Once thought an ally, senator now a target for green groups

Once thought an ally, senator now a target for green groups

Green groups upset over Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkStale, misguided, divisive: minimum wage can't win elections Immigration critics find their champion in Trump Trump's nominee to lead USAID has the right philosophy on international aid MORE’s recent record on climate issues are mulling a campaign against his reelection bid next year.

The Illinois Republican, who in 2009 was one of just eight Republicans to vote in favor of a cap-and-trade system, was once a frequent ally of environmental groups. 

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So green activists felt spurned when Kirk turned against them last week and voted against enforcing President Obama’s climate change regulations on power plants.

Kirk’s move was decisive. In a 15-15 vote, the Appropriations Committee failed to restore funding for the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce its carbon rules for power plants.

“We are extremely disappointed,” said Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of NRDC Action Fund, the political affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

NRDC Action Fund, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Action Fund all put out statements blasting Kirk’s vote.

No other Republican who voted against the EPA funding was targeted in the same way, highlighting how the Illinois Republican’s move resonated with environmentalists.

“Mark Kirk had the chance to do something to protect the health of Illinois communities and he instead voted to protect the profits of the fossil fuel
industry,” Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s
climate policy director, said in a statement.

Kirk faces a tough reelection fight next year against Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Their contest could decide Senate control in a difficult year for the GOP, which is defending 24 seats.

Green groups would like the Senate to fall back into Democratic hands, given the GOP’s firm control of the House.

They could also be a powerful force in Illinois. Environmental groups spent $85 million on the 2014 midterm elections.

Kirk’s campaign defended his environmental record and his vote, saying he cares deeply about the environmental issues that matter to Illinois residents.

Aides said the spending bill that was the subject of the EPA amendment highlights his record. It includes a provision Kirk sponsored aimed at preventing pollution in the Great Lakes.

“Sen. Kirk’s legislation creates a strict new ban on sewage dumping in the Great Lakes, including a $100,000 per day violation and the creation of a fund to build new treatment plants,” said Kevin Artl, Kirk’s spokesman. “The simple truth is that Sen. Kirk is responsible for the most aggressive measure ever taken to protect the Great Lakes.”

Artl declined to answer questions about Kirk’s vote on the EPA amendment or about his record on climate change, as did the senator.

Kirk was a star to environmental groups when he voted to set up the
cap-and-trade system in 2009. Since then, he’s fallen in their eyes.

In January, he told E&E Daily that Greenland was once much warmer, which is why is was named Greenland. He said that proves that the Earth goes through natural warm and cold cycles that have little to do with greenhouse gases created by human activity.

He later clarified that “climate change is real and human beings definitely play a role,” voting with 58 colleagues to affirm that statement. 

“When he was in the House, we were pretty supportive and had a good relationship with him,” said Keith Gaby, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Action Fund. “And we’ve been slow-motion shocked over the last five years as he has completely flipped.”

Kirk held a score of 71 percent in the League of Conservation Voters’s rankings in 2009. That was higher than most of his Republican colleagues.

He and Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate energy bill is misguided gift to Trump’s dirty fossil fuel agenda Help states solve their housing problems with the Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act Time to pass the U.S. OUTDOOR Act to support American jobs and consumers MORE (D-Wash.) sponsored legislation in 2013 to forbid oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, taking up a cause that has united environmental groups for decades.

But last year, the League of Conservation Voters scored him at only 20 percent, one of his lowest with the group during his tenure in Congress.

And greens don’t like his recent votes to approve the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, repeal Obama’s Clean Water Act regulations and reduce the federal
government’s land holdings.

Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois, said the environmental arguments are unlikely to sway public opinion in the race for now. But it might make a larger and more lasting impact in fundraising.

“It is never too early to be piling up money from the point of view of the campaigns, so it isn’t too early for both of them to be working on groups and PACs” Gaines said. “The Democrats have been very clear that Kirk is a top target, and that’s not going to change quickly.”