TRNN reporter Thomas Hedges continues the series of how a GOP-led Senate will change policy, this time in the arena of the Environment and Public Works Committee which Republican Senator James Inhofe will take over as chair.
THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN PRODUCER: Last week, the 113th Congress officially came to a close. When representatives come back for the new Congress in January, the Senate’s majority will swing over to the GOP, handing Republicans control of both congressional houses.
The Real News is taking a look at how leadership changes in Senate committees will affect policy and discussion in Washington for 2015. We’ve done Iran negotiations and the TPP trade talks.
Today we turn to environmental regulations and focus on the ascension of Oklahoma Republican senator James Inhofe to chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. A staunch denier of global warming, Inhofe says that environmental reform, along with a number of President Obama’s policies, are major assaults on the country’s welfare and job security.
JAMES INHOFE, U.S. SENATOR (R-OK): This has been a relentless four-and-a-half, five-year war that the president has on fossil fuels. It’s not just coal, but it’s coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels.
We are so inundated right now with problems. We have problems in Afghanistan. We have problems with our foreign policy in the Middle East. We’re all concerned about Mogadishu. We’re all concerned about the problems around the world. But the area that people aren’t talking about is the cost of the overregulation in America that is doing probably as much damage as all the rest of the problems are doing at this time.
HEDGES: In 2012, Inhofe published a book on the myth of global warming entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. And in November, he said that he would do everything in his power to rein in the EPA’s unchecked regulations.
But some say Inhofe’s position on global warming has more to do with the senator’s campaign contributions than with the science he regularly cites.
TYSON SLOCUM, DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC CITIZEN’S ENERGY PROGRAM: Is one of the largest recipients of oil and gas money in Congress.
HEDGES: Tyson Slocum is the director of Public Citizen’s energy program. He says that Inhofe’s ties to the energy industry ensure that corporate needs will be met before those of the general public.
SLOCUM: He’s been one of the most outspoken in the United States Congress questioning the science behind climate change, defending the interests of the fossil fuel industry, and attacking any sort of regulatory or legislative efforts to deal with climate change or with environmental protection. So, in terms of the biggest enemy to progress on fighting climate change, you’d have to put Senator Inhofe in that category.
HEDGES: Over the span of his 15-year career, Inhofe’s top campaign contributor has consistently been the oil and gas industry. He’s received more than $1.7 million over that period, and in the most recent elections was ranked sixth among the top 20 senators who received the most money from oil and gas companies. As chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, he’ll have a lot of power in structuring the discussions surrounding climate change in the Senate. He’ll schedule the hearings and strongly influence who testifies to the committee.
STEVE HORN, RESEARCH FELLOW, DESMOGBLOG: For example, he sets up a hearing on the climate regulations that President Obama has implemented on coal-fired power plants. And say two of the four people that testified come from the Heartland Institute and maybe another Koch Industries-funded think tank. That does change things in Washington, D.C., in a major way.
HEDGES: Steve Horn is a Madison, Wisconsin, based research fellow and reporter at DeSmogBlog. He says that Inhofe’s leadership in the environment committee will not only change the discourse concerning global warming in the Senate, but also bring the industry and politicians even closer together.
HORN: It’s important to point out how this will change oil and gas policy. His former–for example, one of his former spokespersons, Katie Brown, she now works as a spokesperson for Energy In Depth. Energy In Depth is a sort of a front for the oil and gas industry set up by the Independent Petroleum Association of America back in 2009. And he has connections to all–tons of connections like this.
HEDGES: Horn says we can expect a broad targeting of EPA regulations from Inhofe and the Environment Committee, including opposition to an action Obama took over the summer to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent of the next 15 years.
Horn also says that Inhofe’s involvement in the most recent spending and appropriations bills is a strong indication of what the senator’s priorities might be when he takes over in January.
HORN: Inhofe was a central player in getting it passed behind the scenes. And this was the fast track fracking on public lands in the United States. Originally it was a bill that got rolling in Congress in the spring, didn’t really gain any momentum, but it got its second life through a subsection of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.
One of the key lobbyists for this bill was Ryan Thompson, his former chief of staff from 2002 to 2010, who’s–now works for Akin Gump. And he was lobbying on behalf of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which is a huge private equity firm that owns lots of oil and gas industry assets. It’s also where the former head of the CIA, David Petraeus, works.
And there’s not only that, but also the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, the NDAA.
There’s another subsection that incentivizes gas-powered vehicles. That means gas that came from fracking. And this is something that T. Boone Pickens has wanted for a long time as part of the “Pickens plan”.
HEDGES: Inhofe isn’t alone. Slocum and Horn say the public can’t hold just one committee responsible for stifling energy and environmental reform.
SLOCUM: At this point, a majority of the members of Congress are on record questioning the science behind climate change and urging Congress to take initiatives that would expressly benefit the fossil fuel industry at the expense of broader climate protection or environmental protection.
