US environmentalists, assessing the Republican tsunami that washed over the country, chose Wednesday to tout a key Election Day victory in beating back California's Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would have reversed clean-energy requirements statewide – and led quite possibly to similar initiatives in other states.
It was a sign, they said, that voters were not rejecting clean energy or the environment, but were responding to concerns about jobs and housing.
"In the one race where the words ‘global warming’ were literally on the ballot, voters overwhelmingly voted for clean energy, and did so in a state with the country’s third highest unemployment rate," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. "This victory lays the groundwork for clean energy advances in other states and at the federal level as it represents the largest public referendum in history on clean energy and climate policy.”
But at the congressional level overall, Mr. Karpinski conceded, "we are of course disappointed" since a number of pro-environment voices were defeated.
Despite efforts by environmentalists to portray the election result as a glass half full, the big electoral swing to the Republicans was clearly "a wake-up call" for the White House and states trying to regulate emissions, noted Kevin Book, an energy analyst with ClearView Energy Partners, a Washington market research firm.
That wake-up is led by the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives.
"Increasing domestic energy production through an all-of-the-above energy plan and ensuring that public lands are actually open to the public" are priorities for the new Republican-led House and Natural Resources Committee, according to Rep. Doc Hastings of Wash. the ranking Republican on the committee. He noted on the minority's portion of the committee's website that "the livelihoods of rural communities, especially in the West, are dependent on the smart use of our public lands, water, timber, minerals and energy resources."
Beyond more gas and oil drilling on public lands, House Republicans are also expected to use their new oversight authority to require EPA chief Lisa Jackson to come to the Hill frequently to explain to committees why, exactly, her agency is proceeding with plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
At the same time, in the US Senate, Republican gains may have given them enough votes to make an expected strong push to squelch the Environmental Protection Agency's fledgling efforts to clamp down nationwide on greenhouse gas emissions from big smokestack emitters like power plants. Regulation of those emitters begins Jan 2.
A June proposal by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska to remove from the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gases won just 47 of the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. Even with more Republicans, such a measure would likely be two or three votes short, some analysts said. Yet a resolution by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia to delay implementation of the EPA's regulations by at least two years remains a potent possibility, experts say.
"The net effect of EPA regulation could be to disrupt more jobs than the stimulus programs has created," says Scott Segal, an attorney representing energy and manufacturing clients for the Washington law firm Bracewell and Giuliani. "We can't have that. So, I'm fairly certain there are more than the required number of votes needed to delay EPA regulations for at least 2 years if not more."
But environmentalists said it would be a mistake for Republicans to interpret the election victory as a repudiation of much more than economic policy.
"They want the administration and Congress to work together to get things done," says Wesley Warren, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But it would be a mistake for the incoming Congress to think they have a mandate to turn back a generation of clean air and environmental protections. If they do that, they'll find themselves facing a wave of public opposition."