The limited at best prospects for major climate legislation under a divided Congress has left many environmental advocacy groups hoping to amp up pressure on the Biden administration to advance regulations that are more protective of the environment.
While there are some legislative climate issues to watch with a GOP House and Democratic Senate, activists say the best chance at progress has shifted to steps that might be taken administratively.
“We do not see Congress as the avenue for major progress in the next 12 months and we think there’s a lot more ground we can cover in implementation, executive action and states,” Holly Burke, a spokesperson for the environmental group Evergreen Action, told The Hill.
“We will keep our eye on the ball with regards to Congress, but we’re not going to invest most of our time there,” she added.
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Democrats and Republicans are bitterly divided on climate change, with the GOP voting unanimously against the sweeping legislation known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which represented the biggest steps taken by a U.S. Congress on the issue.
Advocates would have sought to build on that win with a Democratic Senate and House, but now see regulation and implementation of that climate and tax bill as their next frontiers.
“I don’t want to take our foot off the gas on Congress in terms of making sure we continue to make the modest progress that’s possible again through appropriations [and] through the farm bill, but in terms of the main focus of what the Sierra Club is looking to advance the climate agenda, it’s absolutely [Inflation Reduction Act] implementation, which goes hand-in-hand with executive action,” said Melinda Pierce, the Sierra Club’s legislative director.
“I’m hoping we see quite a bit from the Biden administration on administrative rules that have been slowly progressing,” she added. “I think we’re going to see a whole bunch come to fruition at the end of this year and certainly next year.”
Major regulations that the Biden administration is expected to advance are pollution and climate standards for power plants and heavy-duty vehicles, as well as limits for how much soot and smog can be in the air.
Pierce said that air quality regulations like these are “critically important” to her organization.
Burke said her organization would particularly pay attention to a set of regulations that pertain to the power sector since decarbonizing that area is key to bringing down emissions for the entire economy.
In terms of implementing the Inflation Reduction Act, Pierce said she’d be watching how federal agencies handle the scale and speed of its investments as well as making sure that states take full advantage of the bill.
Energy industry advisers say they will maintain a focus on Congress, especially with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) seeking to advance permitting reform legislation.
Manchin’s package is aimed at speeding up the approval process for energy projects, including both fossil fuels and renewable energy.
His efforts have been backed by Democratic leaders as part of a deal to get him to support the sweeping climate bill, and Manchin has been working to convince Republicans to get on board.
Several have indicated that they are interested in working with him, though it’s an issue that has a good chance of spilling into the next year from the lame-duck session.
“The slim margin, along with Republicans controlling the agenda in the House, I think, creates a better environment because they’ve had a more consistent position with Sen. Manchin already,” said Frank Maisano, who represents both fossil and renewable energy clients at Bracewell LLP.
“There’s a real opportunity to form consensus on something like permitting reform that is a must if you’re going to have a rapid and just energy transition,” Maisano said.
He added that a recent court decision that limited the scope of the EPA’s authority over power plant regulations “creates more impetus to go back and have Congress pick up the ball and run with it.”
Environmental organizations are also expected to track the permitting fight. Many have expressed opposition because of the potential to bolster pipelines and other fossil fuel infrastructure.
Neil Chatterjee, a senior adviser at Hogan Lovells, said that the congressional makeup can yield significant bipartisan legislation that may be “wonkier.”
He suggested that community-based solar energy, energy efficiency measures, energy storage, electricity transmission and a carbon border tax are the sorts of policies he could see a bipartisan Congress getting behind.
“I actually think in the next couple of years we could see the emergence of substantive lobbying again and not so much the political message lobbying that has really dominated the landscape,” said Chatterjee, who is the former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and also a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“I really think you might see a return of the technical experts,” he added.