Midterm election results could mean bad news for climate change, renewable energy legislation

Amanda Carey Contributor
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The political winds do not bode well for renewable energy and climate change policy.

Sure, President Obama told Rolling Stone that “we’re going to stay on this [energy policy] because it is good for our economy, it’s good for our national security, and, ultimately, it’s good for our environment,” but what does it matter if members of Congress don’t feel the same passion to pass an Obama-style energy plan?

Advocates for cap and trade legislation spent an agonizing summer watching the Kerry-Liebermann bill go up in flames in the Senate. Despite the massive lobbying by environmental groups and the fact that Democrats hold a majority in Congress, cap and trade died in the Senate for the fourth time since 2003.

Last year, the House did manage to narrowly pass their version of cap and trade – also known as Waxman-Markey – but that bill got so bogged down with exemptions and concessions for utilities and oil companies that its net impact was less than ideal for most environmental advocates.

In the words of Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, “There was no amount of speechifying or arm twisting Obama could have done that would’ve changed that vote significantly. And vice versa, the green groups hired some of the best advertisers and lobbyists and spent $100 million. They didn’t do a bad job…it was the proposal itself that was impossible.”

Then there was talk of pushing Renewable Energy Standards in the Senate before lawmakers adjourned to hit the campaign trail. Reluctantly supported by environmental groups who saw it as being too mild, the RES bill would have mandated that at least 15 percent of electricity used by utilities come from renewable energy sources.

But even that didn’t happen because it garnered only tepid support.

Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund blames the failure to pass cap and trade on three main factors: that the Senate needed a supermajority of 60 votes, Senator Mitch McConnell’s “leadership lockdown” and management of Republican senators, and unemployment.

“Over the last 40 years, there have been 15 major environmental laws passed,” Weiss told The Daily Caller. “Of those, 10 were passed when unemployment was below six percent.”

“This year,” he added, “the argument about job loss had more resonance with senators.”

According to Paul Bledsoe, senior advisor at the National Commission on Energy Policy’s Bipartisan Policy Center, another big factor in failing to pass cap and trade was the Wall Street meltdown. “Cap and trade involved trading, that is, creating a new commodity market in carbon,” Bledsoe told TheDC. “Members of Congress were not keen on creating a new commodity market; this was a huge issue and it killed cap and trade.”

Bledsoe also attributed the failure to what he called “benign neglect” by a Senate that chose to focus on financial reform and health care this year instead of climate change. “That helped undermine cap and trade as a viable political policy in the near term,” said Bledsoe.

NEXT: Midterm elections will likely end Democrats’ quest for climate change legislation
But the question now is what the future will hold for climate change legislation once the November midterm elections are over. According to Weiss, if the political crystal ball proves correct and the Republicans once again take over the House, things will look pretty dire when it comes to environment and energy policy, at least in a form that will please Democrats and environmental activists.

“If Republicans control the House, it would be almost impossible to imagine a scenario where they bring a global warming bill to the floor,” said Weiss. On the Senate side, the prospects don’t look much better, as Weiss says there is likely going to be an influx of global warming skeptics elected to office.

Specifically mentioning Republicans Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Marco Rubio in Florida, Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Dino Rossi in Washington as global warming skeptics, Weiss said that their victories would make it even more challenging to pass any comprehensive energy or climate change bill.

But even Obama’s optimistic-sounding idea to pass energy policy “in chunks” looks better on paper than it sounds in reality. According to Weiss, the downside of that strategy is that members of Congress could switch their votes from one bill to the next. In other words, it would be almost impossible to count on support for any bill.

Bledsoe, however, is not entirely pessimistic about the future of energy policy, though he warns partisanship will be its undoing. “The underlying factors that created the need for new energy policy are fundamentally not political,” he said. “It’s unfortunate how politicized energy became this year. In previous Congresses, energy bills enjoyed much broader bipartisanship.”

But even Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, is glum about the prospects for a Democrat-style energy policy, given the prospect of significant GOP gains in the November midterm elections. In a recent media interview, she said, “I don’t know what kind of legislation, if any, you can get next year or even 2012. I think the odds of getting serious stuff done legislatively are very small.”

The bottom line seems to be that a Republican takeover in November would spell disaster for the type of energy and climate change legislation that is supported by most Democrats. “I won’t be surprised if the Republicans use the appropriations process to delay environmental standards they don’t like,” said Weiss. “They did the same thing in 1995.”