Republican wins to hurt Obama's clean-energy plans

Election results cast a pall over the president's hopes of signing a bill anytime soon to cut carbon emissions and over alternative-energy technologies that require subsidies.

3 min read

Big Republican wins in yesterday's election will not only kill chances that the U.S. Congress will pass a broad climate bill during President Barack Obama's first term, but may also hurt his strategy of winning even scaled-back energy legislation.

Republicans, who had slammed any attempt to put a price on carbon emissions as an "energy tax," won control of the House of Representatives and picked up seats in the Senate.

Despite predictions by U.S. scientists that 2010 could be the warmest year on record, Obama's hopes of signing a bill any time soon to cut emissions from coal-fired plants, manufacturers, and vehicles have been all but been destroyed.

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Losses in the Congress were countered by wins by Democrats in the governors' races in Massachusetts and California, which may give regional programs to cut emissions a boost.

But Obama's hopes to tackle national energy policy bit by bit after the Senate removed climate measures from the energy bill in July may also be threatened by losses in Congress.

"It might be tough to get typical energy legislation passed in the next year or two," said Manik Roy, a government outreach expert at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Victories by Tea Party-backed Republicans in the Senate such as Marco Rubio in Florida, who questions whether global warming is caused by mankind, and Rand Paul in Kentucky could lead to the risk of deadlock on slimmed-down energy bills.

"The central Tea Party message is about reducing government spending, and providing huge subsidies for carbon capture and sequestration or nuclear power in an energy bill is not consistent with that," Roy said.

Technologies that could require subsidies include nuclear power, which has been on the verge of a comeback, and capturing carbon at power plants for burial underground and alternative energy sources like wind and solar which are new.

"Any high-cost source is going face greater resistance, including nuclear," said Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners.

In the House, many members lost partially because they had supported climate policy. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia coal country who came under fire for voting for the chamber's climate bill in 2009, lost to Republican Morgan Griffith. Fellow Virginian Democrat Tom Perriello lost to Republican Robert Hurt.

In the Senate, Republicans were on the way to gaining four seats, making it tough for John Kerry, the chief proponent of passing climate change legislation, to get the job done.

Majority Leader Harry Reid faced a tough race versus Sharron Angle, the Tea Party-backed candidate who has called global warming a "hoax."

Even a surprise victory for Democrats in the Senate gave little hope of life for climate legislation. Democrat Joe Manchin won a tight race in coal country West Virginia. But Manchin, the state's governor, aired an ad during the campaign featuring him shooting the cap-and-trade bill with a rifle.

In California, Democrat Jerry Brown won the governorship, Fox news projected. He was seen as a stronger supporter of climate and alternative energy than Meg Whitman, who had called for a timeout of the state's ambitious emissions reduction law.

In addition, polls showed that California voters would vote against Proposition 23, which would have put a hold on the state's cap-and-trade law until the unemployment rate, now over 12 percent, fell to 5.5 percent for four quarters.

Democrat Deval Patrick won the Massachusetts governorship, which calmed worries that the election could hurt the country's only functioning cap-and-trade market, run by 10 states in the Northeast.

In addition, Democrat Andrew Cuomo won the governor's race in New York, where the program was founded.

"There's a big opportunity for states with governors who understand that clean energy investment can create jobs and spur long-term growth," said Daniel Weiss, the head of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Congress, on the other hand, may have to settle with progress on technologies that are not costly, such as renewable energy standards, energy efficiency standards, and a bank that would give loans to developers of solar, wind and geothermal power.

"There's a possibility to move forward with relatively little expenditure if the new leadership is willing to cooperate," Weiss said.