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November 08, 2012
Will Obama's second term be different?

The major comfort the regulated community can derive from the election is that the next 4 years–like the previous 4–will see no game-altering environmental legislation sent to the White House.  That prospect was virtually guaranteed when the voting resulted in no change to Democratic control of the Senate and a Republican majority in the House.   Republicans will not be able to pass bills that exclude carbon dioxide as a CAA pollutant or that narrow the definition of waters of the United States.  And Democrats will not score victories on broadening that definition to explicitly cover ephemeral streams and noncommercial waterways or rewriting the Safe Drinking Water Act to constrain hydraulic fracturing. 

However, there are several legislative actions that might come to fruition.  These include a revision to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which both parties as well as the chemical and chemical products industries agree is in dire need of change.  But will lawmakers find the will and the time to act given the extraordinary effort Republicans exerted at the end of the last term to combat what they perceive as President Obama’s anticoal agenda?  Recall that in September 2012 the House passed no less than five bills intended to revive the coal industry.  Those bills had significant support from Democrats in coal-mining states, which will probably encourage the GOP to resuscitate the campaign. 

White House policy

But industry will need to focus its attention less on Congress and more on policies coming out of the White House and the many agencies that cover the environment and natural resources.   President Obama will be under spectacular pressure from environmental groups that kept their donations pouring in by pointing out how the president was falling short of environmental promises he made in 2008.  In one of the early responses following the election, the Union of Concerned Scientists outlined what they expect of the second-term president:

  • Order all relevant agencies to assess which areas of the country are most vulnerable to climate disruption—including extreme weather, flooding, drought, heat waves, and wildfires— and then, working with state and local authorities, address those vulnerabilities.
  • Follow up on “strong leadership” that sharply increased the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks by launching a comprehensive plan to cut projected U.S. oil use in half within 20 years.
  • Finish the job of reducing power plant pollution by requiring both new and existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions.
  • Start a national conversation on climate change with all Americans, beginning by convening leaders of the science, business, security, faith, and environmental communities at a White House Summit on Climate Resilience to discuss ways to keep our citizens healthy and safe.

Jobs first

Should Mr. Obama decide he wants to win back his environmental fan base, he will have to do so in the context of a still-weakened economy and the expectation that the federal government, above all others, is responsible for job growth.  Even with the president’s decisive victory, no one is forgetting how, in the first debate, his solutions to growing unemployment fell flat.  The president’s plan to create 5 million green jobs by 2018 is creeping along at best, and the main approach the government has taken–pouring billions in loan guarantees and tax credits into competitively shaky renewable energy companies–has won few awards for innovative governing.  

On a positive note, the president is today in a very influential position.  Republican lawmakers and industrial stakeholders can completely terminate their exhausting efforts to, above all, block a second Obama term and have no choice but to take positive steps toward cooperation, at least in the near term.  “To the extent he wants to move to the political center, which is where the work gets done in a divided government, we’ll be there to meet him half way,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell in his post- election statement.  “Republicans are eager to hear the President’s proposals on … pressing issues going forward and to do the work the people sent us here to do.”

Industry is responding in a like manner, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), one of the most relentless critics of the Obama EPA and virtually every major regulation it produced.  “We’ll work with the Administration to double exports, on ways to strengthen our workforce and prepare Americans for jobs in modern manufacturing,” stated NAM in response to the election results.  “We will also continue to make our case for pro-growth energy and tax policies, and for commonsense regulation.”

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