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A Grand, Old Priority: how Obama’s climate change agenda was scuppered

Obama’s on his own when it comes to the environment. AAP

As the US was brought to the brink of a government shutdown this weekend, one of the sticking points was Republican insistence that President Obama curtail the activities of the Environmental Protection Agency.

This had little to do with the real issue in the budget battle - the overall level of government expenditure - but the Republican leadership saw it as an important trade-off in any concession they made over spending cuts.

The Republicans didn’t win this one, but it highlighted the consequences of last November’s mid-term congressional elections for environmental policy-making in the USA.

It also portends a major assault by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives on the EPA’s budget for the next fiscal year.

A fading priority

The Republicans emerged from the mid-term election with a net gain of 64 seats and an overall 55-seat majority on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Any hope of a national emissions trading scheme or the introduction of a carbon tax disappeared along with this Republican victory.

Many of the 81 freshman Republicans who entered the House in January were associated with the Tea Party movement, and generally hostile to climate-change legislation.

Obama’s Rudd-like assertion in his 2008 election campaign that climate policy would be “a leading priority of my presidency and a defining test of our time,” faded away during his first two years in the White House.

The global financial crisis, health care legislation, and reforming the banking industry consumed the congressional agenda in 2009 and 2010.

And it’s not just the Republicans Obama has to worry about.

His commitment to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions was also opposed by a significant minority of conservative Democrats in the House, many of whom opposed him on health care and the financial bailout as well.

The Republican threat to the EPA

Failing the legislative route, which the Republican-controlled House has now blocked, this pro-environment president will be forced to act through regulatory policy.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act offer considerable potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through regulation.

But the EPA, an agency established by Republican Richard Nixon in 1970, has become the bete-noire of the current Republican Party.

The climate-change sceptics, the budget deficit reduction advocates, and the anti-regulation, pro-business Republicans will combine to do maximum damage to the EPA by challenging its regulatory powers and drastically reducing its funding.

Were it not for the Democratic majority in the US Senate and a Democratic president in the White House, the very existence of the EPA would be threatened by the aggressively anti-climate change Republicans in the House.

Change through regulation a faint hope

A regulatory approach to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions may not be the obvious alternative that many pro-environmentalists are hoping for.

This is because Republicans in the House of Representatives cannot dictate regulatory environmental policy, but they can obstruct.

The Congressional Review Act of 1996 requires federal agencies to submit new regulatory rules to Congress. Congress can disapprove of those rules through the passage of a Joint Resolution by both the House and the Senate.

At the very least, this procedure will delay new environmental regulations and will undoubtedly be used as a bargaining chip by the Republicans over other matters, especially the potential reduction of the EPA’s budget.

The House will probably support disapproval resolutions on greenhouse gas emissions, and then it will fall to the Democratic-controlled Senate to defend the President’s environmental regulations against the Republican majority in the House.

But the Senate cannot be relied on. The thin Democratic majority of six seats is not enough to ensure there would be a majority vote in favour of upholding EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

There are currently four Democrats in the Senate who either sponsored or voted for a resolution last year to disallow an EPA regulation relating to greenhouses gases.

If the Democrats in the Senate failed to defend EPA regulations, then the burden would fall on President Obama’s veto.

What Obama can do

There are other options. The President might find scope in the Executive Order – basically an instruction to government departments and agencies to implement a presidential policy.

Executive Orders cannot be overridden by Congress, except if Congress passes a law effectively negating them, and the President can always veto that legislation.

Much can be achieved through Executive Orders in the field of environmental policy - witness President Obama’s Executive Order on ocean conservancy issued last year - but the scope for the use of this device to tackle climate change issues is not great.

Obama can also look to state governments for anti-pollution and clean air initiatives.

Some states, such as California and Massachusetts, have been more progressive and ambitious than the federal government in restricting emissions from automobiles, electricity plants, commercial buildings.

If the states can demonstrate programs that work it may, in time, reduce the strong opposition in Congress to climate change legislation, but this is a long-shot.

A dark future for climate change

The prospects for climate change legislation in the present Congress is nil and one cannot be optimistic that the regulatory route is a going to be a viable alternative.

The other hope, albeit an optimistic one, is that President Obama wins re-election next year and his popularity (which is presently under 50%) would bring enough Democrats into the House on his coattails to overturn the present Republican majority.

At this stage, no reputable analyst is forecasting that possibility. Indeed, the fear is that the Republicans will maintain their majority in the House and possibly win control of the Senate where 21 Democratic-held seats will be at stake compared to just 10 Republican-held seats.

The prospects for unified US government under a Democratic President in 2013 do not look good. The deadlock over climate change policy could well continue for another four to six years at least.

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