Elections alter climate and energy landscape

By Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 10:36 AM

Tuesday's election results will force the White House and its environmental allies to trim their ambitions for sweeping climate legislation and seek more modest bipartisan measures to cut oil dependence and greenhouse gas emissions.

The GOP victory reshuffles key House leadership posts and effectively ends the two-year effort to secure broad climate legislation. GOP gubernatorial gains threaten to slow or reverse the implementation of climate initiatives that have been enacted in more than half the states nationwide.

Recognizing the altered landscape, President Obama said Wednesday: "I think there are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year, and so it's doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after."

Obama said he thought it might be possible to reach bipartisan agreement on broadening nuclear power use, natural gas exploitation and sales of electric cars. He said the cap-and-trade approach to limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases "was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. It was a means, not an end."

Obama also hinted that the accord the administration forged with the auto industry, unions and investors that raised fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks could be a model for a deal with electric utilities over carbon dioxide emissions at power plants. That type of agreement could be implemented without legislation by Congress. Administration sources said recently that they were already exploring such a deal.

Many lawmakers have raised the prospect of blocking unilateral regulatory action by the Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon dioxide emissions, a power the Supreme Court said EPA has under the Clean Air Act.

"I would hope one of the things we'll see is Congress will assert primacy in this area of policymaking," said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Obama struck a conciliatory note on the matter. "The EPA wants help from the legislature on this," he said. "I don't think that, you know, the desire is to somehow be protective of their powers here. I think what they want to do is make sure that the issue's being dealt with."

At the state level, regulatory efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions could lose steam.

Roderick Bremby, the top environment official in Kansas, resigned Tuesday as Sen. Sam Brownback (R) cruised to victory in the gubernatorial race. Three years ago, Bremby was the nation's first official to reject an air permit application for a power plant because of carbon dioxide emissions. The outgoing governor, Mark Parkinson - a former Republican who took over in 2009 when Kathleen Sebelius joined the Obama Cabinet - gave Bremby a choice of leaving immediately or overseeing the transition to the conservative Brownback. Bremby left.

With Brownback's victory, Bremby's departure was a certainty anyway. His early departure will probably help Sunflower Electric, which has reapplied to build two coal plants in the western part of the state; it hopes to obtain permits before new state regulations take effect in January. Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune called the move "outrageous. It's dirty coal politics."

Environmental leaders did their best to highlight a few electoral victories, such as the defeat of Proposition 23, which would have suspended California's landmark law curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and the fact that GOP Senate candidates Sharon Angle (Nev.), Ken Buck (Colo.) and Christine O'Donnell (Del.) did not win.

But they acknowledged that the loss of the House Democratic majority, along with dozens of key lawmakers who favored their agenda, would pose a challenge in the next Congress.

House Republicans will probably eliminate the Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence, which Democrats created four years ago. The incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), plans to scrutinize the scientific data underlying the administration's climate policies.

"It's not about whether climate change is happening or not happening," said Issa spokesman Kurt Bardella. "It's about the implementation of public policy based on facts and figures, and making sure it's accurate."

In addition to stricter congressional oversight, the new Congress will usher in a record number of lawmakers who question the link between human activity and global warming. Five of the six new GOP senators and 35 of the 85 House Republican freshmen fall into that category, according to Daily Kos blogger R.L. Miller and ThinkProgress, an arm of the liberal Center for American Progress.

"We can play less defense," said one oil industry lobbyist. "We can get more creative." He said that new priorities would be to block new regulations requiring greater use of ethanol, lower nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, and higher efficiency boilers. The EPA's proposed rules that prepare the way for the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions -- known as tailoring and endangerment -- are also targets. Efforts to limit EPA's power by legislation could "percolate next year and be ripe for an appropriations fight this time next year," he predicted.

eilperinj@washpost.com mufsons@washpost.com

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