Environmentalists Have High Hopes for Democratic Congress

WASHINGTON, DC, November 14, 2006 (ENS) - Buoyed by a Democratic victory at the polls November 7 that took both the House and the Senate away from the Republicans, environmental leaders say that when the 110th Congress opens in January, they are planning to play offense for the first time in years.

They will focus on energy, global warming, a reauthorization of the Farm Bill, conserving national parks and other public lands, and protecting endangered species.

On a media briefing teleconference call from Nairobi, Kenya where he is attending the annunal United Nations climate conference, Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, said the world is watching to see if the change in Congress can change U.S. climate policy.

"Developed countries are hesitant to move towards another set of reductions unless the U.S. also pledges its reductions," Clapp said. "U.S. warming emissions have risen 19 percent over last decade and a half. Conference participants need a strong signal from the U.S. that George Bush's global warming policy is on the way out."

power plant

Pennsylvania's Conemaugh power plant, operated by Reliant Energy, burns more than four million tons of coal per year, emitting greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy Stefan Schlöhmer)
The United States had signed the Kyoto Protocol agreeing to limit greenhouse gas emissions under President Bill Clinton, but in 2001 President George W. Bush declined to submit it to the Senate for ratification, saying it would harm the U.S. economy.

Most other developed countries, including the European Union countries and Japan, are bound by the protocol, which expires at the end of 2012. It requires an average cut in greenhouse gases of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels, but is widely viewed as a first, very small step towards controlling global warming. In Nairobi, a second commitment period to begin in 2013 is under discussion.

"We have at most 18 months, maybe 24 months, to get another agreement completed before ratification due in 2012," Clapp said.

This week, Congressman John Dingell, the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called for fact-finding hearings on energy and climate change. But, that is the policy the Republicans pursued, said Clapp, who points out that to date Congress has held over 200 fact finding hearings on global warming. He says if the Democrats go down the road of hearings they will miss an opportunity to put global warming on pause.

On the same media briefing call, Anna Aurilio, Washington DC office director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, PIRG, said the issues of climate change and energy supply are closely linked.

"Americans are increasingly concerned about dependance on fossil fuels, gas prices, and especially oil," she said.


Traffic jam in Houston, Texas. As cars idle, they emit greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy TTI)
During this election campaign PIRG helped to launch the new energy future campaign, which includes such diverse groups as steelworkers, the Apollo Alliance, and Republicans for Environmental Protection. The campaign aims to reduce U.S. oil consumption by one-third by 2025.

"In top 50 contested races, many who support the new energy platform will make it to Congress," Aurilio said before all the final ballot counting is complete. "Clean energy is a winning issue."

Leading House Democrats, including Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Congressman Dingell of Michigan, are proposing a comprehensive energy independence bill entitled the Progress Act.

The measure would establish a National Biofuels Infrastructure Development Program and a New Manhattan Center for high efficiency vehicles that would commit a minimum of $500 million a year for 10 years to vehicle efficiency.

It would promote transit use and development of rail infrastructure, and would also increase the use of alternative fuels in federal and state fleets, develop biofuel plants in every region of the country, and speed development of standards to promote alternative fuels use.

Mike Daulton, director of conservation policy with Audubon, told reporters on the briefing call that conservatists have a new role to play, "reaching consunsus and reaching across partisan divides."

Now that voters have rejected California Congressman Richard Pombo, chair of the House Resources Committee, environmentalists can turn from trying to stop him from opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and selling 15 national parks to constructive "bipartisan compromise," Daulton said.

"The Endangered Species Act is a vital safety net, but Pombo and Bush have been cutting holes in that safety net," Daulton said.

Bipartisan work is needed to meet the "urgent needs of the crumbling national wildife refuges and national parks, said Daulton. His organization would like to end logging in Alaska's Tongass National Forest and slow the Bureau of Land Management's push for gas drilling the west.

drill equipment

Natural gas drilling equipment and crewman (Photo courtesy BP)
"The old policy of drill, drill, drill it all, has left us less secure," Daulton said.

Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, is watching as political alliances form ahead of the reauthorization debate on the Farm Bill, set to expire next year.

Cook says the Farm Gill is the best way to influence conservation of private lands, debate how much funding goes to conservation rather than other priorities such as commodities support.

Aurilio has great hope for conservation action from Democrats in the 110th Congress. Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi is "a consistent supporter on environmental issues," she said.

Conventional wisdom has labeled the new congressional majority a politically divided group, with socially conservative Democrats set to challenge more liberal party leaders. But Clapp says this characterization misses an area of unity - energy and the environment.

Many of the newly elected Democrats, endorsed higher fuel economy standards, while others voiced their opposition to proposed rollbacks of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

In Arizona, for instance, Representative-Elect Gabrielle Giffords said she will "oppose administration efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act,"

"My plan for energy independence and environmental protection includes: goal of 25 percent renewable energy consumption by 2025," said Giffords, who also plans to work towards increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for vehicles.

Jerry McNerney, who defeated Pombo in California, says he will "dramatically increase the fuel efficiency of new vehicles."

McNerney intends to "establish federal leadership to increase the efficiency of buildings and electrical appliances building on successful energy efficiency programs now in place in states like California, New York, and Washington." And McNerney, the CEO of a windpower corporation, says he will work to "reassert U.S. leadership in reducing energy-related pollution, including the generation of greenhouse gases."