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Suddenly, President Bushs proposals to drill for oil in an Alaskan wilderness, boost energy exploration in the Rockies and consider changes to some major environmental laws are back in play, following the Republicans success in last weeks congressional elections.
Nothing illustrates the shift in environmental politics more vividly than the leadership changes about to occur on two key Senate committees. The environment committees chairmanship is switching from James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), a hero to many environmentalists, to James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), one of their least-liked lawmakers.
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, meanwhile, will be headed by Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), who supports drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The question of whether to drill in ANWR holds almost iconic status for conservatives and conservationists alike, and Democrats no longer have the Senate or White House control that helped them hold off the proposal for years.
Domenici says he plans to vigorously promote energy exploration on federal lands including ANWR after he replaces Democrat Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) as committee chairman. "Absolutely," Domenici said in a recent interview, "ANWRs got to be looked at." A senior Domenici aide went further, saying, "Any new energy bill would include ANWR."
Energy exploration is not the only issue the new Republican-controlled Congress will revisit. GOP leaders say they will challenge or review a handful of key environmental laws that govern power-plant emissions, water quality, endangered species, mining and other subjects. Those laws sometimes pose unnecessary impediments to production, Bush administration officials have said.
The administration has tried to win many of these changes in the past 18 months through regulatory reform, executive orders and legislation. However, it has encountered stiff resistance from the Democratic-controlled Senate and from environmentalists who went to court to block drilling, mining and logging on government land.
With many moderate Republicans sympathetic to green causes, few expect a repeat of the assault on environmental laws waged by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and House Republicans in 1995, which triggered a voter backlash and contributed to Gingrichs political demise. Instead, Democrats and environmentalists say, the changes are likely to be achieved in more subtle ways, through riders to spending bills and tweaking of budgets for enforcing environmental regulations.
"The real question for the Republicans and the White House is will they overplay their hand again?" said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.
Administration officials say a renewed effort to adopt the presidents energy and environmental proposals is necessary to meet energy needs and to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The House last year approved a version of the presidents plan that included $33.5 billion in tax breaks and other incentives aimed at increasing oil and gas exploration, developing new coal-burning technologies and promoting nuclear energy and alternative energy sources.
"The president remains committed to working with Congress to pass a comprehensive energy plan that expands conservation, increases energy efficiency and encourages more domestic exploration and production, in an environmentally responsible way," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
"I think the big picture is that well have a huge fight on our hands to protect everything weve achieved in the past 30 years," said Gregory Wetstone of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) warned Republicans "anyone who wants to appeal to the public is going to have to stick to the mainstream on the environment."
One of the most dramatic signs of the new order is Inhofes replacement of Jeffords as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Jeffords, whose defection from the GOP enabled Democrats to claim control of the Senate 17 months ago, has been a staunch ally of environmentalists and sharp critic of Bushs policies. Inhofe is a conservative and vigorous critic of the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws.
Inhofe, 67, a former real estate developer, has frequently accused the Environmental Protection Agency of exceeding its powers in regulating industry. Last week he said he would press government agencies to apply cost-benefit standards and "sound science" to proposed environmental rule making, an approach strongly favored by the White House budget office and libertarian groups that favor reducing government regulations. He also pledged to provide "strong oversight" and review of the enforcement of clean air laws and other environmental measures. Some environmentalists see that as code for seeking to weaken or gut the laws.
Inhofe said: "I want to work in a bipartisan fashion to create fiscally responsible policies that are based on sound science and cost-benefit analyses."