For weeks, some Republicans have been preparing to wield control of Congress as a cudgel against President Joe Biden’s climate and clean energy agenda.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), in line to become chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, hired a new chief counsel for investigations a month prior to the Nov. 8 election, vowing to hold administration officials accountable “for how they’ve shut down American energy.”
She raised the specter of adversarial hearings over the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its $370 billion spending on clean energy. “Solyndra on steroids,” Rodgers called the law, invoking the bankrupt solar company that the GOP featured in serial hearings to tarnish President Barack Obama’s nascent clean energy spending program a decade ago.
But following Republicans’ unexpectedly weak showing—the worst midterm result for an opposition party in 20 years—clean energy advocates are feeling confident. Even if Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives or the Senate after the votes are all counted—including in the Georgia Senate runoff next month—they believe the nation’s first climate law will be able to withstand any assault by a weakened GOP.
Advocates more commonly associated with old-line energy interests agree. “The chances that the Congress that emerges from this midterm will, quote, repeal or otherwise do serious damage to the IRA seems to be diminished given the outcome,” said energy lobbyist Scott Segal at an online analysis session hosted by his firm, the Bracewell Policy Resolution Group, the morning after the election.
At one point, he joked with a solar energy advocate on the webinar: “No pun intended, but I think your future is pretty bright.”
While Republicans had predicted a wave of election wins that would give them control over both houses of Congress, Democrats now stand a solid chance of maintaining their control over the Senate and could even keep their majority in the House, although that won’t be known until later this week at the earliest, when over a dozen House races start to be decided in California.
The Bracewell firm itself is emblematic of how Washington, DC’s energy advocacy picture has changed since the Solyndra hearings of a decade ago. Although it still represents the oil, natural gas and utility companies that have been its mainstay, its client list now includes carbon capture, fuel cell, critical metals and offshore wind companies. “We have a pretty broad, sweeping approach to energy,” Segal remarked.
Expect such all-of-the-above equanimity and pleas for bipartisanship to be the hallmark of bids to influence the direction of energy policy after the new Congress is seated in January, say close observers of Washington energy politics.
Certainly, some of these efforts could threaten climate progress. The oil and natural gas industry is intent on getting changes in federal law that would speed the approval process for big energy infrastructure projects that could lock in greenhouse gas emissions for decades. But such legislation won’t pass without Democratic as well as Republican support—in fact, a situation no different than in the current closely divided Congress.
That’s why climate action advocates argue that the midterm elections demonstrated the durability not only of the Democrats, but also of Biden’s promise to set the United States on course for a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions this decade.
Biden displayed confidence in the future of his agenda in his post-election news conference, making special mention of climate. “I’m not going to walk away from the historic commitments we just made to take on the climate crisis,” he said. “They’re not compromise-able issues to me, and I won’t let it happen.”
But the US natural gas industry remains focused on getting more of its product to markets, through both pipelines and new multibillion port facilities to super-chill the gas into liquid form and send it overseas. Liquefied natural gas, or LNG, has become a chief element of Biden’s foreign policy, as the exports have helped Europe weather the loss of fuel supplies from Russia since the start of the Ukraine war in February. Even as Biden pursued climate legislation this year, the US became the world’s largest natural gas exporter, increasing shipments 12 percent.
The LNG industry hasn’t gotten everything that it wanted from the Biden administration, however, with the Environmental Protection Agency in September denying a request from Cheniere Energy for an exemption from hazardous pollution rules.
Some observers believe that if Republicans do take control of the House, they will try to use future Ukraine war effort funding bills as vehicles to free LNG facilities from environmental requirements or ease the permitting of new export facilities.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy already has vowed that, if his party wins the majority there, as speaker he would not “write a blank check” for more Ukraine funding.
But the gas industry’s preference is to sell LNG expansion as a bipartisan win-win solution that is good for climate, since natural gas can generate electricity with less than half the emissions of coal, and has been a driver of lowered greenhouse gas emissions from the US power sector. “We think the benefits that natural gas has had in this country with respect to reducing emissions can be shared with other countries to meet their goals of reducing emissions,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of the American Petroleum Institute, speaking at Bracewell’s post-election analysis webinar.
