Payback: A First Look at the Fossil-Fuel and Anti-Environment Agenda of the Next Congress
After months of speculation about the outcome of yesterday’s elections, it is now clear that Republicans will control both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives starting in January. According to recent analyses of political contributions and advertising spending, fossil-fuel interests—including the conservative billionaire Koch brothers—appear to have played a major role in the races that ultimately decided the balance of power in the Senate. These campaign investments from the oil, gas, and coal industry are likely to have a major impact on the agenda of the coming 114th Congress, as Republican leaders work to pay back the support their fossil-fuel allies provided during the election.
Although media coverage has largely focused on the likelihood that Republican leadership in the next Congress will mandate the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and attempt to prevent the Obama administration from implementing rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, these are just two elements of a sweeping energy and anti-environmental agenda tailored to fossil-fuel interests.
The attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s, or EPA’s, authority to protect clean air and water, for example, will not be limited to its proposed Clean Power Plan rule. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), who will likely take over as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has said he would “file challenges against every final EPA rule,” signaling that the Republican-controlled Congress’ anti-environmental agenda would also target the EPA’s efforts to strengthen ozone-pollution standards, protect water quality, regulate the storage and disposal of coal ash, reduce environmental damage from mountaintop mining, and curtail methane pollution from oil and gas operations.
Beyond this forceful attack on the EPA, however, there are four broad priorities for energy and natural resource policy that Republican leaders in the House and Senate have already begun to outline for the 114th Congress:
1. Fast track exports of U.S. oil, coal, and natural gas to foreign markets
The expansion and acceleration of exports of American coal, oil, and natural gas supplies to foreign markets will likely be at the top of the Republican leadership’s energy agenda. In addition to moving ahead with House efforts to fast track the permit process for liquefied natural gas, or LNG, exports, the Senate will likely consider lifting the ban on crude oil exports. Legislation is currently being considered to that effect in the House, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is in line to lead the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee beginning in January, suggested that lifting the ban in 2015 could be “timely.”
Additionally, there are a number of planned export terminals along the West Coast for shipping coal mined on both state and federal lands to China and other Asian markets. The proposed terminals, which have encountered opposition from several Senate Democrats and have suffered a number of setbacks at the local permitting level in the Northwest and Gulf of Mexico, may get a helping hand from the Republican-controlled Congress.
With oil, gas, and coal companies able to rent one acre of federal land for less than the cost of a cup of coffee, these changes to export policy could result in U.S. taxpayers subsidizing the export of American energy resources. Unless the Republican-controlled Congress also moves to update rental and royalty rates on America’s public lands, increased oil, gas, and coal exports will cost U.S. taxpayers and state governments hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.
2. Halt the creation of new parks and wilderness areas
The oil and gas industry’s allies in Congress have stepped up their efforts in recent years to block new protections for monuments, wilderness, and other public lands, arguing that new protections “lock-up” energy supplies that could otherwise be drilled. Under Republican leadership, the House has waged what amounts to a “no more parks” campaign since 2010. With the exception of a bill to create the Sleeping Bear Dunes Wilderness area earlier this year, Congress has not protected a single new acre of public land since 2009. It is the nation’s longest congressional moratorium on new park creation since World War II.
In addition to blocking the creation of locally supported wilderness areas and parks, the Republican-led Senate is expected to take up House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Chairman Rob Bishop’s (R-UT) campaign to effectively repeal the president’s authority to create new national monuments. If Senate Republican leaders succeed in gutting the 1906 Antiquities Act, which presidents of both parties have used to protect places such as the Grand Canyon for more than a century, they would advance a “no more parks” policy and deliver a major victory for oil, gas, and coal interests. This anti-park and anti-wilderness agenda could also bode ill for America’s most effective park-creation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which will expire in 2015 without action from Congress.
3. Roll back investments in renewable energy
The oil and gas industry, along with the Koch brothers, will in all likelihood press Congress to pursue at least three top priorities for curbing the growth of American renewable energy production. First, the Republican-led Congress is expected to step up their attempts to end or scale back renewable fuel standards for vehicle fuels. Second, tax incentives for wind energy production are not likely to be extended, considering the Koch network’s current priority of defeating wind energy policies around the country. Third, some Republicans in Congress are likely to try to overturn a key provision in the Energy Independence and Security Act that prohibits the federal government from procuring fuels that have a higher greenhouse gas footprint than traditional fuels.
4. Open the Atlantic Ocean and environmentally sensitive lands to oil and gas drilling
Senate Republican leaders in the next Congress are likely to put a high priority on further expanding oil and gas development on federal lands and waters by bypassing critical environmental laws and public reviews. The House passed a bill earlier this year mandating the sale of new leases to drill in the Atlantic and off the shore of California while limiting environmental reviews and public comment on the new lease sales. The legislation also required the Bureau of Land Management to auction off even more federal public lands for drilling, despite the fact that the oil and gas industry already owns the rights to drill on 36 million acres of American public lands, two-thirds of which are sitting idle. With the backing of the oil and gas industry, an attempt by the Republican-led Congress to weaken the Endangered Species Act, or ESA—by exempting wildlife in oil and gas producing regions, such as the greater sage grouse, from ESA protections—is also expected.
In addition to these four priorities, the new Republican-led Congress is expected to aggressively pursue a number of other individual special-interest giveaways. With control of both chambers, Republican leaders will likely push, for example, to mandate the construction of a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, which taxpayer advocates say is a massive waste of government money; clear the way for the Resolution Copper mine in Arizona and the Pebble Mine in Alaska; and allow logging of old growth forest in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
Although the airwaves have now quieted from the crush of political ads, Americans should expect the next Congress’ energy and anti-environment agenda to bring an aggressive new onslaught of special-interest-backed messages and priorities.
Claire Moser is a Research and Advocacy Associate with the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Matt Lee-Ashley is Director of the Public Lands Project and a Senior Fellow at the Center.
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