The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda

Democrats have big plans on energy and environmental policy in the year ahead when they take control of the House.

After eight years in the minority, House Democrats aim to push back on Trump administration efforts to roll back regulations and to put officials under greater oversight. They are also facing intense pressure from progressive groups to embrace an ambitious green agenda.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Republicans still control the Senate, and Trump administration officials are also working on a new round of deregulation at federal agencies, setting the stage for a number of high profile clashes.

Here's what to watch in the year ahead on energy and environmental issues.

 

Climate action

Lawmakers will be under a microscope regarding climate change in 2019 after a slew of recent reports that forecast dire effects from rising temperatures.

House Democrats will face the most pressure to act as new members demand leaders take more decisive action to correct the effects of climate change.

A group of nearly two-dozen House members and incoming lawmakers led by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezEx-GOP lawmaker Handel to run for her former Georgia seat in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Mueller report is huge win for President Trump This week: Congress set for next stage of Mueller probe fight MORE (D-N.Y.) are already backing the idea of a new select committee charged with promoting what they’ve dubbed a Green New Deal.

The committee they hope to establish would aim to get the country running on a 100 percent renewable energy electric grid, among other goals.

But that committee could clash with others, such Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources, and Science. Top Democrats set to take the gavels on those panels are already pushing back.

Talk of a carbon tax is also heating up. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers in November unveiled a historic carbon tax bill, a proposal that would gradually ramp up fees on carbon dioxide emissions. Expect more debate in the year to come.

 

EPA regulations

The Trump administration has been taking big steps over the last two years to undo major Obama administration regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and those efforts are on track to kick into high gear in 2019.

The EPA is planning to roll out final versions of three major deregulatory actions: replacing the Clean Power Plan with a weaker regulation on carbon emissions from power plants, replacing the Obama administration’s auto efficiency and emissions rule with a less stringent version, and rolling back major parts of the Obama administration’s methane pollution rule for oil and natural gas drillers.

Each of the rules was a major part of former President Obama’s climate change agenda, and each rollback is likely to be a big victory for the industries impacted.

And they’re coming amid major new reports from bodies like the United Nations and the federal government showing that aggressive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to avoid catastrophic effects from climate change.

“At a time when our government should be strengthening those safeguards, Trump’s officials are dedicated to weakening them,” Ben Longstreth, a senior climate change attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Fund, wrote in October, when the public comment period for the power plant and auto rules closed.

Another major rollback of Obama’s Waters of the United States rule is expected as early as this week, and officials are planning to make it final in 2019.

The Interior Department is busy too. Officials are working on finalizing a trio of rules to overhaul how the Fish and Wildlife Service determines how to protect endangered and threatened species.

But once the rollbacks are made final, the fight won’t end. Green groups and Democratic states have promised to sue the administration in federal court and to try to stop the rollbacks from taking effect. Those suits will take months, if not years, to work through the court system, and could be appealed up to the Supreme Court.

 

Tougher oversight of the administration

After taking the House majority, Democrats believe they have a mandate from voters to conduct aggressive oversight of the Trump administration, with environmental policy being a critical part.

Incoming Democratic committee chairs will have the power to call hearings, set agendas and even compel administration officials to testify or produce records if they want.

That is likely to be most pronounced for the Interior Department and the EPA.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the likely next chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has said he’ll be aggressive in his oversight of Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOil execs boasted of 'unprecedented access' to Trump officials: report Overnight Energy: Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal probe | Dem divisions deepen over approach to climate change | GM to add 400 workers to build electric cars Interior reverses decision at heart of Zinke criminal investigation MORE. He intends to focus on the national monument rollbacks, Zinke’s ethics allegations and proposals to drill for oil and natural gas offshore.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneBooker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Hillicon Valley: EU hits Google with .7 billion antitrust fine | GOP steps up attack over tech bias claims | Dems ask FTC for budget wishlist | Justices punt on Google privacy settlement Dems ask FTC if it needs more money to protect privacy MORE (D-N.J.), slated to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is also vowing to scrutinize acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Expect Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoDem divisions deepen over approach to climate change Overnight Energy: Interior chief moves to protect access to public lands | Dem rolls out climate plan meant to appeal to GOP | LA County bans weed killer Roundup Top Dem lawmaker rolls out climate plan to appeal to GOP MORE (D-N.Y.), likely to lead the panel's Environment Subcommittee, to take a prominent role in that oversight.

 

Wheeler confirmation hearings

Trump announced in November that he intends to nominate Wheeler to formally take over the EPA.

But with time running out in December, Wheeler’s confirmation process is nearly certain to be pushed to 2019.

“It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen in the next two weeks,” Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoTrump: Green New Deal 'the most preposterous thing' and 'easy to beat' This week: Trump set for Senate setback on emergency declaration We should end tax giveaways to electric vehicle owners MORE (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters last week about a confirmation hearing.

Trump still needs to formally nominate Wheeler by sending paperwork to the Senate.

Barrasso’s committee would then have to schedule a hearing with Wheeler and a committee vote before sending him to the full Senate for a vote.

The GOP will have 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats in 2019, and nominees only need 51, so Wheeler’s confirmation is almost guaranteed.

Wheeler, who was previously a lobbyist for coal mining company Murray Energy Corp. and other energy firms, has already gone through Senate confirmation once. In April, the upper chamber approved him nearly along party lines to be the deputy administrator at the EPA.

ADVERTISEMENT

But when former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Green New Deal vote set to test Dem unity | Renewables on track to phase out coal, study finds | EPA chief reportedly recuses himself from mine review EPA chief recuses himself from mine review his ex-law firm repped: report Oil execs boasted of 'unprecedented access' to Trump officials: report MORE resigned in July under a pile of ethics and spending scandals, Wheeler was automatically elevated to be acting administrator.

Democrats and environmentalists pulled out the stops against both Wheeler and Pruitt's confirmations and can be expected to voice their opposition again. Dems cited their ties to fossil fuels and other industries regulated by the EPA and their role easing regulations.

 

Science
House Democrats are looking to push the Trump administration and other institutions to embrace science and avoid what they see as skepticism of research on issues such as climate change.

Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump attacks on McCain rattle GOP senators Hillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction House technology committee leaders ask to postpone 5G spectrum auction MORE (D-Texas), the likely incoming chairwoman of the House Science Committee and a nurse, would be the first woman with a science degree to have the panel's gavel since 1990.

She's likely to herald a shift in the panel's work from its current chairman, Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithFormer GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Comstock joins K Street firm Congress can stop the war on science MORE (R-Texas).

As chairman, Smith introduced controversial bills such as the Secret Science Reform Act, which supporters said would make agencies more transparent about how they use science. Critics said it would restrict the scientific studies the government could use.