Environmental Policy Outlook

Over the past decade, environmental policies have become increasingly partisan in the United States. According to the Pew Research Center Values Study in 2012, the partisan division on environmental issues grew from just a five point difference between Democrats and Republicans in 1992 to a 39 point gap in 2012. As the second most partisan-divided issue currently facing the country (after the social safety net), environmental policies are expected to face significant challenges now that Republicans will have majorities in both the House and Senate in 2015. Another factor contributing to this expected change is a partisan pushback against the executive power that President Obama has used in the past several years to implement environmental and climate change policies. Unable to move legislation through Congress, Obama relied on a series of executive orders to limit CO2 emissions on coal plants, raise fuel standards, require federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and more. Now, with a perceived mandate from the American public through majorities in both houses of the legislative branch, Republicans will seek to override these executive orders and re-exert their legislative power over environmental policies. There are three main areas that policy analysts expect to be impacted by this change in legislative leadership.

  1. EPA Regulations on Coal Plants: Earlier this year, President Obama unveiled an executive order designed to limit the CO2 that power plants can emit. The order would force coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 30% of 2005 levels by 2030. Seen as one of the strongest actions ever taken by the United States government to fight climate change, the regulations target the nation’s more than 600 coal-fired power plants, its largest source of pollution. The executive order was legitimized under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which gives the Executive branch authority to regulate pollution through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (which sits under the Executive Branch). The 2014 rule gives states a wide-menu of policy options to achieve the pollution cuts, including options for incorporating renewable energy or starting a market-based “cap-and-trade” system to allow polluters to buy and sell permits as needed.

    Quickly labeled by Republicans as a “War on Coal”, these EPA regulations will likely be one of the first targets of the new Republican majority in Congress. Arguing that the regulations unfairly target one sector, kill jobs, raise utility rates, and make electricity less accessible, new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made it a priority to prevent the regulations from going into effect. Without a two-thirds majority, Republicans are not able to override a Presidential veto on any bill, making direct legislation to stop the new EPA rule untenable. Republicans in Congress will likely try other tactics to prevent or delay the implementation of the regulations, however. This could include passing overarching spending bills that include provisions to cut money limiting the EPA’s ability to enforce the regulations. The President will find it difficult to veto larger omnibus bills of which this EPA budget cut is just one small part. Alternatively, the Republicans might rely on the power of public opinion, attempting to make the issue highly-politicized and exerting public pressure to make the President and the EPA back down from or at least delay the implementation of the regulations in the hopes that the Executive branch returns to Republican control in 2016. Finally, Senator James M. Inhofe (R-OK), the new Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is expected to open several investigations into the EPA to delay the regulations from being implemented. While the Obama administration vows to fight back against any efforts to impede progress on climate change, the shift in political power has the ability to delay or prevent the implementation of these CO2-limiting regulations.

  1. Keystone XL Pipeline: A second environmental issue that is already experiencing a policy change now that Republicans control Congress is the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed pipeline that would transport crude oil from Alberta, Canada down to Steele City, Nebraska, allowing the direct transport of Canadian Tar Sands oil into the United States. Republicans, backed by the oil industry, have been calling for the approval of the construction of the pipeline for years as a way to safely transport oil to the United States and secure the country’s energy future. Meanwhile, environmental activists have launched massive campaigns to prevent its construction, arguing that it will facilitate further growth in emissions and environmental degradation. The Keystone XL pipeline requires a presidential permit to be built, and until now, President Obama has delayed a decision, defending a lengthy process that the government is using to evaluate the environmental impact of the pipeline.
    The Keystone XL Pipeline is more vulnerable to swift policy change than the EPA regulations on coal-fired power plants because Obama considers it as less of a core part of his climate change agenda. Many Democrats from fossil-fuel heavy states actually support the construction of the pipeline, including Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu who faces a tough runoff in Louisiana (a state set to benefit from the pipeline’s construction). Already, Republicans are using their upcoming congressional majority to introduce legislation requiring the President to approve the pipeline, and Senate Democrats are allowing it to pass in an effort to help Landrieu gain re-election in December.
  1. International Negotiations: While the United States’ refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol back in 1997 cast the country in a poor climate light for over a decade, several recent US climate policy initiatives have provided a boost for the United States at the UN climate change negotiations. The new EPA regulations, emissions reductions commitments at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009, and the recently announced climate deal between the US and China have shown the international community that the US is finally ready pull its own weight in the global fight against climate change. This strengthening of the US negotiating position has increased hope that an international agreement could be brokered at the Paris conference next year.
    With a Republican majority in Congress, however, other countries may recognize that the United States will be unable to pass any sort of climate change treaty through the Senate. This will significantly undermine the faith that other countries have in the US’ ability to live up to any serious emissions cuts. Democrats and President Obama, however, have plans to counteract efforts by the Republican majority to limit the subversion of a climate change treaty. In August, Obama announced that his administration is devising a plan to introduce a “politically binding” climate accord instead of a formal treaty to the international negotiations. This type of accord would not require Congressional approval (unlike a legally binding treaty), and would rely on peer pressure among countries to stick to their emissions reduction targets.

With such a highly politicized issue like the environment and climate change, any major shift in partisan power in the government will result in a whiplash of changes to policy. The following two years with divided executive and legislative branches, however, will be an eventful tug-of-war on environmental policy in the United States.

Image Credit: Raeky via Wikimedia Commons.


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