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Will the GOP House halt action on climate change?

Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters.
Kevin McCarthy speaks to reporters after he was nominated by fellow Republicans to be their leader on Nov. 15. (Michael A. McCoy/Reuters)

Climate change activists and experts fear that the United States may lose its momentum on cutting climate-change-causing greenhouse gases after the new Republican-majority House of Representatives takes control in January.

But, they say, if the Biden administration can protect its signature achievement — the Inflation Reduction Act, which will spend $369 billion over 10 years on deploying electric vehicles and clean energy — and swiftly enact new regulations on pollution from fossil fuels, the United States can meet its pledge to reduce carbon emissions by at least 50% from a 2005 baseline by the end of the decade.

Republican control “very likely means we’re at the end of climate legislating for the first term of the Biden administration,” Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate policy advocacy group, told Yahoo News. “Luckily, we’ve already passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which is the most bold and vast climate investment in American history.”

In an early sign of how the incoming Republican House majority will approach climate change, Bloomberg News reported on Thursday that the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis will be eliminated. Rep. Garret Graves, the Louisiana Republican who was his party’s highest-ranking member on the committee, said Republicans will focus their energy agenda on increasing U.S. fossil fuel production and exportation.

Garret Graves and Kathy Castor.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., listens as Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, speaks during a committee meeting in June. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

This would seem to confirm the pre-election prediction of environmental activists that a Republican Congress would be uninterested in passing legislation to address the climate crisis. “I think the fact that every single Republican voted against the Inflation Reduction Act … tells you everything you need to know about where Republicans stand when it comes to climate change,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, told Yahoo News last month.

Some congressional Republicans argue that their energy policies will actually lower greenhouse gas emissions by producing and burning fossil fuels through cleaner processes than those used in other countries. They also argue that their policy agenda includes boosting clean energy sources, including nuclear power.

“You’re gonna see Republicans asking questions and pushing for practicality in responses [to climate change],” Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, who founded the 76-member Conservative Climate Caucus, told Yahoo News. “I think that it’s a mistake to feel like you have to give up our energy independence; it’s a mistake to feel like you have to give up our low, affordable [energy] prices, all just to reduce emissions. I think you can reduce emissions and still [reduce energy prices].”

Curtis also supports engineering solutions, such as removing carbon directly from the atmosphere. Last Wednesday, he and Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., introduced a bill that they said would “expand research, testing and public-private partnerships to advance carbon removal technologies.”

But many of Curtis’s GOP colleagues reject his premise that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a worthy goal, casting doubt on the chances that a Republican majority would advance such measures. According to a 2021 tally by the Center for American Progress, 109 Republicans in the House and 30 in the Senate — roughly half of the GOP caucus in each chamber — have made statements at odds with the scientific consensus that an increasing concentration of greenhouse gases is causing global warming.

John Curtis speaking behind a lectern labeled Conservative Climate Caucus.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, introduces the Conservative Climate Caucus in June 2021. (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

The party is nonetheless united when it comes to its top priority for climate and energy policy: increasing U.S. fossil fuel production and exportation. The extent to which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy — the odds-on favorite to become speaker of the House in January — included climate change or energy in the Republican 2022 congressional campaign platform consisted solely of pledging to “maximize production of reliable, cleaner, American-made energy,” without specifying how it would be done, besides shortening the permitting process for energy infrastructure.

McCarthy’s office did not reply to an inquiry from Yahoo News for this story, but other congressional Republicans are echoing his message.

“House Republicans will fight to unleash American energy production, protect our energy security so that we are not reliant on hostile foreign nations, and ensure that our energy sources are clean, affordable and reliable for American families,” Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Ariz., who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Republican caucus’s Energy, Climate, and Conservation Task Force, said in a statement. “A Republican-controlled House will advance policies that invest in clean energy and utilize all energy sources including natural gas, nuclear energy, hydrogen, solar, wind and clean coal.”

The ranking Republican on the House Energy Committee, who is in line to chair the committee when Republicans take control, is Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. She is a member of the Conservative Climate Caucus and an advocate of hydropower, which provides the majority of electricity in her home state, but her lifetime environmental voting record scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters is just 5% out of a possible 100.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers and other lawmakers at a press conference.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., at a House Republican news conference on energy policy. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

McMorris Rodgers’s office declined to make her available for an interview or to comment on the record for this story, but it noted that Republicans on the Energy Committee have introduced a number of bills to promote cleaner American energy production. Some, such as a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline, are intended to boost production of fossil fuels. But many of the bills are focused on cleaner technologies, including proposals for Department of Energy loan programs for capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants and for the creation of “green hydrogen,” a renewable fuel made from water. Retiring Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., introduced a bill to reduce emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — in the oil and gas industry, and Republicans introduced several measures to ease permitting for nuclear power plants.

With new climate laws or spending unlikely, the Biden administration is expected to focus its emissions-reduction efforts over the next two years on writing regulations that limit pollution from fossil fuels, such as forthcoming rules on carbon emissions from power plants. Congressional Republicans will not have much power to impede that, since the legal authority to regulate pollution comes from existing laws such as the Clean Air Act. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court, however, has begun to limit that authority, including in a June ruling that tossed out a more ambitious approach to regulating climate pollution first attempted during the Obama administration.

