Coal supporters and climate deniers prepare to fight Obama’s climate policy as Republicans gain majority in Senate
By Ed King in Washington DC
Senator Jim Inhofe, who believes climate change is a hoax, is likely to be charged with running one of Washington’s most influential environmental committees when Republicans take control of the Senate in January 2015.
The 79-year old political veteran will replace Barbara Boxer, a Californian Democrat who has used her time as chair to push for tougher regulations to tackle climate change.
His appointment will ensure US government climate policy faces regular and high-profile interrogation during a period when administration officials will be working with the UN on plans for an agreement to slow global warming.
Representing oil and gas-rich Oklahoma, Inhofe previously ran the Senate environment committee from 2003-2008, using his position to take on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which he says is hurting energy producers in his home state.
In his first speech since re-election, Inhofe told supporters he would end “Obama’s war on fossil fuels”, promising that with a “Republican majority in the Senate we will change that.”
The EPA plan is a central plank in the White House’s international climate strategy. By March next year it has promised to reveal what carbon cuts it will target in the future. If the EPA’s remit is weakened that could impact the figures the US can present.
Inhofe’s officials also confirmed he would seek to block millions of dollars of US funding for UN climate initiatives such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UN climate negotiations and Green Climate Fund.
The Senator had “no interest in allowing taxpayer dollars to be used to fund the careers of unelected bureaucrats,” said his spokesperson Donelle Harder.
Inhofe is the most high profile and vocal threat to the White House’s domestic climate policy, which requires power plants to curb carbon pollution 30% on 2005 levels by 2030, a plan which effectively rules out any new coal plants.
Shelley Moore Capito, incoming Republican Senator in coal-rich West Virginia echoed Inhofe’s concerns, claiming energy policy was a “real reason why I am going to Washington.”
Inhofe is also likely to find support from new Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who told Time Magazine on Wednesday he would make the construction of Keystone XL a priority.
The proposed pipeline would carry oil from tar sands from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and has become a symbol of the Obama administration’s determination to balance environmental and energy concerns.
Critics say it will lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions generated by the energy-intensive process of converting tar sands to crude, while supporters claim it will generate thousands of jobs.
Republicans in the Senate now have enough heads to bypass efforts to filibuster a bill and send it to the White House, where Obama would have to either veto or pass the deal – guaranteeing criticism whatever the choice.
In his first speech since the elections, President Obama offered to work with Republicans in Congress, saying US leaders could not wait to tackle major issues affecting the country’s future health.
“Whether it is immigration or climate change, or making sure our kids are going to the best possible schools, making sure our communities are creating jobs, stopping the spread of terror or disease, the US has big things to do,” he said.
“We can and we will make progress if we do it together.”
Nat Keohane, vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund think tank and a former administration official told RTCC he did not think the EPA power plant plans were under immediate threat, citing continued public support for pollution controls.
“What has not changed is really strong support for environment and high polling for the president’s clean power plan,” he said.
Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who spent upwards of US$ 60 million supporting climate friendly candidates said he felt “energised” by the feedback he had received, despite losing four of the seven election contests where he backed Democrats.
“I feel as if we did better than we expected, and we are in this for the long run,” he added.
Other green groups were more downbeat about the immediate future for further low carbon regulations.
The Union of Concerned Scientists president Ken Kimmell warned the US could see “backsliding” on a range of policies.
“For example, we’re likely now to see Congressional attempts to delay or repeal rules we are fighting for, such as limits on global warming emissions from power plants or requirements that school lunches include more fruits and vegetables,” he said.
Mindy Lubber from US green business lobby group Ceres said her members were prepared to fight to protect the EPA power plant plan from the chop.
“The election may have changed the political dynamics in Washington, but it doesn’t change the science,” she said. “The reality of global warming and the need for urgent action remain an imperative.”
Bur Andrew Holland from the DC American Security Project think tank said the result could be an opportunity for Republican strategists to set the pace on climate change and come up with a conservative policy to cut carbon.
“They should devolve power to states and local governments to most effectively prepare for the effects of climate change, because the federal government shouldn’t give a one-size fits all response,” he said
“They should see that free markets have decided that solar and wind power is the cheapest new source of energy in some markets – but big monopoly utilities are blocking it.
“There are Republican solutions to climate change – and this year is our opportunity to force President Obama to take a new, conservative, and more effective track on addressing climate change.”