The focus on climate in Monday's Inaugural Speech surprised—and pleased—environmental groups. But it could also set up a tougher hearing, said Andrew Wheeler, a former Republican staff director and chief counsel for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“During the campaign, President Obama tried to appeal to the coal states. He never once mentioned climate change. He tried at one point to even go to the right of Mitt Romney on coal issues. He didn’t mention climate change until the night of the election after he won. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned climate change and then he mentioned it again this week.... I think that’s going to generate a lot of questions and concerns from members, not just Republicans, but also moderate Democrats,” Wheeler said. Especially vulnerable are the six Democratic senators from red states who will face tough reelection battles in 2014.
What’s more, Wheeler said, now that Obama is in his second term, there won’t be the typical deference given to a new president’s Cabinet selections.
Confirmation hearings are a good place for the minority to be heard on administration goals. “You’ll get good press out of it and, quite frankly, you might not have the administrator come back up to the Hill until the following year,” said David Banks, a former deputy staff director for Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But even if the EPA confirmation fight is nasty, it probably would not deter Obama from implementing his second-term climate agenda. Under the Clean Air Act, EPA has a legal duty to issue regulations limiting power-plant carbon emissions, said Conrad Schneider, advocacy director at the Clean Air Task Force, which recently sent an open letter to Obama outlining its recommendations for addressing climate change over the next four years. CATF also believes that EPA failed to do its duty with respect to regulating emissions of methane from the oil and gas industry during Obama’s first term. “Since those are statutory duties, it really doesn’t matter who is at the head of the agency. Those duties exist if the nominee is confirmed quickly and those duties exist if the nominee’s confirmation process drags out,” he said.
So consider the confirmation hearings a preview of the bigger fight on climate change in Congress over the next four years. Republicans may try to block the new regulations. Obama may try to get another climate bill through Congress. Legislation, environmental groups say, is the best way for Obama to secure the climate-change legacy he wants in the long run.