What a Republican Senate means for the environment

With last week's election results, Republicans gained control of the Senate, setting up a Republican Congress and a Democratic White House facing two years of partisan paralysis. And while environmental issues played little role in Senate races, the Republican-dominated Congress bodes ill for the environment.

In the wake of the Republican takeover, the first speeches by incoming Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) both emphasized the need for a return to bipartisanship in the Senate. Will there be a bipartisan honeymoon, and if so, how long might it last?

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Some issues look ripe for bipartisan action, like raising the minimum wage (which did well on ballot initiatives in red states), addressing the nation's crumbling infrastructure, improving medical care for veterans, perhaps even immigration reform. But nowhere is there an environmental issue on which the parties seem to find common ground.

Tea Party backbenchers in the House have proposed extreme anti-environmental bills for years, attacking the Environmental Protection Agency (established by President Nixon), seeking to gut federal laws protecting the nation's rarest and most imperiled wildlife, and threatening to transfer federal lands out of public ownership. These efforts went nowhere because Reid blocked them. On the campaign trail, Republican candidates vowed to replace Reid and move their agenda to the president's desk.

The one environmental issue most on Republican lips in the wake of the election is forcing legislative approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport filthy Canadian tar sands crude to export terminals in Texas. Approval would poke a finger in the eye of both climate scientists concerned with the carbon costs of this dirtiest of fossil fuels as well as environmentalists alarmed at the massive scale of deforestation for strip mines in the Canadian north.

In one relevant election outcome, the pipeline's biggest supporter (and one of the nation's most outspoken climate change deniers) — Rep. Terry Lee of Nebraska (R), a key state along the proposed pipeline route — was voted out of office in favor of a Democratic challenger in a red state upset.

The Republicans might now be able to cobble together the 60 votes needed to pass Keystone XL legislation out of the Senate, but lack sufficient votes to overcome a presidential veto. President Obama is consistent in calling for a thorough study of the impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline before rendering a decision. On June 25, 2013, the president went on record stating that "Our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." Little reason exists for the president to flip-flop on investigating the environmental consequences of the pipeline now.

In a nation awash in cheap domestic crude fed by the spread of fracking, Keystone would mean little to American energy policy beyond destroying farms in the heartland, risking contamination of the nation's largest and most important groundwater aquifer, and making yet another huge contribution to the climate crisis. In the absence of a compelling need for Canadian crude, the window of opportunity for Keystone XL may already have closed.

Republicans are already promising more repeal efforts for the Affordable Care Act. A big push is simultaneously underway by Democrats to approve presidential appointments to agencies and courts during the lame-duck session while they still have the 51 votes needed to overcome opposition. Both promise a rapid descent into partisan trench warfare.

As the election cycle turns to the 2016 presidential race, national politics could further devolve into symbolic debates over hot-button partisan issues. Republicans expect hotly contested primaries with a crowded field of presidential candidates, some of whom are sitting senators. Their need to throw red meat to the party base will increase turbulence within the party, and could make it harder for Republicans to present a unified front.

The newly Republican Senate will lack the 60 votes needed to end debate on bills should the Democrats close ranks in the Senate to block them. But there will be the 51 votes needed to lard up spending and budget bills with Republican policy priorities, which could include anti-environmental initiatives. It's not going to be a fun time to be an environmentalist, to be sure, with all of the friends of big polluters now dominating Congress. Expect big budget fights ahead, and more brinksmanship around government shutdowns.

The bottom line is that a Republican Congress will soon be able to advance its wish list of policy priorities, potentially including extreme anti-environmental bills, to the desk of a president it has demonized all these years.

Yet it is instructive to remember that during the last two years of the George W. Bush administration, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and environmental legislation went nowhere. The same outcome is likely for anti-environmental efforts over the next two years.

Until 2017, most of the movement on environmental issues is likely to come from the White House, through executive action like National Monument designations and departmental decisions. Even though clean air and water are important to Republican and Democratic voters alike, the next two years promise to be a turbulent ride for the environment.

Molvar directs the Sagebrush Sea Campaign for WildEarth Guardians, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting wildlife, wild places, wild rivers and the health of the American West.

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