Energy & Environment

High stakes for Dems’ green agenda in midterms

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Voters head to the polls Tuesday for a midterm election that could have a crucial impact on key environmental policies.

If Democrats take control of the House, they would be in position to change the direction of major Trump initiatives and bring tougher scrutiny on administration officials.

Democrats on the House committees overseeing the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have long complained about their inability to bring agency heads in for questioning and Dem staffers are already gearing up ahead of the Tuesday vote for a potential shift in power.

{mosads}One of the top issues lawmakers will hope to address are the various inspector general investigations opened into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, including recent reports that one of the cases was referred to the Department of Justice for future investigation and potential criminal charges.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, promised that come February, if his party takes the House and he gets the panel’s gavel, Zinke will be called to testify over what critics say were questionable business deals.

“If Democrats are given the opportunity to hold a congressional majority next year, Secretary Zinke will be called to testify in February on why his conduct in office merited referral to the Justice Department, whether that referral was related to the recent attempted firing of his inspector general, and his many other failures and scandals,” said Grijalva in a statement.

The committee is also exploring other issues it could address in hearings that Democrats say have been suppressed under Republican leadership, such as the environmental impacts of President Trump’s promised U.S.-Mexico  border wall and other issues involving Native American land management, according to staff.

At the EPA, Democrats want to relentlessly scrutinize the Trump administration’s aggressive deregulatory agenda. Thus far, the EPA has worked to repeal rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, fuel efficiency rules for cars, methane pollution rules for oil and natural gas drillers, water pollution rules for coal-fired power plants and a wide array of other policies.

Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), currently the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, would become chairman of the panel that oversees EPA if the House flips. He’ll be able to set the agenda, compel government officials like acting EPA head Andrew Wheeler to testify and subpoena agency records.

Pallone isn’t saying much about his plans for the EPA, but he said in a statement that Democrats “have serious concerns with how Trump’s EPA has consistently sided with the special interests over people’s health and the environment.”

“[W}e will look to restore the environmental protections that have been gutted over the last two years,” he added.

While it’s a long shot, if Democrats take control of the Senate that could also have big implications for the future of the EPA, an agency still without a permanent head.

Since former head Scott Pruitt’s controversial departure in July, Andrew Wheeler has taken on the top spot as acting administrator. It’s expected that Trump will soon seek to nominate Wheeler permanently to the post, but he will likely face a real challenge for confirmation if Democrats were to rule the Senate.

Here’s what else is at stake in Tuesday’s midterm elections.


Climate change policies:

If Democrats take the House they could be in a prime position to push Congress to pass bills that aim to remedy the causes and effects of climate change. There has not been a concerted environmental push on Capitol Hill even as the Trump administration pushes ahead on efforts to weaken Obama-era EPA regulations ranging from rules on carbon, methane and vehicle emissions to clean water policies.

Top Democrats who would be in a prime position to push new environmental legislation, though, are signaling that climate change may not be a top priority for them, despite a growing body of evidence suggesting time is running out to address the issue.

The decision, would be a shift in strategy from when House Democrats last controlled the chamber. In 2009, they passed cap-and-trade legislation, which subsequently died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The game plan for next year, House Democrats say, is more incremental steps and hearings.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Democrats should “focus on the practical and the opportunistic” to make short-term progress while fighting for bolder measures over the longer term.

“It’s going to be, I think, more of an opportunistic strategy, where, in various pieces of legislation, across the board, we’re going to insert measures that address climate change,” said Connolly, a leader in the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition.

Regardless of whether Democrats decide to push bold carbon cutting legislation, Republicans have signified their openness to considering bills to boost new carbon capture technology. A House bill introduced this summer by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) on creating a carbon tax could also get new traction with a Democratic House.

Environmental ballot initiatives

Voters in various states will also be weighing in Tuesday on high-stakes ballot initiatives that could implement major changes to environment and energy policies. Millions of dollars are being spent on both sides in some of the fiercest battles, with the idea that if passed, the initiatives could act as test cases for future federal policy.

Issues on the ballot include a Washington state carbon tax, which would charge companies $15 for each metric ton of carbon dioxide they emit. That would increase by $2 each year until Washington meets its 2035 climate goal of 25 percent below greenhouse gas emission levels from 1990. The ballot has attracted international attention, and contributions from across the country, with more than $25 million spent in opposition and $12 million in support, according to state records.

Another initiative in Florida aims to ban offshore drilling. Amendment 9 would enshrine in Florida’s constitution a ban on offshore oil and natural gas drilling in state waters, which extend out 3 nautical miles on the Atlantic coast and 9 nautical miles in the Gulf of Mexico. The drilling restrictions are already on the books, so the amendment would make it harder to reverse them.

Read more about those measures here.

Endangered Species Act policies

Republican members in both the House and Senate have worked aggressively this year to offer legislative changes to the Endangered Species Act to make compliance easier for landowners and industry. Critics however have said those changes are at the expense of species protections. If Democrats take the House majority, expect efforts to ease the law to stall.

In the Senate, Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) has put out draft legislation aimed it giving states more say over how species are recovered. Critics say it would give states too much power and likely let them prioritize industry over species.

In the House, the Congressional Western Caucus has put forth a package of nine bills that would, among other changes, make it easier to remove species’ protections and require the Fish and Wildlife Service to change how it reviews scientific findings in making decisions.

Grijalva, who would chair the House Natural Resources Committee, has been highly critical of the GOP’s efforts.

“I think it is accurate to say that Republicans and Democrats are both working towards a shorter list of endangered species,” he said at a recent committee meeting to consider some of the bills.

“Democrats would shrink that list by returning endangered species to health. Republicans appear to be on the road to shrink that list by allowing more and more endangered species to go extinct.”

Tags Carlos Curbelo Donald Trump Gerry Connolly John Barrasso Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt
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