A Senate that’s expected to stay in Republican hands is likely to create headaches for a potential Biden presidency on climate legislation and nominees for top environmental posts.
The blue wave anticipated by Democrats failed to materialize, leaving a smaller Democratic majority in the House and what’s likely to remain a GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has often refused to bring climate-related bills to the floor.
Republican control of the upper chamber could also make it tough for Biden to secure Senate confirmation for potential Cabinet picks and other top administration posts for energy and environment policy.
Nominees who have clashed with the Trump administration might find a steep path to confirmation.
That could pose problems for people like Mary Nichols, one of California’s top environmental regulators who’s considered a contender to lead the Environmental Protection Agency if Biden wins.
California has been one of Trump’s biggest foes, suing the administration 56 times over environmental rollbacks or other issues, including a waiver that stripped the state of its ability to enact tougher vehicle emissions standards.
Nichols, head of the California Air Resources Board, has led the charge in recruiting automakers to sign deals to produce cars that reduce emissions faster than the timetable that was rolled back by Trump.
“Four years of Donald Trump have torn gaping holes in the fabric of this country’s environmental protection laws,” Nichols told Bloomberg earlier this year. “Fixing this damage requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from every citizen, and I stand ready to do my part.”
Gina McCarthy, an Obama-era EPA administrator, told reporters Wednesday that she hopes Biden will appoint “the Anthony Fauci” of the EPA and Energy Department, adding that “many people can fit that bill.”
“I’m not suggesting they have to be qualified as a scientist, I am suggesting that they have to be trusted, thoughtful human beings who recognize that the challenge of climate change is not just about our health but it is about the economics, and it is about job growth and it is about racial disparities,” said McCarthy who now serves as the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Other environmentalists argue that GOP rejection of any qualified nominee would be hypocritical.
“The Senate GOP just spent four years insisting and delivering on the absolute prerogative of a president to have their cabinet nominees confirmed, no matter how manifestly unqualified, corrupt, or conflicted,” Sierra Club legislative director Melinda Pierce said in a statement.
“We can’t imagine they would now turn around and credibly reject any cabinet nominees of a President Biden on the basis of policy disagreements, since we know he will only nominate highly qualified individuals,” Pierce added.
On the legislative front, climate bills face a tough road to passage, if they’re even brought to the floor.
House Democrats this year passed measures on rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and banning offshore drilling, but the Senate hasn’t taken them up and has no plans to do so.
Still, environmentalists see windows for opportunity in must-pass legislation like spending bills and coronavirus aid.
This year’s COVID-19 relief packages did not include any renewable energy provisions as some advocates had hoped they would, but having a Democrat in the White House increases the odds of inclusion in future bills.
Environmentalists are also hopeful that lawmakers can find issues where there’s bipartisan support.
“We’ve seen progress be made now and then when an overwhelming rest of the body wants to get stuff done like the Great American Outdoors Act,” said Gene Karpinksi, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “We’ve seen it with Republicans in charge.”
Karpinski said clean energy tax cuts are another bipartisan possibility.
But key players in both the Senate confirmation and legislative process remain something of a wildcard.
The Republican chairs of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and possibly the Environment and Public Works Committee, which review nominees and legislation before floor votes, face a potential shakeup.
Sen. Lisa Murkwoksi’s (R-Alaska) tenure as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will come to an end next year under conference rules, freeing up a coveted spot that could be of interest to Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
Barrasso’s office did not respond to requests for comment, but any move on his part would in turn open the top spot at the Environment and Public Works Committee he now chairs.