The public went to the polls on Nov. 4, and gave the Republicans control of both houses of Congress. There are now 31 states headed by Republican governors, of which a number have both houses of their state legislatures also controlled by Republicans. What may be the near-term future of environmental and energy rules and programs?
This political change may have a particularly strong impact on environmental policies as the partisan division on these policies has grown, with more of those identifying as Republicans in polls wishing to roll back many current environmental rules. With Republicans controlling the Environment and Public Works Committees, they have the power to bring up what they want for investigation and for voting. One area sure to be brought up is USEPA regulations on coal-fired power plants. President Obama issued an executive order earlier in 2014 designed to reduce CO2 emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030. The USEPA is working out the details following guidance from the Clean Air Act. Plants will be given flexibility on how this is to be achieved. However, these rules regulating heavily-polluting coal have been called a “war on coal”, and their repeal even has support from some Democratic legislators from coal-mining states, arguing it unfair to target one industry and that it will cause jobs to be lost and electricity rates to rise. Republicans will likely attempt to pass a bill negating these rules. However, it is unclear if they have the 67 votes in the Senate to override an expected presidential veto. Even if they cannot overturn the rule, they could hold hearings or withhold the funding needed to enforce the provisions.
Another important area is the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed pipeline to transport mainly Alberta tar sands oil to Nebraska where it will then be transported by existing pipelines to oil refineries in Texas and Louisiana. Proponents (mainly Republicans) are in favor of it to diversify our energy sources. Opponents point to the risk of leaks and contamination and the encouragement of using a source that is very inefficient (takes a lot of energy to extract oil from the tar sands) and causes high greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. President Obama has waited for studies to be complete to make the decision on whether or not to build the pipeline. In 2015, the Republicans may try to pass a bill “forcing” the President to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Another issue of importance is climate change, and whether the US will or will not be a leader in the global battle to reduce GHG emissions to limit the effects of climate change. Next year a major climate change conference will be held to make “binding decisions” on worldwide future steps. The new Chair of the Senate Environmental & Public Works Committee is expected to be James Inhofe, a known climate change denier. He has openly stated that he will do all that he can to stop any steps by the US to be leaders in climate change or to push any federal legislation through. President Obama will continue to issue executive actions to address climate change, such as ordering federal agencies to reduce GHG emissions, raise fuel standards, and reduce GHG emissions from coal combustion. However, these will not be as encompassing or effective as nationwide regulation. Any global climate change agreement that comes out of next year’s conference may have trouble being approved by the US Senate as is required; however, President Obama may try to frame it as an agreement that does not require US Senate approval.
Finally, there are calls on the extreme right of the Republican Party to de-fund or even shut down all together the USEPA and/or the Dept of Energy. To these people, they are seen as purveyors of wasteful programs and may cost the economy jobs. Mainstream Republicans understand the polls that a majority of Americans are concerned about the environment and admire renewable energy research. While Congress, which controls appropriations, may cut back on the budgets of the agency and department, impacting enforcement and research operations, it is unlikely that a bill shutting them down altogether and rescinding rules like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act can have enough votes to override a presidential veto.
As for energy, the new Republican majorities, supported by the oil industry, are likely to pass bills that favor existing fossil fuel combustion. They purport to an “all of the above” strategy to give maximum flexibility and opportunity in terms of energy sources. There is some discussion about ending programs that favor or provide incentives for renewable sources. However, leaving all energy sources out there on the playing field for the market to decide would hurt cleaner renewable sources (solar, wind, etc.) which are newer and less established financially. It is unclear whether the new Republican-led Congress will repeal or reduce the scope of current renewable energy incentives. Of course, there is a chance that ending all or most renewable energy incentives may backfire on the Republicans, as more Americans are getting used to renewable power and believe it is a powerful solution to many ills (climate change, pollution, etc.).
As for states, it is impossible to predict what more Republican-led states may do in the energy and environmental realms. Many state environmental rules are mandated by federal rules, so they cannot be repealed or not enforced. Many states that have participated in cap and trade for GHG emission reductions (Northeast in RGGI) and have Renewable Portfolio Standards have seen an increase in revenues (without having to raise taxes) and/or reduction in infrastructure spending (electric lines). Therefore, it is hard to believe that these states would take major action to repeal or rescind the standards.
CCES has the experts to perform a technical assessment of the status of current and proposed changes to federal and state environmental and energy regulations and how they may affect your facilities. We can help you design technical solutions to demonstrate compliance at the lowest cost, and provide energy and operational flexibility. Contact us today at 914-584-6720 or karell@CCESworld.com.