Republicans won narrow control of the US House of Representatives in mid-term elections, a prelude to heightened partisan conflict with President Joe Biden in the next two years and erasing chances for bold, new legislative initiatives on climate.
After more than a week of vote counting, Republicans won the minimum 218 seats for a majority in the 435-seat House, a gain of six thus far, with Democrats taking 211 and six contests undecided.
Before the elections, Democrats held 220 seats, Republicans 212, with three vacancies. In the Senate, Democrats now have a 50-49 edge with a race in Georgia headed for a run-off next month, versus a 50-50 split previously with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break ties with an affirmative vote.
The results were hugely disappointing for Republicans whose leaders, along with non-partisan pollsters and pundits, had forecast the opposition party would pick up 20-30 seats in the House and flip the Senate.
Those predictions were based on Biden’s unpopularity amid four-decade high inflation and the historical pattern since World War II that the party in power usually does poorly in mid-term elections, as voters tend to sour on the incumbent president.
That did not occur, however, as Republicans lost numerous winnable races because their candidates were viewed as too right-wing or closely allied with Donald Trump, who is disliked by most independents, the largest bloc of US voters.
Trump, the most polarising figure in American politics, this week announced he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
What’s ahead for climate, clean energy
Despite underperforming, Republicans’ bare majority in the House will usher in a return to divided government in Washington after two years of Democratic control of Congress and the White House.
This realignment in power will limit Biden’s ability to advance his climate agenda on Capitol Hill, likely forcing him to rely on executive actions, presaging a new round of legal battles as Republican-aligned groups and others challenge them in court.
Democrats’ control of the Senate, which must confirm nominees to most senior government positions, will provide Biden opportunities to appoint executive branch officials and regulators to federal agencies who share his views on the need for action on climate.
Some analysts are hopeful the two parties will work together to streamline federal energy project permits, a key impediment to faster carbon reduction through replacement of coal with natural gas and accelerated build-out of renewables.
“Everybody sort of agrees now the current permitting system is an absolute mess,” said Michael Catanzaro, president of CGCN Group, a Republican-leaning lobby firm in Washington, and former special assistant to Trump for energy and environmental policy.
“I don’t think there was necessarily that recognition, or there was a sense on the part of those who build renewables that maybe the permitting process was going to be as difficult as it is for them. It has proven to be,” he told a Norton Rose Fulbright law firm webinar, adding, “I think the Democrats are coming along and getting a little more sympathetic to the idea that there have to be changes.”
The White House recognises that even with record federal clean energy spending and generous long-term tax credits delivered by new landmark climate and infrastructure laws under Biden, more agile and transparent federal permitting decisions are necessary to accelerate the country’s energy transition.
“Permitting is the biggest issue. You can’t march ahead with those projects. Capital is stranded whether it is coming in from the private sector or from the federal government, or both,” Colin Hayes, partner at Lot Sixteen, a public relations firm in Washington and former Republican staff director of the Senate Committee Energy and Natural Resources, told the webinar.
How far Democrats are ready to go to overhaul federal permitting is unclear. Biden faces strong resistance from his party’s left-wing and environmental groups, a key fund-raising source, to streamlined approvals for gas pipelines, long-haul transmission, and other energy infrastructure.
Republicans contend that Democratic reform efforts led by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin are too limited in scope.
If the parties can somehow agree on how to facilitate permit reviews, that could help Biden’s efforts to ease supply chain constraints by accelerating the development and exploitation of domestic critical minerals used in electric vehicles, renewable energy products, and across the broader economy. Some Republican lawmakers have been supportive, also viewing this as a pressing national security issue.
Another beneficiary could be long-haul high voltage transmission with present build-out far below both historical levels and what is required to help meet Biden's 2035 target for a carbon-free electric grid.
Any potential overhaul could result in faster permitting for merchant developers and utilities to string wires across land owned by the federal government - 47% of all land in 11 western states containing much of the nation's solar resources. Projects would still need to obtain local and state permits.
Limits to cooperation
The extent leaders of the incoming House Republican caucus will be capable of cooperation with Biden on any issue is an open question.
Already there are concerns of future dysfunction with a group of combative hard-right elected representatives allied with Trump likely to go their own way in an effort to make it as difficult as possible for Biden to govern.
This could result in prolonged battles with the White House over funding certain climate-related programmes and the broader US government. Biden could still wield his veto over laws or provisions in laws that emerge from Congress, although he may have to comprise to avoid any lengthy government shutdowns and fallout in financial markets.
Biden is also bracing for Republicans to use their oversight authority including subpoena power to launch new investigations and hearings aimed at a raft of actions by cabinet departments and federal agencies during his administration.
Republicans intend to closely monitor how funding appropriated in both the climate and infrastructure bills is spent by the Department of Energy which was given authority for up to $250bn in new loan guarantees. This could slow the approvals process.
While Republicans have indicated they will not seek to overturn tax provisions in the climate bill, they are united in opposition to Biden’s stated aim to put the oil and natural gas industry out of business.
They will push hard for an “all-of-the-above” national energy policy embracing both fossil fuels and renewables, and for the US to expand its liquified natural gas export capability to help Europe with energy supply after delivery cut-offs by Russia.