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After midterms, uphill climb for environmental legislation grows steeper

Image has not been found. URL: http://media.washingtonindependent.com/perriello-416x309.jpgRep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a strong supporter of climate legislation, lost his re-election bid on Tuesday. (Andrew Shurtleff/ZUMApress.com)

After a year of frustration in the Senate for environmentalists and climate activists, a slowly building expectation that it would be nearly impossible to pass significant climate legislation in the chamber in the near future appears to have been cemented last night.

[Environment1] One of the few bright spots for Democrats in the midterms was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) come-from-behind win over Tea Party darling Sharron Angle. The big question going forward, however, is what will can and will Reid do on energy and climate legislation next Congress. It will be next to impossible to pass comprehensive climate legislation in the next two years, but it appears Reid will focus on a series of low-hanging-fruit provisions that are popular on both sides of the aisle, including bills to incentivize electric vehicles, improve energy efficiency and weatherize homes.

The fate of two big-ticket items for environmentalists — a renewable energy standard and a much-delayed oil spill response bill — remains unclear. While there’s still time in the lame-duck session to try to pass both provisions, Republicans have more incentive to block the bills until January, when they’ll have more policy-making clout. There is some Republican support for an RES, which would require that a certain percentage of the country’s electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar. But GOP gains in the Senate could make it more likely that Republicans will push to add nuclear power and coal with carbon capture technology to the mix, a nightmare scenario for environmentalists.

It’s even less clear what will happen with the oil spill response bill. More than six months after the massive Gulf oil spill, Congress has yet to pass significant legislation to overhaul offshore drilling. (On the regulatory side, the Interior Department has issued its own new drilling rules). A number of contentious issues, like oil companies’ liability for damages from a spill, are sure to take on new significance now that more Republicans are in the Senate.

And it there was bad news for some House Democrats who voted for the chamber’s cap-and-trade bill. The two most stinging defeats were those of Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who worked furiously behind the scenes to secure benefits for his coal-dependent state in the bill before finally giving his “yes” vote, and Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who became something of a celebrity on the left for standing by the more liberal wing of his party on a number of key votes, including cap-and-trade, despite the conservative makeup of his district. Boucher lost to his Republican Morgan Griffith, and Perriello, despite a big last-minute push by environmentalists and President Obama himself, fell to state Sen. Robert Hurt (R).

Politico ran the numbers this morning. At least 12 freshman Democrats who voted for the cap-and-trade bill lost their re-election bids, while at least seven won, with some races still too close to call. In total, more than 43 Democrats who voted for the House climate bill either lost their races or retired their seats, which were then won by Republicans. Cap-and-trade proponents are already pushing back against the notion that the losses are a “referendum” on cap-and-trade, noting that 27 of the 43 Democrats who voted against the House climate bill lost their seats and pointing out that many other issues were at play in the races.

While the House Republican energy agenda, led by presumptive House Speaker John Boehner (D-Ohio), was unclear as of this morning, an energy proposal introduced last year by House Republicans gives some hints at GOP priorities. Expect a great deal of discussion about expanding nuclear power. The House Republican bill calls for bringing 100 new nuclear power plants online in the next 20 years and streamlining the approval process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. At the same time, the bill calls on the NRC to continue its review of the embattled Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository “without political interference,” a clear reference to the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent the site from accepting waste.

The bill also calls for expanded drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf and in the Arctic. (This bill, of course, was introduced before the oil spill, so it remains to be seen how it would change as a result of the disaster). House Republicans would then use revenue from increased drilling to create a fund for renewable and “alternative” energy technology like wind, solar, so-called clean coal and biomass.

The proposal also calls for “cutting red tape and reducing frivolous lawsuits.” This includes curtailing environmental reviews and limiting the review time allowed in environmental lawsuits.

In the West Virginia Senate race, Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, managed to eke out a victory over Republican John Raese. While Democrats can technically put Manchin in their column, he campaigned against nearly every significant Obama administration policy, including cap-and-trade. In one now-infamous ad, he shot the House climate bill with a rifle.

But there was some good news for environmentalists last night. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, won her re-election bid against Carly Fiorina. Boxer has always been a strong advocate for environmental protections, but her job is likely to get harder in the next Congress. She has already been accused of unwillingness to reach across the aisle, but with more Republicans in the Senate, she’ll have no choice if she wants to pass energy and climate bills.

In other key midterm results, Proposition 23, a California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law, failed. It’s a huge win for environmentalists, who funneled millions of dollars into the “No on Prop 23? campaign, pitting themselves against two Texas oil refiners that campaigned heavily for passage of the initiative. California’s climate law is viewed by environmentalists as the gold standard. Passage of the ballot initiative would have been the icing on the cake of a disappointing year for climate activists.

At the same time, it looks like another California ballot initiative, Proposition 26, will pass. The measure would require a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature and in local government bodies to impose new fees on industry. Environmentalists say the proposition will make it more difficult to implement key environmental rules, including parts of the state’s climate law. In the last days of midterm election campaigning, as it became clear that Prop 23 would fail, activists’ attention shifted to Prop 26. But it was apparently too late to make a significant difference at the polls.

Over in Minnesota, the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D) was defeated last night. Oberstar worked for years to reform pipeline safety and was in the process of developing new legislation to do so in the aftermath of a massive oil pipeline spill in Michigan and a natural gas pipeline explosion in California.

In the very close Colorado Senate race between Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and Republican Ken Buck, it appears that Bennet will garner just enough votes to win without a recount. As I noted yesterday in my midterm preview, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have trashed Buck in ads, highlighting his comments questioning whether climate change is man-made. Environmentalists have made Buck the poster child of Republican climate skeptics running this cycle. For his part, Buck’s spokesman said his official position is this: “Ken believes climate change is occurring, but that it’s natural more than man-made.”

Bennet does not support the House version of cap-and-trade, but his campaign said recently that he would support a “well-thought-out, market-based bill.” Buck’s campaign jumped on the comments, saying Bennet’s position on the issue is unclear.

It may take some time to get the results of the Alaska Senate race between incumbent and write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), Tea Party favorite Joe Miller (R) and Democrat Scott McAdams. Murkowski appears to be winning, according to early results. Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Though she has opposed cap-and-trade bills in the past, she has a history of working closely with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the panel’s chairman, on key energy bills, including the comprehensive energy bill they passed in 2009.

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