But Republicans may use control of congressional committees to try to rein in what they see as overreach by the executive branch, such as by holding hearings that may embarrass agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. In a September interview with the trade publication E&E News, McMorris Rodgers signaled her intention to do that, saying, “Where agencies are going beyond their authority, it’s very important that we hold them accountable.”

House Republicans could also, theoretically, refuse to pass budgets that include funding for the Inflation Reduction Act’s programs that are set to roll out over 10 years. “All the new subsidies that have been created as part of the reconciliation bill known as the Inflation Reduction Act — one big question is: Are [Republicans] willing to allow those all to go forward? Because if you have Republican control and a Democratic president, there’s going to be some big fights about budgeting,” James Coleman, a senior fellow who studies energy policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank, told Yahoo News.

Nancy Pelosi, surrounded by House Democrats.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after signing the Inflation Reduction Act in August. (Mariam Zuhaib/AP)

Most observers are skeptical that Republicans will want to fight that battle with just razor-thin control of one chamber of Congress. Most of the Inflation Reduction Act’s spending is on tax credits — for buying electric vehicles, electric heat pumps, solar panels and so on — and Republicans tend to be less opposed to tax credits than to direct government spending.

“We haven’t historically seen broad Republican support for repealing clean energy tax credits,” said Robbie Orvis, senior director of modeling and analysis at the think tank Energy Innovation. “If you look back over the last decade, they’ve been extended when they’ve expired, in kind of a bipartisan way.”

Biden would also likely fight hard to keep those policies — the cornerstone of his legacy on climate change — in place.

Another key Biden climate policy is likely to fall by the wayside, however: international climate finance. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference that just concluded in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, he reiterated a pledge to contribute $11.4 billion by 2024 for aid to developing nations trying to reduce their emissions and adapt to climate change. But this year, after the Biden administration requested $3.1 billion for climate assistance to developing countries, the Democratic Congress appropriated only $1 billion.

Experts say it is extremely unlikely that Republicans will agree to increase that amount. “I don’t anticipate any sort of interest or support in international climate finance,” Clarence Edwards, an environmental advocate with the nonprofit Friends Committee on National Legislation, told Climate Home News.

But Biden has said he will keep his climate promises. “I’m not going to walk away from the historic commitments we just made to take on the climate crisis,” he said at a Nov. 9 press conference. “They’re not compromisable issues to me, and I won’t let it happen.”

In that same press conference, the president said he is “prepared to work with my Republican colleagues.” And there may actually be an area ripe for bipartisan legislation in the narrowly divided House and Senate: permitting reform. The process for obtaining the necessary federal permits for building new energy infrastructure — both for fossil fuels and for clean energy projects such as offshore wind turbines and the transmission cables needed to bring their power to shore — is long and complicated. In order to win the support of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for the Inflation Reduction Act, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed to try to advance a Manchin-written bill to streamline the process. The bill failed, however, due to opposition from both Republicans and progressive Democrats worried about increased greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution from more oil and gas infrastructure.

President Biden holding a microphone.
President Biden in the State Dining Room of the White House on Nov. 9. (Susan Walsh/AP)

But congressional Republicans, including conservatives and party leaders, have expressed a desire to pass their own version of permitting reform. Curtis said that a broad, ambitious permitting-reform bill could potentially pass with bipartisan support, as it could simultaneously benefit the fossil fuel industry and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by easing the expansion of cleaner energy sources.

“I personally would like to see a really hard look at permitting,” Curtis said. “I think Republicans are stereotyped as wanting to skip all the safety and environmental regulations, and I don’t believe that’s true. I think we would like to ask for more certainty in the environmental process and a quicker timeline for answers. I don’t think those things are unreasonable and don’t mean we have to skip important environmental protections.”

He added: “Many of my Democratic colleagues would ask for permitting reform for wind and solar, but I think it’s also important to ask for, for instance, pipelines. Pipelines are gonna have to carry hydrogen around the country. Pipelines carry natural gas. We’re trucking natural gas in many scenarios right now, which is creating more greenhouse gas emissions. All of those things are important to consider in permitting reform.”

Climate activists are skeptical that a GOP-written bill along the lines of Manchin’s — which would have specifically approved the Mountain Valley Pipeline Project, a natural gas pipeline in his home state — will be environmentally friendly enough to get their support.

“Any bill that just approves the Mountain Valley Pipeline and locks in new fossil fuel production is going to be hard for any climate group to support,” said Raad of Evergreen Action. He argues that agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could reform their approach to reviewing permit applications to make it easier for clean energy projects to get built. “We have many tools at our disposal to speed up the transition to clean energy on the executive [branch] side, and in the power of the states, that we should use first. I’m doubtful that Republicans are going to find a solution to this problem that doesn’t exacerbate the production of fossil fuels.”

Fundamentally, most climate activists and experts — and their Democratic allies in Congress — disagree with Republicans that fossil fuel production should be increased, and that dispute will likely make any major climate legislation unlikely in the next Congress.

“We need to put the era of fossil fuels to a close,” Raad said.