That appeal may resonate with fossil fuel-state lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), but not with the majority of Democrats or the mainstream of the climate and environmental justice movement, which is engaged in bitter fights against such projects on the Gulf Coast, LNG requires more energy than domestically consumed gas, creating greater carbon emissions, and like all natural gas operations—it is prone to leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane, which may be great enough to erase any climate benefits.
But the oil and gas industry will view divided government in Washington as an opportunity to advance major energy legislation. Macchiarola noted that the ban on US crude oil exports, in place since the 1970s gas crisis, was lifted by a Republican Congress and the Obama administration in 2015. The Energy Independence and Security Act, which broke a generation-long stalemate over vehicle fuel economy standards and supercharged the US ethanol industry, was passed by a Democratic Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.
If Republicans take over either chamber of Congress, a top priority is certain to be changing the law to fast-track energy infrastructure, like pipelines. The Biden White House already agreed in principle to such legislation as part of the deal struck in August to obtain Manchin’s vote on the Inflation Reduction Act.
“Permitting reform is essential for us,” said Macchiarola, noting that four major pipeline projects to move natural gas from the huge Marcellus shale formation along the Appalachian mountains have been canceled or delayed, including Manchin’s favored project, the Mountain Valley Pipeline in West Virginia. “We have the second largest natural gas basin in the world, sitting right next to New England, which needs natural gas and has high natural gas prices,” Macchiarola said.
But Manchin’s effort to attach permitting legislation to the must-pass government spending bill in September fizzled, with Democrats divided and Republicans viewing it as too weak. Any Republican-led bid would be sure to make more aggressive changes to fast-track energy infrastructure, and environmental groups have vowed to oppose any plan that would weaken citizens’ ability to challenge energy projects under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We shouldn’t be weakening environmental laws, but instead investing more resources into the agencies and staff who can help these projects be built in a responsible way that gives the public a say in their construction,” said Ramón Cruz, president of Sierra Club, in a post-election news conference by environmental group leaders.
Any hope for increased spending on federal regulatory agencies is likely to be dashed If Republicans gain a majority in either chamber of Congress. Instead, the GOP had made clear it will use any power it gains over the federal pursestrings to rein in environmental spending.
Because Biden’s incentives-heavy climate program depends so heavily on federal spending, Republicans may be able to chip away at it through the federal budget process. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who would be in line to be chair of the Senate Energy Committee if Republicans take the majority in that chamber, took to the Senate floor in September to decry incentives for electric vehicles and renewable energy as doomed to fail, invoking the federal loan guarantees that went to bankrupt Solyndra.
“Now the Democrats are saying: Let’s go back to that same playbook and let’s just reload with cash,” he said. “Load up the money cannon and fire away.”
Republicans may turn to an old playbook of their own—attaching “riders,” or provisions to must-pass spending bills to curb specific government agency programs. In the past, these riders have included efforts to delay federal smog standards, to prevent reporting of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock operations and to block consideration of the cost of carbon in the writing of federal rules. Often, riders passed by the Republican House were removed in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed for passage of appropriations legislation under rules likely to stay in place if Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) regains the post of Senate Majority Leader.
Still, it would force Democrats and the White House to negotiate under pressure in order to keep the government open. Particularly vulnerable is international aid on climate change, which does not have a natural constituency of US voters to push for it. The United States has never lived up to the commitments made under Obama—a major point of contention in the climate talks that are currently underway in Egypt. In a panel discussion at the climate talks held on Election Day, John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate change, tried to lower expectations that Biden would be able to deliver the pledged funds. “If what I think will happen in today’s elections happens and the House is gone, you’re not going to see that money,” Kerry said.
Environmental advocates are so concerned about that possibility that they said they will make a hard push during the expected lame duck session of Congress to get the international climate aid included in a spending bill.
“If the House flips, this might be the last opportunity in the immediate future to fulfill that pledge that the United States made a very long time ago,” said Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, at the environmentalists’ post-election news conference. “This funding is critically important, morally, from a climate standpoint, from an energy security standpoint, and for getting the type of climate action we need to see around the world.”
