With a razor-thin majority in Congress, Democrats and President Biden were able to pass the most significant legislation to address climate change in U.S. history, but if Republicans gain control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, those gains could be partially reversed.
The Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law in August, allocates $369 billion over 10 years to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by the end of the decade, thanks to subsidies for clean energy, electric cars and other more efficient technologies. Biden is meanwhile pursuing further reductions, through regulations such as forthcoming rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.
Environmental activists and their opponents on the right don’t agree about much, but they do agree on two things: If Republicans win control of the House of Representatives, as statistical models show is fairly likely, they will have some power to constrain Biden’s environmental policies through spending cuts. And if they win a majority in the Senate as well, their leverage over spending will increase.
“We are working tirelessly, around the clock, to ensure that we come out of the next election with pro-environment majorities, because we have seen that historic progress is possible when Democrats are in the majority and come together and get something like the Inflation Reduction Act done,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, told Yahoo News. “I think the fact that every single Republican voted against the Inflation Reduction Act … tells you everything you need to know about where Republicans stand when it comes to climate change. They stand in the way of progress at every opportunity.”
Conservative experts say congressional Republican majorities could try to undo some of the IRA’s climate investments, but since they would ultimately need Biden’s signature on a budget, it’s unclear whether they would succeed.
“Congress can vote whatever it wants. … The question is how much it will struggle with President Biden over a veto,” Diana Furchtgott-Roth, director of the Energy and Climate Center at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Yahoo News. Furchtgott-Roth speculated that Biden might be willing to accept budgets without new additional climate spending, but would probably veto any budget that strips away funding from his already-passed signature achievement.
Congressional Republican leaders have argued that the federal government should loosen regulation of fossil fuel extraction in order to reduce oil and gas prices and lessen U.S. dependence on foreign sources of energy, such as Saudi Arabia. But apart from calling for more domestic oil drilling, congressional Republicans have yet to unveil a climate change or energy policy platform during the campaign. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., released a 12-part plan to “Rescue America” that did not have a climate, environment or energy component. As part of its economic plank, Scott’s plan pledged to “expedite all federal permit applications to be granted or denied within 30 days,” which presumably would reduce the time and cost of energy projects. Scott has introduced a bill to that effect, and co-sponsored bills with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would prohibit importation of oil and gas from Iran and Venezuela or exportation of oil and gas to China.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., issued the “Commitment to America,” a one-page statement of principles that promised to “make America energy independent and reduce gas prices,” promising that Republicans would “maximize production of reliable, cleaner, American-made energy and cut the permitting process time in half to reduce reliance on foreign countries, prevent rolling blackouts, and lower the cost of gas and utilities.” But it did not propose any specific policies or legislation to achieve these goals. McCarthy’s office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Yahoo News, nor did Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
In part, that may be because it is the executive branch that has the ability to write and enforce regulations on fossil fuel extraction and to order the construction of new infrastructure, like pipelines, to bring it to consumers.
“If the balance of power changes in Congress, it’s not clear that Congress will be able to do anything about [fossil fuel extraction], so we have to think what Congress can affect,” Furchtgott-Roth, who served as deputy assistant secretary for research and technology in the Department of Transportation during the Trump administration, said. “If [Biden] has said no to drilling in certain areas, the Republican Congress is not going to be able to change that.”
There are three main areas in which experts say congressional Republicans would try to roll back Biden’s signature climate policies:
The Inflation Reduction Act’s spending is set to roll out over 10 years, so Congress could choose not to keep fully funding the law. “All the new subsidies that have been created as part of the reconciliation bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act, one big question is: Are [Republicans] willing to allow those all to go forward? Because if you have Republican control and a Democratic president, there’s going to be some big fights about budgeting,” James Coleman, a senior fellow who studies energy policy and law expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, told Yahoo News. “Does the Republican Congress say, ‘You know what, we need to save money, and this is one of the areas where we’re looking to stop so much spending, to rein in inflation, to get the budget in a healthier situation’?”
In turn, Biden is likely to threaten a veto and fight to keep the clean energy investments. Meanwhile, Coleman noted, ending the subsidies would be damaging to renewable industries, because a policy decision to remove support from them would shake investors’ confidence.
Biden’s plans to regulate emissions through executive branch agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency — rules limiting methane leakage from oil and gas wells and pipelines, for example — cannot be unilaterally stopped by Congress. Republicans are already threatening to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, potentially triggering an economic crisis, if Biden doesn’t agree to major spending cuts, and they could try to defund the agencies that would implement those rules. An understaffed EPA, for example, might not have the resources to institute as many pollution regulations as it otherwise would during Biden’s term, or to rigorously enforce the rules on the books.
During previous periods of Republican control, the party slashed spending for the EPA and other federal agencies that deal with environmental issues, such as the Department of Interior. “If they continue to try to starve the agencies, not fully fund them, or make sure that they are not fully staffed up and able to do effective implementation, that will be, obviously, a huge problem,” Sittenfeld said.
Even with control of only one chamber of Congress, the GOP can use a committee like the House Committee on Oversight and Reform to highlight it sees as the administration’s shortcomings on energy policy. “They can hold hearings to see what is going on, and they can make the administration look bad,” Furchtgott-Roth said, and added, in a reference to China's Uyghur autonomous region, “They can show, for example, the slave labor that is being used in Xinjiang to make these wind and solar panels that Democrats want to use.”
A recent Democratic-led effort in Congress failed to pass legislation streamlining the process of obtaining federal permits for energy infrastructure projects, whether fossil fuel projects like gas pipelines or clean energy projects such as cables connecting offshore wind turbines to the energy grid. But Republicans could capitalize on the issue’s momentum and try to pass a bipartisan bill, Coleman said.
“There’s kinds of permitting reform that would really benefit projects across the spectrum, including natural gas pipelines, oil and gas development, etc.” Coleman said. “And if you saw that kind of balanced permitting package, you might be able to see something a Republican Congress would pass but would get the president’s vote.”
If Democrats do retain control of both houses of Congress, and are able to bolster their margin in the Senate, future climate legislation could include passing some of the climate provisions originally included in Biden’s Build Back Better proposal that were cut from the Inflation Reduction Act at the insistence of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. These include the Clean Electricity Performance Program, a carrot-and-stick approach to incentivizing utilities to switch to cleaner energy sources.
“Part of the reason that we are fighting so hard in the upcoming election is that the stakes are so high,” Sittenfeld said. “We’re coming off the heels of this historic progress, but so much more is needed both in terms of effective, equitable and just implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act."
Also, she added, "We need to fully fund agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.”