10 lessons for the green economy from the US Midterms

James Murray

A Republican-controlled Congress spells bad news for the green economy and UN climate change talks, but will it prove as disastrous as some environmentalists fear

Last night the Democrats went down to an even bigger defeat than had been expected in the US midterms, as Republicans strengthened their hold on the House of Representatives and secured a majority in the Senate for the first time in a decade. With the GOP as hostile as ever towards environmental policies and the Obama administration's climate strategy the result is likely to have significant implications for both the US green economy and international climate change negotiations.

BusinessGreen takes a look at the main lessons for green businesses from a humbling night for the Democrats.

1. The EPA is now public enemy number one for the Republican-led Congress

The victorious Republican leadership has made it abundantly clear that it opposes the Obama administration's climate strategy in general, and the move to set emissions limits for coal-fired power plants in particular. Obama's decision to by-pass gridlock in Congress and deliver climate policies through Executive Orders, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the existing Clean Air Act means the Republicans are unable to simply reverse the White House's policies (the failure to secure a filibuster-proof Senate majority and Obama's veto powers mean neither side will be able to pass climate-related legislation). But that does not mean the EPA will be allowed to quietly go about its business. There are mechanisms Republicans can use to challenge the agency's climate rules and the party is likely to pursue them.

Most notably, Republicans now have the power to step up the number of time-consuming Congressional hearings on the EPA's activities and the administration's climate policies. More seriously, the GOP will also be considering using the Congressional Review Act, which could feasibly be used to block the EPA's power station rules through a simple majority. Think Progress also points out that recent filibuster reforms mean a simple Senate majority is all that is now required to block Presidential appointees, posing a further threat to the day-to-day operation of the EPA.

And then there is the nuclear option. Republicans could attach legislation defunding the EPA or rolling back its powers to budget and debt ceiling bills, sparking a stand-off with Obama that would force the President to choose between keeping the government running and the credibility of his flagship climate strategy.

The GOP would have to be extremely careful not to over-reach itself and end up taking the blame for another economically disastrous example of Washington dysfunction. But the party has shown that it is happy to hold the country hostage in the past and opposition to climate action may well prove to be an issue it is unwilling to compromise on.

As Brad Plumer observed today in a piece entitled "One big loser in this election? Climate policy: "The bottom line of this election is that Congress isn't going to give much thought to climate change these next two years. Maybe not the two years after that. And it doesn't seem to be in the power of either committed billionaires or Mother Nature to get them to do so."

2. Jim Inhofe is not a hoax

In a "Henry Kissinger wins peace prize" worthy moment of irony, Congress' most notorious climate change sceptic is now on course to be named chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Jim Inhofe's elevation following a comfortable defence of his Senate seat means environmental policy makers, climate scientists and green business leaders can expect to be dragged to a series of hearings that are likely to delay a raft of climate policies.

With other leading Republican climate sceptics such as Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson likely to secure committee chair positions, the GOP will maintain a steady drum beat of opposition to any and all environmental policies. The new chairs may not end up with much to show for their opposition, but, coupled with a host of industry-backed court cases that are in the pipeline, they do have the ability to slow down many of the EPA's environmental standards and rules. They also threaten to push a climate sceptic line even more heavily through the country's right wing media.

3. Keystone XL is set to make headlines

The most immediate impact on the US green agenda is likely to be renewed progress on the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. A handful of Democrats are known to be in favour of the pipeline, meaning that the Republican victory will almost certainly result in a filibuster-proof majority in favour of approving the pipeline. Any vote in favour of the project would put the President - who has repeatedly delayed a decision on the pipeline and said he would block it if it is shown to lead to increased climate impacts - in an extremely difficult position.

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