Tuesday’s mid-term elections in the United States swept the Democrats back into power in the House of Representatives, and could give them control of the Senate as well if the one remaining undecided race breaks their way. This political tsunami was largely the result of US voters’ frustration with President Bush and his conduct of the war in Iraq. But it also will have important implications for future US energy and climate policy.
One of the six elements of the Democrats’ election campaign platform calls for reducing US oil dependence and energy prices by investing much more heavily in energy efficient technologies and renewable energy sources. Speaker-of-the-House-to-be Nancy Pelosi has termed the Bush-Cheney energy policy “an abject failure for the American people,” and says it is time to “send our energy dollars to the Midwest, not the Middle East.”
Increased funding for clean energy research and expanded incentives for use of bio-energy and other renewable resources like solar and wind are clearly on the agenda for the new Congress. A federal standard requiring electricity suppliers to generate more of their power from renewable energy, which has twice passed the Senate, may now move through the House as well. Pressure will also mount to increase fuel economy standards for automobiles and light trucks, though final passage is by no means certain. President Bush, who publicly acknowledged Americans’ “addiction to oil” in his last State of the Union speech, might be hard-pressed to veto reasonable energy legislation sent to his desk by the new Congress.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when it comes to global warming. There is absolutely no indication that this president will drop his long-standing opposition to mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, or reverse his decision to pull the US out of the Kyoto Protocol. Progress on this issue must await the next president taking office in January 2009; the good news is that leading candidates in both parties are on record in support of federal legislation to limit US emissions.
But the new Congress will challenge the Bush administration’s global warming policy on several fronts. The new Democratic chairmen of the House Government Reform and Science Committees are both vocal critics of the administration’s efforts to block federal agency climate scientists like Jim Hansen from speaking freely to the press and public about the dangers of climate change. If the Democrats take over the Senate, the current Chairman of the Environment & Public Works Committee, James Inhofe (who has called climate change the “biggest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people”) would be replaced by Senator Barbara Boxer, a leading sponsor of legislation to cut US greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. The Senate Energy Committee would be chaired by Senator Jeff Bingaman, another proponent of action on climate change and the only member of Congress to attend last year’s negotiations in Montreal.
There was also progress at the state level in Tuesday’s elections. Duval Patrick’s successful bid for Governor of Massachusetts means that state will rejoin the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and is a boost for Cape Wind, America’s likely first offshore wind farm. Similarly, California Governor Schwarzenegger’s re-election victory can be read, in part, as a reward for his championship of the state’s new mandatory climate action plan. And voters in Washington state passed a ballot initiative requiring that 15 per cent of their electricity come from renewable sources, joining the 20-plus states that have already adopted renewable energy targets.