The Year Ahead: Dems under pressure to deliver on green agenda

Source: By By Miranda Green and Timothy Cama, The Hill • Posted: Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Democrats have big plans on energy and environmental policy in the year ahead when they take control of the House.

After eight years in the minority, House Democrats aim to push back on Trump administration efforts to roll back regulations and to put officials under greater oversight. They are also facing intense pressure from progressive groups to embrace an ambitious green agenda.

But Republicans still control the Senate, and Trump administration officials are also working on a new round of deregulation at federal agencies, setting the stage for a number of high profile clashes.

Here’s what to watch in the year ahead on energy and environmental issues.

Climate action

Lawmakers will be under a microscope regarding climate change in 2019 after a slew of recent reports that forecast dire effects from rising temperatures.

House Democrats will face the most pressure to act as new members demand leaders take more decisive action to correct the effects of climate change.

A group of nearly two-dozen House members and incoming lawmakers led by Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) are already backing the idea of a new select committee charged with promoting what they’ve dubbed a Green New Deal.

The committee they hope to establish would aim to get the country running on a 100 percent renewable energy electric grid, among other goals.

But that committee could clash with others, such Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources, and Science. Top Democrats set to take the gavels on those panels are already pushing back.

Talk of a carbon tax is also heating up. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers in November unveiled a historic carbon tax bill, a proposal that would gradually ramp up fees on carbon dioxide emissions. Expect more debate in the year to come.

EPA regulations

The Trump administration has been taking big steps over the last two years to undo major Obama administration regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and those efforts are on track to kick into high gear in 2019.

The EPA is planning to roll out final versions of three major deregulatory actions: replacing the Clean Power Plan with a weaker regulation on carbon emissions from power plants, replacing the Obama administration’s auto efficiency and emissions rule with a less stringent version, and rolling back major parts of the Obama administration’s methane pollution rule for oil and natural gas drillers.

Each of the rules was a major part of former President Obama’s climate change agenda, and each rollback is likely to be a big victory for the industries impacted.

And they’re coming amid major new reports from bodies like the United Nations and the federal government showing that aggressive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to avoid catastrophic effects from climate change.

“At a time when our government should be strengthening those safeguards, Trump’s officials are dedicated to weakening them,” Ben Longstreth, a senior climate change attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Fund, wrote in October, when the public comment period for the power plant and auto rules closed.

Another major rollback of Obama’s Waters of the United States rule is expected as early as this week, and officials are planning to make it final in 2019.

The Interior Department is busy too. Officials are working on finalizing a trio of rules to overhaul how the Fish and Wildlife Service determines how to protect endangered and threatened species.

But once the rollbacks are made final, the fight won’t end. Green groups and Democratic states have promised to sue the administration in federal court and to try to stop the rollbacks from taking effect. Those suits will take months, if not years, to work through the court system, and could be appealed up to the Supreme Court.

Tougher oversight of the administration

After taking the House majority, Democrats believe they have a mandate from voters to conduct aggressive oversight of the Trump administration, with environmental policy being a critical part.

Incoming Democratic committee chairs will have the power to call hearings, set agendas and even compel administration officials to testify or produce records if they want.

That is likely to be most pronounced for the Interior Department and the EPA.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the likely next chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has said he’ll be aggressive in his oversight of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He intends to focus on the national monument rollbacks, Zinke’s ethics allegations and proposals to drill for oil and natural gas offshore.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), slated to chair the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is also vowing to scrutinize acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Expect Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), likely to lead the panel’s Environment Subcommittee, to take a prominent role in that oversight.

Wheeler confirmation hearings

Trump announced in November that he intends to nominate Wheeler to formally take over the EPA.

But with time running out in December, Wheeler’s confirmation process is nearly certain to be pushed to 2019.

“It doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen in the next two weeks,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters last week about a confirmation hearing.

Trump still needs to formally nominate Wheeler by sending paperwork to the Senate.

Barrasso’s committee would then have to schedule a hearing with Wheeler and a committee vote before sending him to the full Senate for a vote.

The GOP will have 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats in 2019, and nominees only need 51, so Wheeler’s confirmation is almost guaranteed.

Wheeler, who was previously a lobbyist for coal mining company Murray Energy Corp. and other energy firms, has already gone through Senate confirmation once. In April, the upper chamber approved him nearly along party lines to be the deputy administrator at the EPA.

But when former Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned in July under a pile of ethics and spending scandals, Wheeler was automatically elevated to be acting administrator.

Democrats and environmentalists pulled out the stops against both Wheeler and Pruitt’s confirmations and can be expected to voice their opposition again. Dems cited their ties to fossil fuels and other industries regulated by the EPA and their role easing regulations.

House Democrats are looking to push the Trump administration and other institutions to embrace science and avoid what they see as skepticism of research on issues such as climate change.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the likely incoming chairwoman of the House Science Committee and a nurse, would be the first woman with a science degree to have the panel’s gavel since 1990.

She’s likely to herald a shift in the panel’s work from its current chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

As chairman, Smith introduced controversial bills such as the Secret Science Reform Act, which supporters said would make agencies more transparent about how they use science. Critics said it would restrict the scientific studies the government could use.