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A Big Win for Climate Change Denial: Republicans to Target EPA Regulations After Taking Senate

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With their newfound control of both houses of Congress, the Republican agenda includes a rollback of environmental regulations, including President Obama’s new rules limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. We discuss this prospect with Lee Fang, a reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, and blogger about money and politics at the the Republic Report. “This Republican majority owes its fortunes to a small number of fossil companies who were very big campaign spenders,” Fang says. “And the next Congress will see some of the most avowed climate change deniers taking control of key congressional committees in the Senate and in the House.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. And this is the day after—I’m Amy Goodman—the day after the midterm elections of 2014 that cost $4 billion. Our guest now is Lee Fang, reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, blogs about money in politics at the Republic Report. He did a recent investigation for The Nation headlined “Mitch McConnell’s Freighted Ties to a Shadowy Shipping Company.” He has also blogged about how if the GOP takes the Senate, climate change deniers will control key committees.

Why don’t we start there, then go back to Mitch McConnell, Lee Fang? Talk about what the Republican Senate will look like when it comes to the leadership of the committees. Among those who won last night was Oklahoma Senator Inhofe.

LEE FANG: Hi, Amy. Good morning. This Republican majority owes its fortunes to a small number of fossil fuel companies. The conservative Koch brothers, several coal companies, natural gas companies were very big campaign spenders. And in the next Congress, we’ll see some of the most avowed climate change deniers taking control of key congressional committees in the Senate and in the House. In the Senate, Senator Jim Inhofe, the most outspoken critic of climate change science, will take control of the Environment Committee. Senator Ron Johnson, another outspoken critic of climate change science, will take control of the Homeland Security and Government Reform Committee. It’s possible that Senator Ted Cruz, yet another climate change skeptic, will control the Science Subcommittee within the Commerce Committee. That’s the committee that controls federal science research.

And it’s likely that these fossil fuel companies spent big on this election because they’re looking for something in return, that being pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back or delay its proposed rules on carbon emissions. There are rules that are coming up that deal with existing coal-fired power plants. These are power plants that were built in the '40s, ’50s and ’60s, with very outdated technology, that are significant drivers of carbon emissions. The Obama administration has proposed these rules, and it's likely that the new Republican Congress will pressure the EPA to delay them or maybe even attach a budget rider that says that the EPA will not be funded to carry out these rules. That could set the stage for another government shutdown, like the similar dynamic that happened last year when a budget rider was attached attempting to defund the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.”

As part of a broader dynamic, though, the House Science Committee in the last Congress, for one of the very first times in history, began subpoenaing government scientists, attempting to harass them and then pressure them to back away from air pollution rules. With Republicans now in control of the Senate, we might see a similar dynamic on the Senate side. Already, just in the last two months, we’ve seen Senate Republicans sending letters to environmental groups, pressuring them, basically signaling they’d like to open new investigations into groups like the NRDC, the National Wildlife Foundation, the American Lung Association, Greenpeace. These environmental groups are now going to be under the gun as Republicans try all the different avenues for influencing environmental policy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Republican senator from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe, in his own words. He won re-election Tuesday. This is a video message he recently made for the climate skeptic think tank, the Heartland Institute.

SEN. JIM INHOFE: Good news is that Republicans are going to take over the United States Senate in November, and I will be replacing Barbara Boxer as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, so we can go back and start using CRAs—that’s Congressional Review Acts—to repeal or to stop some of the onerous regulations that are taking place. So, you guys are the only ones, the only group out there that can be effective and help us in this battle. And keep in mind, they now have a new resource to use: They have unlimited money to run for re-election using the issue of global warming.

AMY GOODMAN: Like another Republican senator I was watching yesterday, Rob Portman, saying that the key issues are cutting down regulation and Keystone XL. The significance of what won big yesterday, Lee Fang, when it comes to the Keystone XL, something that President Obama has put off ruling on until after this election?

LEE FANG: That’s right, Amy. In terms of policy change, we’ll see incredible pressure from congressional Republicans to push the administration towards approving many different new pipelines and oil and gas initiatives. The Keystone XL is at the top of that list. That pipeline, running from the Alberta tar sands down to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, that requires special approval from the White House and from the State Department. And we’ll see a Republican Congress push the president to approve that pipeline.

