GOP senate victory raises risks for environmental policy

by Sara Freund and Grace Eleyae

Creative Commons
Photo by Alfred Palmer, Creative Commons

While Illinois sent Sierra Club endorsed Sen. Dick Durbin (D) back to Congress, the GOP captured a Senate majority Tuesday and some environmentalists went on the attack.

“A Congress elected by corporate polluters may think it can force a polluter agenda on this country,” said Michael Brune, national executive director of the Sierra Club, in a post-election statement. “But, public support is solidly behind action to tackle the climate crisis.”

For Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner won over incumbent Pat Quinn—a loss for the Sierra Club of Illinois, which endorsed Quinn. Quinn was “the only candidate who pledged to cut carbon pollution in Illinois,” and advocated for clean energy, according to the Sierra Club.

Rauner’s stance on environmental issues and fracking raise concerns, according to Illinois Sierra Club director Jack Darin.

“Bruce Rauner talked about prioritizing fossil fuel, fracking and coal mining and that’s cause for major concern. The Sierra Club opposes these dirty fossil fuels, and by making them priorities you run the risk of short-changing Illinois from the economic benefits and jobs clean energy can create,” Darin said.

Though the group lost Quinn, other pro-environmental reform representatives that the Sierra Club endorsed will be returning to the House and Senate. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-9th District) and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster (D-11th District), two candidates the Sierra Club endorsed, both won reelection.

The Sierra Club is a national organization that helped pass the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and has over 2 million members and supporters nationwide. It remains confident in the grassroots push by the American public Brune stated.

On a national level the GOP platform states that conservation is a conservative value as long it is properly balanced with economics. Republican senators such as Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and James Inhofe of Oklahoma take positions environmental organizations oppose.

McConell has said he plans to lead opposition of a large part of President Obama’s climate change agenda, specifically the EPA’s proposal to limit carbon emissions from power plants. Inhofe, a climate change skeptic, will now lead the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee.

Another issue, the Keystone XL pipeline, will be second on the Republican agenda, said Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee Chairman, during a press conference shortly before the election.  The Keystone oil pipeline will run from Canada to refineries in Nebraska, Illinois, and Texas but one leg of the pipeline still needs to be approved.

Many Republicans support the pipeline project, which they think will improve the economy and create thousands of jobs.  Environmental groups are concerned it will exacerbate carbon emissions, pollute water sources, and hurt ecosystems.  The debate has lasted for six years, but now that Republicans control Congress they have enough votes to approve the pipeline and increase their leverage over Obama.

“Keystone is important but it’s not the main issue, the problem is climate change and oil will make that worse.  I feel like there is misplaced emphasis on Keystone.  Emphasis should be placed on fossil fuels and getting a carbon tax even though that’s not likely to happen,” said Sarah Pralle, a professor specializing in environmental policy at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in Syracuse, New York.

The Senate gained seven seats from Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Iowa, Arkansas, West Virginia and North Carolina.  All senators from these states oppose the EPA’s rules to limit carbon emissions from power plants and will likely approve the Keystone pipeline.

“In terms of movement in climate change, it’s kind of the status quo of how it’s been.  Republicans will move towards aggressive energy policy, which isn’t good news for climate change.  I think it’s a bad day for the environment,” Pralle said.

The 2013-2014 report from the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change links carbon emissions to warming temperatures, and increasingly severe weather. “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts,” according the report.

However, Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk has a history of promoting conservation, reducing pollution and educating children about the environment. Kirk, a moderate, serves as the co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, which aims to protect and restore that natural resource.

Most recently Kirk celebrated the cleanup of Waukegan Harbor, removing it from the list of most contaminated sites on the Great Lakes and linking environmental progress to economic growth.

“The completion of the environmental cleanup of Waukegan Harbor is a critical first step to spurring economic redevelopment in Waukegan and Northern Illinois,” Kirk said in a statement.

Sierra Club’s national executive director, Brune, hopes that the swell in grassroots efforts will continue to have a positive effect on environmental legislation.

“While we have lost friends in Congress, we are gaining them in the streets as our movement grows stronger and broader. In the face of concerted efforts to disenfranchise American voters and weaken the push for climate justice, workers rights, and civil rights, we will fight back together,” wrote Brune in a Sierra Club press release.

“The climate on climate is changing,” he wrote.