The Stumbling Block to Obama's Climate Commitment

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President Obama’s unexpectedly strong comments on climate change during his inauguration speech—which the New York Times called “the most prominent policy vow of his second Inaugural Address”—have left many climate hawks and environmentalists excited for the prospects of action during his second term.

Even the biggest optimists have mostly written off the possibility of strong legislation, resting their hopes instead on executive actions by Obama through the Environmental Protection Agency or other departments. Still, any attempts to address climate change face a big stumbling block in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which Tuesday held its first committee meeting of the year.

The committee, which is led by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) for the second Congress in a row, has jurisdiction over energy production, the environment, and public health. Its members are also some of the biggest recipients of money from the dirty energy companies accelerating our climate problems.

Seven of the 10 largest House recipients of campaign contributions from dirty energy interests—the coal, oil, and gas industries—are Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the 113th Congress. The other three are in traditionally huge fundraising posts, the Speaker of the House, majority leader, and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.


Upton’s position on climate change “evolved” from 2009 to 2010 as he got closer to taking the committee gavel and started to receive far more oil and gas money, changing from a moderate who acknowledged climate change to saying he is “not convinced” that “carbon is a problem in need of regulation.”

Now, Upton is avowedly against the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon emissions, despite the Supreme Court telling the agency that it is legally mandated to do so under the Clean Air Act. He introduced legislation to strip the EPA of the ability to regulate carbon pollution and he said that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson would need her own parking space on Capitol Hill this coming year because he planned to call her to testify about the EPA’s actions so frequently.

In contrast, the committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), is a leading proponent of regulation greenhouse gas emissions and coauthor of the ultimately doomed Waxman-Markey clean energy finance and cap-and-trade bill in 2009. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s not a favorite of dirty energy interests, only pulling in $13,500 for the 2012 election.

Upton’s dirty energy money, on the other hand, soared from $246,800 in the 2010 election cycle to $414,933 in 2012. It’s unclear whether this increase came because of his “good behavior” as chair of the energy committee, but one thing is clear: he’ll keep it up in 2013.