The Republican right wing could force even more aggressive efforts to undo Biden climate policy if the party takes control; McCarthy would have to win over these hard-liners to win and hold onto his post as House Speaker. But a full frontal repeal, as the Republicans voted to do with the Affordable Care Act after they gained control in Obama’s first midterm election, would be similarly doomed to die by presidential veto. Another idea that McCarthy has voiced support for is brinkmanship over the federal debt ceiling, which Congress will need to vote to raise in the coming months to avoid fiscal calamity.
McCarthy said he would use the debt ceiling as leverage to force spending cuts, possibly in Medicare and Social Security. While such a gambit would not tackle climate policy directly, it could put US climate action at risk. Republicans forced a similar standoff during the Obama administration that ended in a compromise, the so-called Budget Control Act, that resulted in across-the-board cuts for federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department.
To counter the ever-present risk of Republican attacks, climate and clean energy advocates plan to push the Biden administration to quickly write the rules to implement the Inflation Reduction Act.
“If I was in the Biden administration right now, and I’m sure this is exactly what is happening, it would be head-down full-force ahead to get the regulations out to implement the IRA,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, at the Bracewell post-election webinar. “Right, the best thing that we can do as a clean energy space to ensure the continuation of the IRA is to have projects on the ground, jobs being created, tax revenue happening, local politicians seeing evidence of growth in their local communities and their states and their jurisdictions.”
Hopper also said that the industry is pushing hard for the Biden administration to establish objective criteria and a transparent process for its clean-energy grant-making, and ensure robust consumer protections, to make the program resilient to waste, fraud and abuse attacks from Republicans.
She said the solar industry itself is in a different place than it was 10 years ago, when Solyndra hearings vied with Benghazi hearings in the Republican majority’s drive to vilify the Obama administration heading into the 2012 election. “The technology is more mature, the financing structures are more mature,” Hopper said. “There’s a broad base of customer support, and business demand for our projects is greater.”
Big environmental organizations sought to tap into that base of public support in their record $135 million spending on behalf of Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. David Kieve, president of Environmental Defense Fund Action, who previously was a top adviser in the Biden White House, argues that the Inflation Reduction Act is the beginning of a legacy—much like Obamacare—that will have permanence.
“There’s a long road ahead in terms of implementation,” Kieve said, “but the policies are broadly popular with the American people, they’re going to work to reduce costs while hastening our path to a clean energy transition.”
In fact, at least some aspects of Biden’s climate plan have been embraced by his most ardent foes, as the first dollars, mainly from last year’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, have flowed into Congressional districts. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), railed against that legislation on Fox News.
“Go look at what they did with Solyndra,” Scalise said. “The taxpayers lost all that money.” But Scalise early this year took credit when $379 million was allocated from the infrastructure bill to help advance a long-awaited flood protection project in his district in southern Louisiana.
Rodgers, the highest ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee, who has made clear her intent to hold oversight hearings on Biden energy policy, also has seen federal money flow to her state on one of her top issues. Washington is one of 12 states that will share $2.8 billion in federal grants from the infrastructure bill for the American Batteries Material Initiative, an effort to break US dependence on China in its battery supply chain.
Of course, the fact that home states and districts are benefiting from federal climate spending may not be enough to head off adversarial hearings, which can be quite far-ranging and needn’t focus on federal money at all. Rodgers, whose lifetime pro-environmental voting record is 5 percent, according to the League of Conservation Voters, has suggested that environmental groups should be investigated for ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Environmental group leaders say they expect Republican oversight hearings, but do not fear that it will do fundamental damage to the drive to lower US carbon emissions. They say it is telling that, by and large, Republicans did not campaign against the Inflation Reduction Act—a stark contrast from 2010 midterms, when overturning Obamacare and Obama’s cap-and-trade plan to cut carbon emissions were central GOP campaign themes.
“The IRA is immensely popular, ” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “People celebrated it, people ran on it, and you can be darn sure the Republicans didn’t run on repealing the bill, because they know that would be bad policy and bad politics.
“Sure, they’re going to have oversight hearings to cause some trouble and make it clear to the big fossil fuel polluters that they’re doing their bidding,” Karpinski said, “but progress in implementing the bill, executive action… and progress in the states will continue, even if they’re in charge of the House.”