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Signs in Washington point to renewed focus on energy, environmental policies

February 6, 2013 By    

The hard-fought elections are over, the fiscal cliff has been avoided in the near term, President Barack Obama has been sworn in and he has begun to articulate his agenda for his second term.

But as we wait for the president’s State of the Union address to hear more detail, he has already begun to build support for his agenda and bring political pressure to bear.

A new group called Organizing for Action, headed by Obama campaign leaders and senior administration officials, has been formed to promote his legislative agenda. This is the first time in history that a presidential campaign has turned itself into a not-for-profit public policy action group, with all of the tools used in the campaign to turn out votes. Organizing for Action’s broad domestic initiatives include growing the economy, reducing gun violence, overhauling immigration and fighting for climate change policy.

During his inaugural address, the president highlighted these themes, as well. He further emphasized his energy and environmental agenda by stating, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling drought and more powerful storms. The path toward sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult, but America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries. We must claim its promise.”

How formidable the administration’s Republican opponents will be remains to be seen. Republicans remain in control in the House of Representatives by a margin of 234-201. In the Senate, Democrats kept their majority and gained an additional two seats for a total of 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents, who will caucus with the Democrats.

With these numbers, it seems likely that the Senate will rarely compromise with the Republicans, and the House will rarely compromise with the Democrats – similar to last term.

However, the Republican Party is in disarray. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, was challenged by his own party on the House floor during his election for speaker, and his recent effort to bring his own legislation to the floor during the fiscal cliff negotiation was thwarted by his own party. In addition, Boehner was only able to muster a minimal number of Republican votes on the short-term fiscal cliff deal negotiated by Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Tenn.

Congressional action isn’t the only means to policy change, however. As the energy industry is well aware, regulation is another. During the president’s first term, the Environmental Protection Agency adopted some of the most sweeping reforms in decades from mobile and stationary sources. Increased emission standards for cars and light trucks under a controversial “endangerment finding” for air pollution was adopted; first steps were taken to regulate greenhouse gases from new power plants, effectively banning construction of new coal plants unless they can capture carbon dioxide; and the first standards for airborne toxins from power plants were established.

This term, issues related to oil drilling and permitting, the Keystone XL Pipeline and hydraulic fracturing from shale are still under debate.

The president’s agenda in a second term is a chance to accomplish what has not been finished and secure his legacy. His continued focus on climate change suggests he is hoping to give real effort to energy and environmental policies. With a still struggling economy, unresolved fiscal cliff issues and a looming battle over a federal budget, the president faces considerable hurdles on his domestic policy agenda, just as he did in his first term. However, he now comes to the job with a great deal more experience and skill.

If all members of Congress take to heart one of the most important lines in the president’s inaugural address – “Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time” – the country will be better off.

Lisa Bontempo was a longtime energy lobbyist, including 13 years with NPGA. She remains involved in national politics and can be reached at

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