With help from Eric Wolff, Alex Guillén, Anthony Adragna, Gavin Bade and Annie Snider
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— Former Vice President Joe Biden moved closer to eking out a narrow win against Donald Trump. If he does, he looks likely to enter the White House with a divided Congress, potentially putting some key goals of his climate agenda out of reach.
— If Republicans hold onto their Senate majority and Biden wins the White House, it could also change the dynamics around Biden’s nominations to his Cabinet.
— The U.S. is now the only country in the world outside of the Paris climate accord, but whether that status lasts will depend on the outcome of the presidential election.
GOOD MORNING! IT’S THURSDAY. I’m your host, Kelsey Tamborrino. Cherie Wilson of General Motors gets the trivia win. In 1933, the 20th Amendment changed the inauguration’s date to Jan 20, but prior inaugurations were held on March 4. For today, something completely different: What is the largest landlocked country in the world? Send your tips and trivia answers to [email protected].
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BIDEN VS. SENATE: Though the presidential race is not yet called, Biden is closing in on 270 electoral votes after securing wins in Wisconsin and Michigan on Wednesday. But the Senate appears almost-certain to remain in Republican hands — and that’s a problem for Biden’s climate ambitions. The former vice president ran hard on addressing climate change — calling it one of the four crises facing the country — but Senate Republicans have so far resisted even modest efforts to tackle the problem. House Democrats, meanwhile, suffered a string of unexpected losses that will narrow their majority going into the 117th Congress.
An early possible area for collaboration could be some sort of stimulus package, complete with green technology incentives and other climate-friendly provisions. However, astute ME readers may remember that Republicans held up an initial coronavirus package in late March and GOP lawmakers decried a series of green measures in the House’s version of infrastructure legislation, H.R. 2 (116).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is notorious for refusing to move legislation that is not supported by at least half of his Republican conference. It’s unclear what a package containing climate change provisions would need to look like to garner that level of GOP buy-in. One potential area could be some kind of streamlining for infrastructure projects like pipelines and electric transmission lines, both of which have been stymied by legal challenges in recent years. McConnell announced Wednesday that he’s hoping to move a Covid-19 stimulus before the end of the year, which could allow him to pass a bill with fewer green incentives before Trump leaves office.
Biden could act through the executive branch, as well. The federal government has enormous buying power, and Biden has promised to shift toward more efficient, and lower emitting technologies for federal installations. He also will be able to name Democrat Rich Glick to chair FERC, and while Glick would be in the minority, the move would give him control of the agenda for an agency that oversees the power supply for most of the country. While these moves won’t juice the economy or the industry to the degree that a massive green spending program could have, they will inject some much-needed money.
See it: Consulting firm Rapidan Energy Group mapped out actions Biden could take via executive order or regulatory action, including blocking new leases on federal land and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as overhauling the new source performance standards for methane emissions on private lands.
Still, the poor Democratic prospects in the Senate suggest greens failed to secure the sweeping climate mandate advocates had hoped for. “What you’ve got here is a Republican Senate [that] came through last night very strong and a Republican pickup in the House,” White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said Wednesday on CNBC. “So that tells me you’re not going to get some of these crazy left-wing proposals, you’re not going to get across the board tax hikes, you’re not going to get the end of natural gas fracking, for example, or the end of low-cost electricity, or the end of energy independence.”
“On the major issues — tax packages, energy, climate change — we will see more modest attempts, in my judgment, at negotiated compromises because that’s what an institutionalist like Joe Biden knows, that’s all he can get,” said Scott Segal, the co-chairman of Bracewell’s policy resolution group, during a webinar Wednesday morning.
GOP SENATE WOULD SCRAMBLE BIDEN’S TRADE AGENDA: Trade veterans say a Republican-controlled Senate could also put a damper on some of Biden’s more ambitious trade proposals, like deals that include stronger climate provisions or tariffs on carbon-intensive goods.
There’s not “any appetite” for climate provisions among Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee, said former Trump trade adviser Clete Willems. Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is expected to lead the panel if the GOP holds the chamber.
Expect progressives to push the climate issue and border adjustment tariffs for carbon, said former Clinton trade official Bill Reinsch, arguing that stronger environmental protections will protect U.S. industry from overseas competition. But he admitted it’s difficult to imagine GOP senators “supporting anything that could be called a tax increase.”
As for the rest of Biden’s trade agenda, Reinsch said that will depend on how much the GOP decides to obstruct the White House’s push to expand other environmental and labor protections and roll back Trump’s trade wars. Though Trump’s signature trade deal — the U.S. Mexico-Canada Agreement — contained new labor and environmental protections, some GOP senators may not be as inclined to support a similar package if Biden is in the Oval.
NOMINATION WATCH — ME’S TWO CENTS: If Republicans hold on to the Senate, it could change the calculus around Cabinet nominations if Biden wins, potentially pushing the Democrat to go for safer choices who will be easier to get through the Senate than more contentious figures. For example, the two names routinely in the mix for EPA are Mary Nichols from the California Air Resources Board and Heather McTeer Toney, now a top official at the Moms Clean Air Force.
Nichols is something of a Trump antagonist on climate change and air pollution, and getting her through a Republican Senate opposed to further fossil fuel regulation could require spending a lot of political capital. On the other hand, Toney brings a focus on environmental justice but a lower profile — a Black former mayor from Mississippi with experience in the Obama EPA, and a Biden administration might see her as more likely to make it through the Senate.
Elsewhere, Biden — a big proponent of across-the-aisle outreach as a way to get things done in the Senate — may lean toward candidates with established relationships in the chamber. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) has been much talked-about as a potential Interior secretary. But the retiring Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) has more than a decade of experience in the Senate that help him win a smooth confirmation.