Senator Mitch McConnell, who’s going to be majority leader of the United States Senate, recently gave an interview where he said the two big priority issues when he becomes majority leader in 2015 are going to be a quick vote to quickly expedite the building of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which will bring tar sands, crude oil from Canada down to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and a number of different initiatives to eviscerate the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to carry out proposed rules over greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing coal-fired power plants.
HEDGES: Horn says a third important figure will be North Dakota senator John Hoeven, who’s on both the Appropriations Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
HORN: He was one of the pushers of pushing for Keystone XL prior to the changing of the guard and during a lame-duck race between Mary Landrieu and Bill Cassidy. He was one of the cosponsors of these bills. And he got up with McConnell and–at a press conference right after the bill failed [to] get the necessary 60 votes and said this will be one of the first things on the table in 2015 when they take over the Senate. So they have a friendly in Hoeven that will for sure be moving this bill forward. They have Inhofe as the committee chair in this new committee that he took over, and so the combination of that. There could be hearings on Keystone XL, a renewed–that means renewed PR push for Keystone XL.
HEDGES: Another key Republican player in next year’s Senate would be Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. She’ll be heading up the energy and natural resources committee which deals more with business.
SLOCUM: She’s going to be using that committee as a tool to expand oil and gas operations in the United States. So Murkowski’s going to be talking about more quickly issuing permits to export liquefied natural gas, which is going to have an increase in fracking of natural gas in the United States. She’s going to be talking about exporting crude oil, getting rid of the 1975 virtual ban on this. She’s going to be looking at ways to expedite Keystone pipeline. And that’s going to be working in concert with the Environment and Public Works Committee, which is primarily going to be going after regulations promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the big regs that they’re going to be fighting are those proposed for greenhouse gas emissions.
HEDGES: Slocum says that in the coming months we’ll most likely see two trends coming from a GOP-controlled Congress. The first is attacking regulations, either by deauthorizing certain measures or cutting their funding, as exemplified by Inhofe and the Environment and Public Works Committee. The second is protecting the oil and gas industry by pitting environmental issues up against the threat of job loss and economic turbulence.
SLOCUM: I think what the Environment and Public Works Committee’s going to do is try and eviscerate the rule in its entirety. They’re not going to try and moderate it. And so there are several different ways you can do that. You can go at it through the appropriations process, where you can try and deny the EPA any funding to work on continuing to develop and implement the rule. That would effectively quash it. Or you can go after the rule directly. And what the campaign is starting to look like is trying to manufacture all sorts of scare tactics, that the proposed rule is going to destroy job growth, that it’s going to harm economic growth, that it’s going to take America in the wrong direction.
HEDGES: Slocum says that even beyond these tame EPA regulations, fossil fuels are part of a dying industry, so that the GOP narrative of job security doesn’t only ignore environmental risks but is also misinformed.
SLOCUM: It’s important to note here that America is in the midst of a transition. We’re transitioning away from coal and towards renewables. And that transition creates hardship in those parts of the country that have relied heavily upon these extractive industries. And we as a country need to deal with that, and we need to communicate to people, and we need to make sure that we can direct as much investment into those areas as possible.
What I really resent, however, is when politicians representing these areas, whether they’re in West Virginia or elsewhere, who are lying to their constituents, saying the decline in the coal industry is not because coal is inefficient relative to emerging technologies, but rather the decline in coal is because the Obama administration is waging a war on coal. And so that’s the reason why jobs aren’t as lucrative as they were for your parents or other generations. And they make a promise that they can’t keep.
HEDGES: There’s also a large disparity between how politicians talk about climate change and how the public understands the issue. Sixty-seven percent of Americans, for example, understand that the earth is warming, and 54 percent believe the effects were already visible. However, Congress seems to be more hesitant on the issue.
HEDGES: It does point to the fact that lots of policies in Washington, D.C., don’t reflect at all what public opinion reflects. And that just–I mean, it shows that what we call a democracy is pretty hollow. But it also reflects how much power the oil and gas industry has, the coal industry. They finance all of their campaigns. They provide the talking points. Exxon Mobil is one of the original companies to fund climate change denial, which is well-reflected in the /ˈæksɛnt/ secrets database that’s up online, maintained by Greenpeace USA.
And so, you know, at large I would say that the legacy of climate change lives on and will be carried on. So the United States is–if you look at what happened in Lima, the United States is still kind of a pariah globally for how it deals with climate change. It acts as a blocker of coming to a global climate change agreement, and it’s fueled by climate change denial. So lots of people in the United States still don’t believe that climate change is real, and especially where these congressmen get elected.
And so these talking points do work. They do translate into policy, both at the national and international level. And so that’s why it’s really important, I mean, that someone like Inhofe is taking over a committee, and many others like Inhofe sitting in Congress right now.
HEDGES: For The Real News, Thomas Hedges, Washington.