WASHINGTON - Big Republican wins in Tuesday's elections will not only kill chances that the U.S. Congress will pass a broad climate change bill during President Barack Obama's first term, but may also hurt his strategy of winning even scaled-back energy legislation.
Republicans, who had slammed any attempt to put a price on carbon emissions as an "energy tax," won control of the House of Representatives from Obama's Democrats and picked up seats in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Despite predictions by U.S. scientists that 2010 could be the warmest year on record, Obama's hopes of signing a bill any time soon to cut emissions from coal-fired plants, manufacturers and vehicles have been all but destroyed.
The Republican victories also hamper the Obama administration's hopes of taking a leading role in global climate talks set to resume in Cancun, Mexico, later this month. Few expect progress at the talks, especially with the United States coming to the table without legislation to cut greenhouse emissions blamed for warming the planet.
Nevertheless, one of the world's most ambitious laws to combat global warming survived a challenge Tuesday as California voters overwhelmingly rejected a measure that would have put on ice the state's plans for more renewable energy and a market to curb greenhouse gases.
Losses in the U.S. Congress were also countered by wins by Democrats in the governors' races in Massachusetts and California, which may give a boost to regional programs to cut emissions.
But Obama's hopes to tackle national energy policy bit by bit after the Senate removed climate measures from the energy bill in July may also be threatened by losses in Congress.
"It might be tough to get typical energy legislation passed in the next year or two," said Manik Roy, a government outreach expert at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Victories by Tea Party-backed Republicans in the Senate such as Marco Rubio in Florida, who questions whether global warming is caused by mankind, and Rand Paul in Kentucky could lead to the risk of deadlock on slimmed down energy bills. The Tea Party is a loosely organized conservative political movement harshly critical of Obama.
"The central Tea Party message is about reducing government spending, and providing huge subsidies for carbon capture and sequestration or nuclear power in an energy bill is not consistent with that," Roy said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who prevailed in a tough fight for his seat in Nevada, said on Wednesday, however, that he will "keep fighting to make sure" that "big oil" is kept in check. But he did not specifically pledge a vote during the lame-duck session on offshore drilling controls.
Technologies that could require subsidies include nuclear power, which has been on the verge of a comeback, and capturing carbon at power plants for burial underground and alternative energy sources like wind and solar which are new.
"Any high-cost source is going face greater resistance, including nuclear," said Kevin Book, an analyst at ClearView Energy Partners, LLC.
In the House, many lawmakers lost partially because they had supported climate policy. Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia coal country who came under fire for voting for the chamber's climate bill in 2009, lost to Republican Morgan Griffith. Fellow Virginian Democrat Tom Perriello lost to Republican Robert Hurt.
In the Senate, Republicans were on the way to gaining four seats, making it tough for John Kerry, the chief proponent of passing climate change legislation, to get the job done.
Even a surprise victory for Democrats in the Senate gave little hope of life for climate legislation. Democrat Joe Manchin won a tight race in coal country West Virginia. But Manchin, the state's governor, aired an ad during the campaign featuring him shooting the cap-and-trade bill with a rifle.
In California, Democrat Jerry Brown, who won the governorship, is seen as a stronger supporter of climate and alternative energy than Meg Whitman, who had called for a timeout of the state's ambitious emissions reduction law.
California voted against Proposition 23, which would have put a hold on the state's cap-and-trade law until the unemployment rate, now over 12 percent, fell to 5.5 percent for four quarters.
Democrat Deval Patrick won the Massachusetts governorship, which calmed worries that the election could hurt the country's only functioning cap-and-trade market, run by 10 states in the Northeast.
In addition, Democrat Andrew Cuomo won the governor's race in New York, where the program was founded.
(Additional reporting by Russell Blinch and Rick Cowan)
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