Related: On Wednesday, the Biden transition team’s website went live. “The crises facing the country are severe — from a pandemic to an economic recession, climate change to racial injustice — and the transition team will continue preparing at full speed so that the Biden‑Harris Administration can hit the ground running on Day One,” it says.
Michigan: Democratic Sen. Gary Peters defeated Republican challenger John James in one of the nation’s most competitive Senate races. Peters’ campaign highlighted his role in drinking water issues in the state, which has the largest number of known PFAS contaminations.
Michigan: Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin won reelection against Republican Paul Junge. Slotkin invested major energy in her successful push to include some of the most significant language relating to PFAS in the lower chamber’s annual defense bill.
Pennsylvania: Republican incumbent Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick won his bid. Fitzpatrick is co-chair of the House’s PFAS Task Force and one of the few GOP lawmakers to support a carbon tax, earning him the League of Conservation Voters’ sole Republican endorsement this cycle.
Alaskans say no: Early returns suggest Alaskans will vote down a ballot measure that would have raised the tax on oil and gas produced in certain areas of the North Slope. Oil majors subject to such a tax, like Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and BP, as well as Hilcorp Energy, poured millions into defeating the measure, arguing it could cause oil companies to shift capital elsewhere.
GOP keeps hold of Texas regulator: Republican Jim Wright was elected to the Texas Railroad Commission, extending the GOP control at the state’s oil and gas regulator, Pro’s Anthony Adragna reports. Wright bested Democrat Chrysta Castañeda, who conceded in a statement posted online. Wright’s win comes despite a push by environmentalists and Democrats to flip the seat, including former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who gave $2.6 million.
Republicans hold lead for Arizona commission: Democrat Anna Tovar along with Republicans Lea Márquez Peterson and Jim O’Connor remain in the lead in the six-way race for three seats on the Arizona Corporation Commission, which plays a critical role in how much renewable energy will be used by state utilities, AZ Central reports. “If two Republicans win, the commission’s recent decision to boost renewable-energy requirements for the first time in 14 years and force utilities to produce 100% carbon free energy in Arizona could be reversed,” according to AZ Central. Mike Bloomberg has also poured millions into Democrats in the contest.
Householder holds seat: Ex-Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder won reelection Wednesday despite his arrest related to a years-long bribery scheme aimed at securing a bailout for coal and nuclear power plants struggling to stay afloat, Cleveland.com reports, according to unofficial results. The victory was expected, however, as he was the only candidate whose name appeared on the ballot for the district. Still, Cleveland.com reports, Householder “might not serve much of his third term in office” since his fellow House Republicans have indicated that they may expel him.
TEEING UP WRDA: Even as election results continue to shake out, the Senate is preparing its bipartisan water infrastructure bill, S. 3591 (116), for consideration, with Congressional Budget Office releasing its score for the measure Wednesday. The office found the bill, which would authorize new Army Corps of Engineers projects and EPA restoration programs, would increase the federal deficit by $2.4 billion over a decade.
JUDGES PRESS TRUMP ON DAPL REVIEW: A federal appeals panel appeared skeptical Wednesday that the Trump administration did not need to conduct a full environmental review of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, but judges stopped short of leaning toward halting the project while that study took place, Pro’s Ben Lefebvre reports. Two of the three judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals panel also questioned whether the company had put sufficient precautions in place to quickly detect an oil spill.
BIDEN’S PARIS PATH: Should Biden win the White House and re-join the Paris climate agreement, he would send a strong message to the world that the U.S. is back at the table. “Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement,” Biden tweeted Wednesday night. “And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it.”
But that would be only a first step toward convincing the international community that the world’s largest economy will carry its fair share of the work ahead, Pro’s Zack Colman reports. “The world as a whole has made less progress in the last four years than we would have if the U.S. had continued its strong international leadership,” said Phil Duffy, executive director of the Woodwell Climate Research Center.
Rejoining the accord might be more complicated than signing a document. In particular, the U.S. would need to submit a plan for cutting emissions, and the rules are unclear as to whether the U.S. must do that as a condition of joining or if it must tender a more ambitious plan for 2030, rather than the original 2025 date to which President Barack Obama tied his goals. Andrew Light, a former State Department climate official under Obama, told Zack the U.S. would be expected to freshen its nationally determined contribution.
CORPS SUSPENDS PLASTICS PERMIT: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told a federal court Wednesday it plans to suspend its permit for Formosa Plastics’ hotly contested proposed plant in St. James Parish, La. — a large petrochemical plant that opponents say will pollute a predominantly Black community that is already overburdened by pollution. The move comes ahead of a deadline today for the Corps to defend its issuance of the permit against a lawsuit filed by opponents of the project. The agency asked the federal court to stay proceedings in the case, saying it will “evaluate a portion of its previous permit application review and decide whether to reinstate, modify, or revoke the permit.” Given that, the agency said there will be no final agency action to review related to opponents’ claims, and any review would have to await a new final agency action.
— “New Jersey governor signs bill banning single-use plastic, paper bags,” via POLITICO Pro.
— “Trump administration taps mainstream climate scientist to run key climate review,” via The Washington Post.
— “Iceberg floats toward South Georgia, puts wildlife at risk,” via Associated Press.
— “Local elections are changing America’s energy mix, one city at a time,” via The Verge.
— “Ohio nuclear-plant owner’s bankruptcy plan upheld by appeals court,” via The Wall Street Journal.
THAT’S ALL FOR ME!