But beyond that, there are a number of other goals. There’s also the liquefied natural gas issue. For natural gas in America to be exported abroad, there needs to be a special approval from FERC and the Department of Energy. There are a number of bills in Congress to expedite those approvals. And if the American natural gas market is linked to global prices—in Asia, in particular, natural gas prices are much higher—we’ll see a much broader boom in fracking, the horizontal drilling technique, because the price of natural gas in America will rise. Republicans are intent on pushing this priority. Cory Gardner, one of the Republican Senate candidates who won last night in Colorado, he’s made this one of his top initiatives. And Republican leaders have signaled this is at the top of the list along with the Keystone XL.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, when it comes to Democrats and fracking, right up to President Obama, they certainly have not distanced themselves from it. As someone tweeted last night, one organizer wrote, “It’s rough when you decide to throw a lot of people under the bus and then expect those same people to get you into office.”

LEE FANG: Sure. The Obama administration has also been very close to the natural gas lobby. You know, I’ve done stories showing that the main lobbying group for the fracking industry, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, ANGA, has actually provided dark money to the Democrats, as well. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley—or, current soon-to-be-former Governor Martin O’Malley received funds for his own dark money group from ANGA, the natural gas lobby. Democrats have raised money from natural gas interests. Actually, in Colorado, the Democratic Party, one of the reasons for their defeat last night was that the Democrats there were very divided over the issue of fracking. An effort to place a ballot initiative that would have allowed local cities and municipalities in Colorado to ban fracking fell apart, and part of that disarray really helped Republicans. So, Democrats have been very divided on this issue, and they have not been shy about soliciting funds from the same industry.

AMY GOODMAN: An exit poll conducted Tuesday night by Edison Research found interesting results when it came to voters and climate change. The New York Times reported, quote, “Nationally, nearly six in 10 voters said climate change was a serious problem, and a broad majority of them (about seven in 10) favored Democratic candidates for the House. Among the four in 10 voters who said it was not a serious problem, an even larger majority (more than eight in 10 voters) supported Republican candidates.” Lee Fang, I wanted to go back to Mitch McConnell, who could be the next Senate majority leader, if Ted Cruz doesn’t have his way, how he personally funded his campaign, where his wealth comes from.

LEE FANG: Well, Senator Mitch McConnell is not known for any particular ideology. You know, he’s kind of cast himself as a libertarian this year, but in previous years, you know, he’s supported foreign wars, the bank bailouts. What Mitch McConnell is really famous for on Capitol Hill is campaign finance. Beginning in the '80s, Senator McConnell blocked efforts on public financing of elections, and throughout the ’90s and early aughts, he attempted to block and filibuster different types of campaign finance reform legislation, including limits on contributions to candidates in soft money. More recently, he's filibustered and blocked efforts to shine a light on dark money in elections, and he’s been successful on that front. However, if you look at the election last night, this was really a culmination of a career that’s focused on allowing unlimited, unregulated, secret money. The largest spender in Kentucky in the Senate race this year was actually a dark money group set up by former campaign consultants to the McConnell campaign.

Additionally, as you mentioned, we did a story recently on McConnell’s personal wealth. McConnell is one of the wealthiest members of the Senate. He married into money. His wife, Elaine Chao, the former labor secretary in the Bush administration, her father founded a large shipping company, Foremost Maritime Corporation. It ships commodities all over the world. We did a story looking at some of those different dynamics. The shipping company avoids U.S. taxes and labor law by registering in the Marshall Islands and flagging their ships through Liberia. They also ship, interesting enough, coal, cheap coal from Colombia. Now, this, as your previous guest mentioned, has been a big topic in the Kentucky Senate race, where Mitch McConnell has blamed the declining production of Kentucky coal on environmentalists, on Democrats, but the real picture is much more complicated. The role of natural gas has pushed out coal as a cheap fuel source. In addition, cheap imports from places like Colombia has undercut American coal. And in kind of a bizarre twist, recently Colombian officials boarded a ship owned by the McConnell family in-laws and found around 90 pounds of cocaine on a coal shipment bound for Europe. There’s an ongoing investigation. There were no arrests made. But it’s an interesting twist to the story.

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