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Post-Sandy and Post-Election, Will Political Taboo on Climate Change Be Lifted?

Green groups wasted no time announcing a protest in front of the White House to claim a mandate for action, but partisan gridlock remains.

Nov 7, 2012
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President Obama after his re-election on Tuesday night.

Eric Pooley, senior vice president for strategy and communications for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said his group already plans to push the federal and state governments to look beyond carbon and address "climate accelerants" like methane and refrigerants. On methane, Pooley said, that means addressing potential leakage from natural gas extraction.

"There are no laws on the books, federal or state, targeted at methane leakage," Pooley said. "We have the technology to stop these leaks, but we haven't really measured the leakage rate. We think there's a place for federal and state regulation on this."

EDF has been criticized by some green groups for supporting hydraulic fracturing, the controversial gas extraction method, albeit with restrictions. But Pooley said it's important to use natural gas as a bridge fuel and to ensure that the extraction is as safe and clean as possible, which requires federal leadership. The EPA is studying fracking, but it's unclear if any regulation will come out of that research.

Like most of Washington, environmental groups will be watching how Obama deals with Congress on the approaching fiscal cliff. If a budget deal isn't reached to reduce the national debt, across-the-board cuts through the budgetary sequester could go into effect in January with potentially dire consequences for the environment, they say.

The sequester could mean the closure of some National Parks, the elimination of some National Wildlife Refuges and cuts to coastal management programs, according to a fact sheet assembled by NRDC, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the National Parks Conservation Association. The budget trimming could also mean cuts to EPA research and air monitoring programs, reductions in clean water infrastructure and cuts to energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

"The environmental community has a lot at stake … Sequestration could cripple environmental programs now and into the future," said NRDC Action's Goldston.

Goldston said a deal should include raising money by cutting subsidies for, "industries that are mature, wealthy and produce pollutants."

Environmental groups say the Democrats' slightly expanded majority in the Senate offers some hope for extending the wind production tax credit for renewable energy. They predict the industry will face layoffs and other setbacks if the credit is allowed to expire at the end of the year.

"These are proven, bipartisan job-creating tax measures that are up for extension or renewal. We're putting a lot of effort to getting Congress to meet the president on those issues," said David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which represents a variety of labor and environmental groups. "Voters, I think, did say resounding say yes to the president's clean energy job strategy and I hope Republicans listen to that."

The EDF's Pooley said the administration should at least start a conversation about instituting a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.

"Ultimately if you're serious about cutting carbon emissions, you've got to price it," Pooley said. "We're a long way from having this debate, let alone understanding what legislation would look like. But there needs to be a conversation about solutions, and not just a list of demands from the environmental community."

The NRDC's Goldston said the environmental community will be pressuring the administration to act on this and other environmental issues, starting today.

"We will be making sure the administration knows that the public wants more action on climate change," Goldston says. "That's going to be important for whatever battles follow."

Environmental Groups Celebrate Election Wins

Environmental groups have been encouraged by the results of some House, Senate and statewide races. Citizens Determined to Elect Clean Energy Champions, which is led by a coalition including climate scientist and activist Bill McKibben, assembled a list of 14 "climate heroes" who had backed clean energy in the past. Eleven of those candidates won, and one race was too close to call at the time of this posting.

The victors include Democratic Senate candidates Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Martin Heinrich (New Mexico), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts). House candidates Julia Brownley (California), Ami Bera (California), Lois Capps (California), John Delaney (Maryland), Fran Pavley (California) and Carol Shea-Porter (New Hampshire) also won.

In the undecided race, Jay Inslee leads in the tight race for Washington governor, but challenger Rob McKenna had not conceded as of Wednesday afternoon.

The League of Conservation Voters saw impressive results in its "dirty dozen" campaign to remove 12 national candidates they said had consistently voted against clean energy and conservation. Eleven of those candidates, including Mitt Romney, were defeated.

Among the defeated were Republican Senate contenders Dennis Rehberg (Montana), George Allen (Virginia), Josh Mandel (Ohio), Heather Wilson (New Mexico) and Linda McMahon (Connecticut). Joining them were House candidates Tim Holden (Pennsylvania), Joe Walsh (Illinois), Francisco Canseco (Texas), Dan Lungren (California) and Ann Marie Buerkle (New York).

Buerkle, Lungren, Canseco and Walsh were also on LCV's "Flat Earth Five" list of Congressional members that have denied climate change. One member on the list—Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek—held onto his seat.

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