Why the next Congress will be 'greener,' but only by a few shades

Fiscal restraints and newly elected moderates make radical changes in environmental policy unlikely, activists predict.

After years in the political wilderness, activists and their champions in Congress are poised to take environmental policy and lawmaking in a decidedly greener direction.

Climate change and renewable energy, land conservation, endangered species protection, pollution prevention – all will get a fresh look as Democrats take over key committees and subcommittees in the US House and Senate.

At the same time, activists don't expect the new Congress to make radical changes.

"We have cause for good cheer and optimism," says Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the National Audubon Society. "But even with significant congressional changes, there will likely be limits to what's achievable."

Among other things, she says, Congress faces tight fiscal constraints, industry interests continue to hold sway with the Bush administration, most incoming Democrats are moderate rather than liberal, and pro-environment interests will have fewer middle-of-the-road GOP allies (such as defeated Sen. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island) on Capitol Hill.

Still, expect a weakened effort to drill for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and in the Rocky Mountain states, less of a push for expansive offshore oil drilling, and more resources to bolster the Endangered Species Act and clean up toxic sites on the Superfund list.

The ethanol debate

Among important related issues will be the five-year farm bill, set to expire next year, and crop subsidies connected to ethanol production.

As with other major environmental and energy issues, the ethanol issue presents activists with a political dilemma. Using more ethanol can help reduce reliance on foreign oil, but it can also mean more use of fertilizers and pesticides and less interest in the federal program to set aside agricultural land in conservation reserves to protect wetlands and wildlife habitat.

"The whole [farm bill] debate will be over how much money goes to conservation," predicts Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

In other areas, too – the energy and pollution associated with motor vehicles, for example, or power generation impacting fish and wildlife habitat – local interests could conflict with long-term goals of environmentalists.

New committee chairs to watch

The biggest immediate changes will be in committee leadership. Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California lost his reelection bid to political novice Jerry McNerney, a wind energy engineer. It was an indication of the clout the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and other activist groups had in this election. Mr. Pombo will be replaced as House Resources Committee chair by longtime environmental champion Rep. Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia, a leader in the effort to reform the hardrock mining law of 1872, which left thousands of polluted sites across the West.

In the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, Barbara Boxer (D) of California will assume the chairmanship from James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, who has called the Environmental Protection Agency "a Gestapo bureaucracy" and who once called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will be chaired by Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, another advocate of dealing directly with climate change.

Much has been made of the centrist – sometimes even conservative – stance of the new crop of lawmakers. But their campaign statements and records on environmental issues would indicate that most are quite green. Related to this, voters in many states passed pro-environment ballot measures, an indicator of political support. And in some ways, the old guard – and not just Democrats – is likely to have even more prominence. Two important Senate proponents of addressing global warming have been Republican and likely presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona and Democrat-turned-Independent Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

On the other hand, some of the Democratic old guard may put roadblocks in the way of environmentalists' goals. Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan, whose Detroit home district includes Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, is set to take over the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mr. Dingell can be expected to resist attempts to stiffen fuel-efficiency standards for autos.

Meanwhile, the White House reportedly will launch an "energy independence" initiative focusing on fuel made from plant waste. This may have been in the works before the election, but the "thumping" President Bush acknowledges having taken on Election Day may help to focus his attention on energy issues.

"Energy was definitely a factor in many of the most competitive races," says Anna Aurilio, Washington office director of the US Public Interest Research Group. War in an oil-rich part of the world and unusually high gasoline prices earlier this year were part of that, she says.

Advocates of renewable energy resources received a boost this week from a new report by the RAND Corp. Researchers at the nonprofit organization find that by 2025 wind power, solar power, the burning of agricultural waste, and other renewable resources could produce 25 percent of the electricity and motor-vehicle fuels used in the US at little or no additional cost while achieving "significant reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion."

As lawmakers and the White House discuss their new relationship regarding energy and the environment, such information sharpens the focus.

"I actually think from talking to Democrats they have the same concerns we do," White House economic adviser Allan Hubbard told the Financial Times last week. "They are concerned about energy, and recognize that we need to accelerate our efforts to cure our addiction to foreign oil."

In the end, agrees Audubon official Betsy Loyless, "Environmental progress can only be made to the extent that the various sides desire to find common ground."

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