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

Will Congress Go Green?

Air Date: Week of

Darren Samuelsohn is Senior Reporter on Energy and the Environment at the environmental news service, Greenwire. (Photo: E&E Daily/Greenwire)

As Democrats take the reins in both houses of Congress, the outlook for the environment may be a bit brighter than in recent years. Darren Samuelsohn, an environment reporter for the online news service Greenwire, joins host Bruce Gellerman to talk about what to expect on the environmental agenda in the 110th Congress.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. It’s official. The 110th Congress is now in session and the first woman speaker in history will preside.

ANNOUNCER: Therefore the Hon. Nancy Pelosi of the state of California is duly elected Speaker of the House of Representatives having received the majority of the votes cast.


GELLERMAN: Democrat Pelosi was quick to chart a change of course for Congress far different from the agenda the Republicans had set. Pelosi emphasized environmental issues will be fundamental to her vision of a new America.

PELOSI: A new America that declares our energy independence promotes domestic sources of renewable energy and combats climate change.

GELLERMAN: So, now the Democrats have control of both houses of Congress, and George W. Bush is a lameduck president. What happens now? Can the Democrats pull off their ambitious environmental agenda? Darren Samuelsohn is senior reporter on energy and the environment at Greenwire, an online daily news service, and he joins us to discuss what’s in the works as lawmakers get down to business.

Darren, Welcome to Living on Earth.

SAMUELSOHN: Nice to be here.

GELLERMAN: Both houses of Congress are going to be in the hands of the Democrats. What do you see as the Democrat’s top 3 environmental priorities in 2007?

SAMUELSOHN: There’s probably a whole host of things they want to take on but I would say you would put energy independence and renewable energy at the top of their list. They want to shift the focus financially in terms of what the federal government has been spending from oil and gas industries to stimulating solar and wind, renewable energy resources. I think climate change is one of their top priorities. It’s one of the bigger heavier lifts that they’ll pick up. And then oversight of the Bush administration is something that will probably be the easiest thing for them to do. They can hold hearings in the House and the Senate looking at everything for the last six years, maybe focusing more on what’s happened in the last year or two. We’re talking about air pollution policies, water pollution policies, endangered species policies, fire policies. The whole gamut I think is on the table.

Darren Samuelsohn is Senior Reporter on Energy and the Environment at the environmental news service, Greenwire.(Photo: E&E Daily/Greenwire)

GELLERMAN: You know philosophically they couldn’t be more different from the Republican Party. But do you think anything will actually change?

SAMUELSOHN: Uh, certainly the ability to give the public more of an opportunity to look into these items is something. With Republicans in control for four of Bush’s six years in office really a lot of the things that have happened on the regulatory front out of the agencies have not been closely scrutinized. At least on an oversight level it’s a 180 difference from last year.

GELLERMAN: Of course the new head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is Jeff Bingaman who is a Democrat from New Mexico and he replaces Republican Pete Domenici Republican from New Mexico. What is going to be the difference in terms of their energy visions?

SAMUELSOHN: They are very similar people when it comes to philosophical legislative approaches. They’re both very methodical senators. The difference will come in how much attention Senator Bingaman puts on renewables as opposed to Senator Domenici who when he pushed through the energy bill that President Bush signed in 2005, it was a lot of people said heavy for the oil and gas industries; lots of subsidies for them, lots of tax breaks for them. With Senator Bingaman I think you have definitely an opportunity to move legislation with renewables in mind. Then on top of that Senator Bingaman does have a different perspective on climate change. Senator Bingaman spent the last two years in the minority trying to convince Senator Domenici to come on board in limiting green house gas emissions in the United States. He was unsuccessful. Domenici is kind of flirting with that. So Bingaman has a different take on regulating green house gas emissions.

GELLERMAN: Both are big advocates of nuclear energy. New Mexico is the site of the new nuclear enrichment facility. What do we see in terms of nuclear energy?

SAMUELSOHN: Despite what Domenici and Bingaman have to say about nuclear power the head of the Senate now will be Harry Reid from neighboring state Nevada. And Harry Reid is an opponent of Yucca Mountain and the waste repository the Bush Administration and the energy department want to put there. So there’s going to be an interesting clash between the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the two New Mexicans are in charge of and the leader of the Senate Democrats, Harry Reid.

GELLERMAN: So, without cracking the Yucca Mountain the future of nuclear energy in this country is dead on arrival?

SAMUELSOHN: Uh, certainly from an industry perspective I think that they’re going to still keep working toward trying to construct, trying to permit new plants. If you talk to people who worked on that energy law in 2005, they’re highly excited about the fact that there are all of these permits now moving through the process. Those are going to move forward and of course the energy department will keep doing what it’s doing. And President Bush will keep as a proponent of nuclear. So, no I don’t think that it’s dead on arrival.

GELLERMAN: What are the chances that we’ll actually see a new climate bill in Congress?

SAMUELSOHN: I have been tracking this closely. I just pulled out my list of new senators the other day to try and figure out where the senators are on this. And it looks like there are enough senators in this Congress that could pass something with global warming in mind with limits on green house gas emissions. It might not be as strong as environmentalists want. It might not be what scientists say is necessary at this point. But it would be a first step for the United States that it hasn’t taken. Is it going to happen in the next two years? I mean you have to overcome President Bush and his opposition. And you have to overcome even in the House with Democrats in control the new leader of the Energy and Commerce Committee is from an auto state, John Dingell. I think a lot of people think 2009, 2010 once President Bush is out office are the big years for actually seeing something signed into law.

GELLERMAN: You know what, Darren, you sound very confident and sure about your predictions and um, how big a deal are environmental issues for this Congress, do you think?

SAMUELSOHN: I think they’re going to be a little bit more on the front of the Democrats minds compared with the Republicans. That’s just from my years of covering Capitol Hill. It’s been six years, Republicans have been in control for four of those six and you saw often times that there were hearings when the Bush Administration wanted them. With this Congress I have a strong sense with Barbara Boxer particularly in control of that Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, she’s going to let no stone go unturned. I mean every single EPA decision that came out in December within weeks of the election, she wasn’t even sworn in yet as the new chair of the environment committee. She was holding press conferences announcing, you know, plans for oversight hearings on every single thing that EPA came out with. She’s not even chairman yet and she’s already spelled some significant plans ahead.

GELLERMAN: And of course, President Bush is a lame duck. Does he have much power; I mean he doesn’t have control of either of the houses. His presidency is in the final two years. What really can he do?

SAMUELSOHN: Um, what can he do? He can still issue regulations. He can still propose budgets and he can use the bully pulpit. It will be interesting to watch what President Bush is able to do and how much influence he has with Democrats. With divided government in Washington sometimes strange things can happen. It will be interesting to see if this administration ends up signing things that you wouldn’t have thought they would have signed in the first six years.

GELLERMAN: Darren Samuelsohn is senior reporter on energy and environmental issues at Greenwire. Darren, thank you.

SAMUELSOHN: Thank you so much.





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