Democratic control of the Senate offers President-elect Joe Biden an opportunity to advance parts of his climate agenda, but the paper-thin majority likely puts sweeping global warming legislation beyond reach.
The election of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Georgia run-off on Tuesday put the Senate at an even 50-50, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote and removing control of the chamber from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans.
That virtually guarantees that Biden's nominees for departments dealing with climate policy will breeze through Senate confirmation on simple majority votes. The nominees, including Michael Regan for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are intent on making climate change regulation one of the pillars of the administration soon after Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
It also means Democrats could push moderate proposals that many lawmakers in both parties support, like reducing carbon emissions from transportation, advanced nuclear energy technology, and domestic production of critical minerals used in batteries and renewable energy.
But Biden's vision for a $2 trillion climate plan, including broad limits on greenhouse gas emissions or federal mandates for clean energy, may be harder to achieve through legislation in a divided Senate still gripped by rancor over the Nov. 3 election.
Most bills require 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to pass. And a handful of moderate or pro-fossil fuel Democrats - including Senator Joe Manchin of coal state West Virginia - could hamper any efforts to shoehorn sweeping climate measures into budget reconciliation bills that require a simple majority, according to legislative experts.
"You're not going to reach agreement on issues like a price on carbon anytime soon," said George David Banks, who advised Trump and former President George W. Bush on climate. "But we're still in a position to actually make a lot of progress on other big climate issues."
"A thin blue Senate could make it easier to pass a bigger green stimulus package, but carbon taxation and climate legislation still look to be out of bounds," said Kevin Book, analyst at ClearView Energy Partners.
That means U.S. oil and gas majors are unlikely to come under the same kind of pressure as their European rivals, where political forces are more aligned behind aggressive action on climate change.
Some of what Biden's administration is unable to accomplish in Congress may be tackled via executive orders, which are more vulnerable to lawsuits and unwinding by future presidents.
A Biden transition official said executive action may be slow because his federal agency review teams have discovered the EPA and other agencies have been weakened more than expected during the Trump administration.
The official said on Tuesday that the incoming administration is not giving up on being able to work with both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, "Because we're both trying to get a future that is healthy and safe and sustainable and that grows good union-access jobs."
MODERATE POWER BROKER
Sweeping climate legislation will have a hard time getting past Democrats like Manchin, who will take the chairmanship of the Senate energy committee, and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Manchin, who shot a mock copy of a federal climate bill with a rifle in a 2010 campaign ad when he was governor and running for the Senate, will end up with outsized power in a narrow-majority Senate, experts said.
"Legislation on ... climate change and clean energy simply must take the views of Manchin and other moderates firmly into account or those bills will have little chance of advancing," said Scott Segal, a lobbyist at law firm Bracewell.
Manchin and Sinema did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Since 2010, Manchin has pushed for some bipartisan climate measures, most recently a spending bill that included money for high-tech nuclear energy and capture and storage of carbon emissions that could extend the life of some coal plants.
But he opposes policies pushed by liberals, such as expanding the Supreme Court and ending the filibuster, which requires the 60-vote majority for most bills, which progressives say impedes passage of bold legislation on climate.
Sinema began her career as a supporter of the Green Party but has since turned conservative. Govtrack.com ranked Sinema in 2019 as the top "most politically right" Democratic senator, while Manchin was third.
Climate progressives will take heart that Senator Bernie Sanders, a long-time advocate for aggressive measures to fight global warming, is set to chair the Budget Committee.
Many budget bills require only a simple majority and can be a vehicle for incremental climate measures such as energy-efficient car and truck buying for the federal fleet.
With the majority, Democrats are also likely to increase scrutiny of the fossil fuel industry in Congress, using hearings and investigations to put public pressure on them to change practices.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat on the environment committee's oversight panel, told Reuters he will push for a "presidential commission ... to assemble a full record of fossil fuel deceit and obstruction."
Bethany Aronhalt, a spokeswoman at the American Petroleum Institute industry group, said in response to Whitehouse's remarks that "tackling climate change will require real solutions, not partisan talking points."