislation in 2011 to help galvanize green-minded voters (Politico) who could be tempted to sit this election out.

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