Climate and Energy Action in Congress

Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol

The 2014 election changed the balance of power in the United States Congress, with significant gains by Republicans in both chambers. The 114th Congress (2015-2016) convened on January 6, 2015, and Republicans now enjoy their largest majority in the House since the Truman Administration. They also captured a majority in the Senate. However, even with their majority, Senate Republicans will require Democratic votes to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters.

Republican leaders listed a number of energy issues they want to address, including approving the Keystone pipeline, spurring fossil fuel development, and curtailing environmental regulations such as proposed limits on carbon emissions from power plants. President Obama has reiterated that climate change is a top priority and made clear he is willing to use his veto power.

Here are some of the issues likely to get attention in the 114th Congress:

  • Keystone XL pipeline. Congressional leaders moved swiftly to approve the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline. The House passed the Keystone XL legislation on their first day in session, and the Senate passed similar legislation after a floor debate. President Obama vetoed the legislation on February 24, 2015 and promised to continue the administrative process to determine the fate of the pipeline. Without an early legislative or administrative resolution, Keystone approval may continue to be the topic of amendments and debate throughout the session.
  • Energy efficiency legislation. Energy efficiency legislation has found widespread bipartisan support, even in partisan times. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have introduced legislation to promote energy efficiency in the past several Congresses only to see it held up for substantive and procedural reasons. The Senators have introduced a pared down version of their energy efficiency bill, and plan to introduce a larger Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act in February.
  • Environmental Protection Agency regulations. As the Obama Administration continues developing court-mandated regulations of the power sector, opponents and supporters in Congress are likely to react through standalone legislation, amendments, riders in the budget and appropriations process, or the Congressional Review Act. At the forefront of the debate will be regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants, which will be finalized by midsummer. Other regulations, such as tightened standards for ozone, regulations of methane emissions from oil and gas wells, and stricter fuel economy standards for large trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles, may also prompt reaction from Congress. 
  • Transportation. Current authority to collect and spend gasoline tax revenues for highway and public transportation spending expires in May, and a new highway bill is a key order of business. Ongoing debate over whether to raise gasoline taxes, which affect energy use and emissions, will continue in this Congress. If gas prices stay low, longstanding opposition to an increase may soften.
  • Appropriations. Funding for federal agencies expires at the end of September. By then, Congress must approve new designated funding for agencies for the next fiscal year or approve a continuing resolution to keep the government operating at the same funding level. Congressional leadership has pledged to allow regular order in legislating appropriations bills for the first time in many years. Funding for Department of Energy research and investment programs on clean energy technologies; Environmental Protection Agency regulatory monitoring, enforcement, and voluntary programs; international climate finance funds; and other agency efforts related to climate change and clean energy will all be a part of the appropriations process. Some opponents of climate action have suggested targeting climate-related programs and regulations in the appropriations process by eliminating their funding or including policy riders.
  • Tax reform. Leadership of both parties in Congress and President Obama support significant reform of the tax code. Such a reform would necessarily affect tax incentives for various parts of the energy industry, including oil and enhanced oil recovery using man-made carbon dioxide, wind, and solar energy, as well as alternative fuel vehicles. A comprehensive discussion may also include the imposition of a price on carbon through the tax code.
  • Oversight and investigations. Congressional leadership has promised increased scrutiny of federal agency actions and policy through hearings and other types of oversight.

About thirty-five bills focusing specifically on climate change have been introduced in the 114th Congress. About three-quarters of these bills favor climate action, with half of those dealing with climate change adaptation (also known as resilience) and climate science. Many more bills touch on energy, environment, transportation, agriculture and other areas that could have an impact on or be affected by climate change. The list below, however, contains for the most part only those bills whose authors explicitly reference climate change or related terms, such as greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide.

The bills, resolutions, and amendments of the 114th Congress dealing with climate change are divided into the following categories: