Suddenly, President Bush's proposals to drill for oil in an Alaskan wilderness, boost energy exploration in the Rockies and consider changes to some major environmental laws are back in play, following the Republicans' resounding success in the Nov. 5 congressional elections.
Nothing illustrates the shift in environmental politics more vividly than the leadership changes about to occur on two key Senate committees. The environment committee's chairmanship is switching from James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), a hero to many environmentalists, to James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of their least-liked lawmakers.
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, will be headed by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who supports drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The question of whether to drill in ANWR holds almost iconic status for conservatives and conservationists alike, and Democrats no longer have the Senate or White House control that helped them hold off the proposal for years.
Domenici says he plans to vigorously promote energy exploration on federal lands -- including ANWR -- after he replaces Democrat Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) as committee chairman. "Absolutely," Domenici said in a recent interview, "ANWR's got to be looked at." A senior Domenici aide went further, saying, "Any new energy bill would include ANWR."
Diemer True, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents 8,000 producers, said: "Clearly a Republican majority in the Senate will be more focused on domestic energy production, and we think that bodes well for domestic oil and gas producers."
Energy exploration isn't the only issue the new Republican-controlled Congress will revisit. GOP leaders say they will challenge or review a handful of key environmental laws that govern power-plant emissions, water quality, endangered species, mining and other subjects. Those laws sometimes pose unnecessary impediments to production, Bush administration officials have said.
The administration has tried to win many of these changes in the past 18 months through regulatory reform, executive orders and legislation. But it encountered stiff resistance from the Democratic-controlled Senate and from environmentalists who went to court to block drilling, mining and logging on government land.
With many moderate Republicans sympathetic to green causes, few expect a repeat of the assault on bedrock environmental laws waged by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and House Republicans in 1995, which triggered a voter backlash and contributed to Gingrich's political demise. Instead, Democrats and environmentalists say, the changes are likely to be achieved in more subtle ways, through riders to spending bills and tweaking of budgets for enforcing environmental regulations.
"The real question for the Republicans and the White House is will they overplay their hand again?" said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
Administration officials say a renewed effort to adopt the president's energy and environmental proposals is necessary to meet energy needs and to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil -- arguments that could become a rallying cry if the United States goes to war with Iraq. The House last year approved a version of the president's plan that included $33.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives aimed at increasing oil and gas exploration, developing new coal-burning technologies and promoting nuclear energy and alternative energy sources.
"The president remains committed to working with Congress to pass a comprehensive energy plan that expands conservation, increases energy efficiency and encourages more domestic exploration and production, in an environmentally responsible way," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
But environmentalists and Democrats fear that with the Senate no longer an automatic brake on administration initiatives, officials will press for revisions to the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and other landmark laws.
"I think the big picture is that we'll have a huge fight on our hands to protect everything we've achieved in the past 30 years," said Gregory Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned Republicans that "anyone who wants to appeal to the public is going to have to stick to the mainstream on the environment."
One of the most dramatic signs of the new order is Inhofe's replacement of Jeffords as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Jeffords, whose defection from the GOP enabled Democrats to claim control of the Senate 17 months ago, has been a staunch ally of environmentalists and sharp critic of Bush's policies. Inhofe is a conservative and vigorous critic of the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws.
Inhofe, 67, a former real estate developer, has frequently accused the Environmental Protection Agency of exceeding its powers in regulating industry. Last week he said he will press government agencies to apply cost-benefit standards and "sound science" to proposed environmental rule making, an approach strongly favored by the White House budget office and libertarian groups that favor reducing government regulations. He also pledged to provide "strong oversight" and review of the enforcement of clean air laws and other environmental measures. Some environmentalists see that as code for seeking to weaken or gut the laws.
Inhofe said: "I want to work in a bipartisan fashion to create fiscally responsible policies that are based on sound science and cost-benefit analyses.
Meanwhile, Domenici intends to increase spending on nuclear energy facilities, according to aides. New Mexico is home to the Department of Energy's Los Alamos and Sandia National laboratories. Domenici is a champion of nuclear energy research and production.
Domenici, 70, also would like to restrict environmentalists' ability to go to court to block mining, drilling, logging and grazing on federal lands, saying those decisions should be left to Congress and federal agencies. He said in an interview he will launch a comprehensive review of government management practices of "the entire public domain," with an eye to seeking management changes. "I'm concerned about how those who don't like the laws of our land find loopholes and other ways to get the land into court because they want their way," Domenici said.
With so much on next year's congressional agenda -- from transportation, power-plant emissions, global warming and forest fire management to Superfund toxic site cleanups -- significant environmental policy changes appear inevitable.
The Nov. 5 elections netted at least two new Senate votes for oil and gas drilling in Alaska. The House, but not the Senate, voted this year to allow drilling in ANWR. Republicans concede they are still short of the 60-vote majority needed to break a Democratic-led filibuster against the drilling proposal. Several senators, including Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), have indicated a filibuster is likely to block what they say would be irreparable harm to a unique wilderness area.
2002 The Washington Post Company