Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Election 2006: Environmentalists, Though Winners in the Election, Warn Against Expecting Vast Changes

[Here's a bit of a more tempered view on the mid-term election results, from the New York Times. Still it's clear that change is coming in the realm of energy policy:]

Last week’s election whipsawed the Congressional committees that are crucial battlegrounds for environmental and energy legislation. But even many environmentalists believe that an ambitious new agenda is unlikely.

The leadership changes are striking. Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who favors mandatory cuts in emissions linked to global warming, will become chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, replacing Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, who has called the scientific consensus on human-induced global warming “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind.”

[Graphic: Barbara Boxer will head the Senate committee on the environment in the 110th Congress, replacing Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)]

In the House, Jerry McNerney, a California Democrat and wind-energy executive, will replace the current chairman of the House Resources Committee, Representative Richard W. Pombo, a Republican who fought to open public lands to private interests.

“I think you’d have to go back to the Enlightenment to find such a big change in worldviews,” Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group, a research organization, told reporters on Monday.

But despite the committee changes, some lobbyists are trying to dampen expectations that a major environmental agenda can speed through Congress.

While environmental groups are likely to worry less about oil and natural gas wells in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they say that trying to get the new Congress to embrace initiatives like tougher automobile fuel-economy standards and requirements that industry pay more for Superfund cleanups could mean that little, if anything, will be accomplished.

Melinda Pierce, a senior lobbyist with the Sierra Club, said in an interview, “The environmental community has to recognize how difficult it’s going to be to advance an environmental agenda with such narrowly held majorities.”

Senator Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico and the presumptive new chairman of the Energy Committee, said in an interview: “I think there’s a danger of trying to overreach. The close divide between Democrats and Republicans ensures we can’t pass anything unless we get some Republican support.”

Even before the 110th Congress is sworn in, there is unfinished business for the 109th, including the question of how much to expand energy drilling along the outer continental shelf. Many on Capitol Hill believe that two rival measures — an expansive House bill and a more limited Senate bill that would open 8.3 million acres of federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico to energy exploration — have little chance of passing.

Bob Greco, an expert on oil and gas exploration and production, said he thought that Congress would eventually open more areas to the energy industry.

“Our sense is that Congress might be willing to work on a bill to improve domestic access,” Mr. Greco said, adding, “You need both increased resources as well as conservation and energy efficiency.”

The agenda for the next Congress is a work in progress, legislators and lobbyists said. Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust and a former senior Democratic Senate staff member, said in an interview on Thursday, “It’s very clear that the House Democrats want to move a piece of energy legislation sometime this spring.”

Mr. Clapp said the measure would probably provide incentives for the production of biologically based fuels, like ethanol.

Mr. Bingaman said he would continue to push for requirements that at least 10 percent of any utility’s electricity be generated by renewable sources like geothermal, solar and wind energy by the year 2020. He also said he wanted to guide legislation mandating energy-efficiency measures through the next Congress.

In an interview on Monday, Senator Boxer said her first priority would be to hold hearings on global warming. These would first review the half-dozen proposals that senators have put forward to slow the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, then focus on choosing the best approach. “Many states are way ahead of us,” she said.

Her other chief concern, she said, is “protecting children and families” from toxic chemicals, by, among other things, ensuring that the risks from Superfund sites is made public.

The views held by Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, show the difficulty in finding support for a broad agenda. Mr. Dingell supports the control and cleanup of toxic substances but has never embraced automobile fuel-efficiency standards.

Mandates on fuel efficiency for cars have had wavering support from Congress since the original passage of a fuel-economy law in 1975.

In March, the federal Transportation Department ruled that by 2011 the largest light trucks and sport-utility vehicles must average 24 miles per gallon and the others in this class 28.4 miles per gallon. Anna Aurelio, an environmental lobbyist for the United States Public Interest Research Group, said Monday that a 40-miles-per-gallon standard was feasible for all passenger vehicles.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Dingell was noncommittal about tightening fuel-efficiency standards but said he would be assertive in oversight of the Energy Department and of Superfund cleanups. His strong stance on oversight has been a career trademark. Given that, and the questions many Democrats have after six years with little chance to probe administration decisions, a season of oversight hearings is at hand.

“I think we’re still looking at a big turnaround in the tenor of the debate,” Mr. Cook said, “and the nature of information coming out of Washington.”

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