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What Does A GOP Majority Mean For Environmental Policy?


What does Republican control of the Senate mean for environmental policy? Well, we get a sense of that from the GOP senator who's in line to chair the Environment and Public Works committee, Oklahoma's James Inhofe. He has called man-made catastrophic global warming a hoax - he wrote a whole book about that - and he's compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo. Coral Davenport covers environmental policy for The New York Times.

Coral, thanks for coming in.

CORAL DAVENPORT: Great to be with you, Melissa.

BLOCK: I want to talk to you about a couple of issues that Republicans have raised over the last couple of days in interviews with us as their top priorities. The first thing that they mention is approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from the Canadian tar sands to U.S. refineries. Pres. Obama was asked about that yesterday, would you sign that bill? He said he was going to let the process play out, but if he were to veto approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, does Congress now have the votes to override that?

DAVENPORT: Congress doesn't have the votes to override a presidential veto but the question is, would he veto it? The president, on this issue of the Keystone pipeline, has never said one way or the other which way he would go and you know, in the White House a lot of the president's advisers when they look at climate change policy, they say Keystone is small potatoes. The really big issue that they care about are Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal plants - big, serious climate change policy. Again though, I should say, the president and Secretary of State John Kerry have never said which way they would actually go on the Keystone pipeline.

BLOCK: You referred to something that's another huge issue for Republicans and those are new EPA regulations to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. What's the status there?

DAVENPORT: So these regulations are huge. Pres. Obama has proposed two major EPA regulations - historic EPA regulations - that combined would force existing coal-fired power plants to cut carbon pollution - that's the number one source of greenhouse gas planet warming pollution and would also essentially freeze the construction of new coal-fired power plants. Combined, when these regulations are put into place, they could in fact be what Republicans call a war on coal. They could shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and ensure that new ones aren't built. Those are target number one for the Republican majority in the Senate, especially the new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky is a major producer of coal.

BLOCK: What could a Republican-controlled Congress do about those EPA regulations?

DAVENPORT: So it seems very likely that Mitch McConnell will push forward a lot of bills or resolutions that would block or delay or slow down those EPA power plant regulations. There's no question that they will be met with a presidential veto. What he'll probably do is continue to elevate the issue of these regulations to politicize them. Right now it does not look like this Congress could actually stop them, except in one way, which is through spending. It does look like, you know, this Congress can pass spending bills that will cut money for enforcement of the regulations so the regulations might still be in place but the EPA wouldn't have the funding, wouldn't have the personnel that it needs to actually enforce them.

BLOCK: Coral, as Pres. Obama thinks about shaping his own legacy in these last two years, where does the environment - where does climate change fit in?

DAVENPORT: The president sees climate change as an absolute cornerstone of his legacy. One reason is that he's been able to move forward on these historic regulations without Congress. The president is going out into the world, he's going to China next week, meeting with top Chinese officials to say, you know, for the first time ever - and this is accurate, this is the strongest action ever taken by any U.S. president on climate change. It's concrete. The president was willing to take a lot of political heat for putting forth these regulations so he hopes that these regulations will both be enacted and then also for the first time, give the United States leverage to forge an international deal of some kind on climate change. So absolutely, the White House sees this as a major legacy issue and one that can be enacted without Congress.

BLOCK: Coral Davenport covers environmental policy for The New York Times.

Coral, thanks so much.

DAVENPORT: Sure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.