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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

108th Congress Begins

Air Date: Week of

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The agenda is starting to take shape for the 108th U.S. Congress. Host Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth’s Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum, about how the environment fits in.



CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

CHENEY: Senate will come to order please.


CURWOOD: The first session of the 108th Senate being gaveled to order by Vice President Dick Cheney. And for the first time since the Eisenhower administration the Republican party controls the Senate and the House and the White House, as well. This lineup pleases many in the private sector and worries those advocacy groups who favor greater government involvement in managing the nation’s resources. Joining me is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent, Anna Solomon-Greenbaum.

Anna, what about the environmental agenda for the new Congress? What’s at the top of the list?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: One of the first things I think we’re going to see, Steve, is another attempt at a comprehensive energy bill. This has been a priority for the Bush administration and I think Republicans in the Senate want to show that they can do this more quickly and more efficiently than Democrats did in the last Senate.

I think what we’re going to see is a bill that looks more like the one that came out of the house. This means we’re going to see more tax incentives and other subsidies for industry. Some of that will go toward alternative energies like solar and wind power, but most of it’s going to go into the oil and gas sectors.

Also, we might see more for nuclear. The chairman of the energy committee, Pete Domenici from New Mexico, has strong allies in the nuclear industry. I think we can also expect to see Domenici push to get more public lands opened up for energy development and he might use some of the same tactics the Bush administration has been using. He might look at exempting, for instance, certain energy projects from environmental review.

But in terms of the big picture and how this bill is going to differ from the one last year, I think we’re going to see a focus on less regulation and more production. Industry, of course, is happy about this.

I talked with Bill Kovacs. He’s the vice president of Environment and Energy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This is what he said:

KOVACS: The Democrats want to mandate everything. They want to mandate wind power. They want to mandate the use of smaller cars. And they want to prohibit future production of domestic oil and other energy supplies. The Republicans are much more free market. They’re saying the oil is there, the oil that’s in Alaska can replace the oil from Iraq and that we want to give consumers a choice.

CURWOOD: Anna, Mr. Kovacs from the Chamber of Commerce mentioned oil in Alaska and by that I assume he means drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Also, his reference to smaller cars, I take it to mean he’s talking about the debate over raising fuel efficiency standards. Both of these issues were points of gridlock in the last session. How do you see that changing now?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I think there’s going to be the same probably amount of gridlock on both of those issues. They’re both going to come up again. ANWR is still a major point of pressure for the GOP. This would be a huge victory for President Bush. The problem is the Senate is still very tightly divided and I think it’s unlikely Republicans could break a filibuster that’s been promised by Democrats like John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, both of whom are going to be running for President in 2004.

What we might see, though, is Republicans actually attaching a provision to drill in ANWR to the Budget Reconciliation Bill. And what this would mean is that no filibuster would be allowed. It would just be a straight up or down majority vote. But whether the GOP has the votes even for that isn’t clear at this point. This is an issue where lawmakers have crossed partisan lines in the past, as we’ve seen, and I don’t think we can rule that out now.

But as far as fuel efficiency goes, I think we’re not going to see much movement on that, especially since the Bush administration recently announced small increases for light trucks and SUVs. I think that’s going to make it easier for GOP lawmakers to resist calls for tightening those standards even further.

CURWOOD: Anna, now there is one Republican who stepped out supporting tougher fuel efficiency standards. In fact, he co-sponsored legislation that environmentalists have been supporting. I’m talking about Senator John McCain, of course, from Arizona. Now, how likely is it that he’s going to push this issue this time around?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: McCain says he is going to introduce legislation on the fuel efficiency standards. Probably he’ll do that with John Kerry again like he did last year. And he’s also stepping out from his party on another environmental issue. This is the climate change bill that he’s introducing with Joe Lieberman.

This is a bill that would require U.S. industry to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide and it would also put a trading scheme in place to help with some of the costs. Of course, this is really a direct challenge to the Bush administration which has come out with its own climate change plan. And this is what Senator McCain had to say about that plan at a recent press conference:

MCCAIN: It simply doesn’t do very much except study the issue for another four or five years before any significant action is taken. And I think we certainly need further study but we can’t wait until further study is completed before we take action.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve, regulating carbon dioxide is something we saw Jim Jeffords trying to do in the last session. He wasn’t successful, you’ll remember, and the odds really aren’t much better for McCain now. But it’s significant nonetheless because what he’s doing is really putting pressure on his party and on the administration and he’s making it a big priority. I think it says a lot that he held the very first hearing of the Commerce Committee on this issue.

CURWOOD: So, Anna, what do you think will actually happen on climate change in this Congress?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, one thing that’s interesting that could have an impact on it, even if it’s not directly aimed at dealing with climate change, is the transportation bill. This is a bill that’s re-authorized every few years in Congress. It sets out how much funding there is going to be for transportation and where it will go. And the last vast majority of the current bill goes into the road and highway system. A smaller portion of it goes into public transit, for instance. And environmental groups are going to be fighting to change that ratio this year.

There’s another environmental issue that’s going to come up. Both the administration and some Republicans in Congress want to, quote, streamline environmental reviews of transportation projects to get those projects moving faster. Environmentalists say that project delays usually aren’t due to environmental reviews. They see the approach that Republicans are taking being more like steamrolling than streamlining.

This is Deren Lovaas. He’s with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

LOVAAS: Especially when we’re talking about highway construction projects, these are big projects, they’re big investments, and they’re going to be hardwired into our communities and the environment for a long time. So, we should consider carefully what the alternatives are and what the impacts are.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Steve, one point to make here. On everything we’ve been talking about, from energy to transportation, a big difference this year is going to be a much tighter budget. And so, no one is really going to get everything they want, so money really may end up dictating what happens here as much as partisan politics and the rhetoric.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum is Living on Earth’s Washington correspondent. Thanks Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: You’re welcome, Steve.



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