New Congress Gives Hope to Environmentalists

Democrats: What to Expect

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A windfarm near Velva, North Dakota.

A windfarm near Velva, North Dakota. Democrats say they're interested in a promoting a new energy policy offering alternatives to oil, coal and gas. Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists inside and outside of Congress say Tuesday's election gives the support they need to go on the offensive on issues like climate change and clean energy.

Since President Bush was elected, environmentalists have spent most of their time deflecting attacks on environmental laws and protecting the Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"We know we're not going to be stuck playing defense. We spent much of the last six years making sure they didn't drill in the Arctic Refuge. Let's hope that issue is finally off the table," says Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

Environmental groups helped elect some new members to Congress. Karpinski says he's counting on those freshmen to push initiatives that promote alternatives to oil, gas and coal.

"We want to be on offense, and many of these candidates come here having pledged to support new clean energy policies," Karpinski says.

One is Senator-elect Jon Tester from Montana. He's a Democrat, an organic farmer, and a big supporter of alternative energy. Another is Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind power entrepreneur from California.

McNerney defeated Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), who drove environmentalists crazy as head of the House Resources Committee. For years, Pombo tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Perhaps the biggest change will come on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. It's now headed by James Inhofe (R-OK), who calls global warming a "hoax."

In January, Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is expected to take over.

"It's Venus and Mars," Boxer says. "His attitude and my attitude about it are so different. It's night and day."

Boxer calls climate change the "challenge of our generation," and she says passing legislation to tackle climate change is one of her top priorities.

Despite her reputation as one of the Senate's most liberal members, she says she'll work with Republicans to try to pass a bill. She says the federal government should follow California's lead in passing legislation that limits emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change from the transportation and power sectors.

"People want action they want solutions, they don't want gridlock," Boxer says. "So we're going to have a process whereby we're going to be wide open to everybody's ideas."

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) says he'll also work with Republicans to pass a new climate change bill. He's expected to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

"I think we have an opportunity here to do something significant. The American people are expecting a lot. And we need to rise to the occasion," Bingaman says.

It won't be easy, even with Democrats in the majority in both chambers.

In the House, the two Democrats slated to take over key environment committees have strong ties to industries opposed to climate legislation. One is John Dingell of Michigan, a longtime ally of the auto industry. He’s expected to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The other is West Virginia's Nick Rahall, a big supporter of the coal industry, the likely new chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Some industry representatives predicted that the hurdles are too great for any major climate legislation to pass.

"It's not possible because large segments of industry would be very opposed to it. It will take everyone's electric bill and make it higher. It will make everyone's price at the pump higher. That is not the way to go," said William Kovacs, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Kovacs and environmentalists agreed that President Bush likely would veto any climate change legislation that set mandatory limits on emissions of greenhouse gases.

The splits between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House both remain close, so it could be difficult to muster the votes of two-thirds of the members of both chambers, which is necessary to override a veto.

This same principle would make it difficult to pass any other sweeping environmental regulations that President Bush does not favor.

"It's important to remember that even if we pass something in the House and the Senate, President Bush still sits in the White House. So, while we can help frame issues and put forward a vision of what a new energy future could be, it's not necessarily guaranteed that it's going to pass. It could get stopped at any number of levels," said Cathy Duvall, political director for the Sierra Club, a national environmental group.

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