Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Red Challenges to Green Goals: How the New EPA Regulations Will Affect the Midterms

By Ben KrapelsPublished October 21, 2014

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President Obama's legacy will be defined by the Affordable Care Act and his forceful climate policy, one of the largest steps forward to combat global warming in decades. But an unforeseen consequence of his new EPA regulations may be Republicans taking control of the Senate after this fall's midterm elections.
By Ben Krapels, 10/21/14

On June 2nd, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new regulations that will profoundly change the American energy landscape, hamstring the American coal industry, and force many existing power plants to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions according to state-specific targets. They will be enforced under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act as a major part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan to revolutionize America's energy infrastructure by making clean energy more cost-competitive. However, these new regulations may have major implications for Democratic senators up for re-election this November. Democrats may still control the Senate after riding Obama's liberal momentum to victory in 2008, but many senators are vulnerable to attacks by powerful coal industry groups in their states for supporting the new regulations.

The new EPA regulations set ambitious goals for limiting carbon dioxide emissions by targeting power plants, which make up the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States at 38 percent. All coal-powered plants will be limited to 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, down from a current level of approximately 1,750 pounds per megawatt hour from the average coal plant. Additionally, states have several strategies for accomplishing emissions reductions, such as increasing clean energy production and improving energy efficiency. While coal plants will do their best to abide by these new regulations by becoming more efficient, it will be significantly more expensive to burn coal. Other energy sources like renewables and natural gas, which naturally burns approximately 800 pounds of carbon per megawatt-hour, seem primed to replace coal for electricity production.

As admirable as the new EPA regulations are, they may come at the expense of maintaining a Democrat-controlled Senate. Coal lobbies and constituents who depend on the coal industry for their livelihoods will make their voices heard in November and actively oppose Democratic senators who are linked to Obama's initiative. Republican challengers in red, coal rich states will paint the Democratic incumbents as ideological followers of Obama's climate plan, as well as enemies of creating jobs in their state. Other than in New England, where a massive liberal base will easily re-elect Ed Markey (MA) and Jack Reed (RI), the other senators coming up for re-election are now associated with an unpopular president. These same senators must now face the electoral repercussions of six years of Congressional gridlock and competing in red states. While Democratic senators were elected in Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, and South Dakota in 2008, these traditional bastions of conservatism may return to Republican control.  

The new EPA regulations could be the final nail in the coffin for many Democratic senators from fossil-fuel rich red states. Beyond conservative doubts of the effects of global warming, the significance of coal in these states makes support of the new EPA regulations almost impossible for incumbent Democratic senators. Many of them have taken stances pledging their support for robust coal production in their states. This November, Obama's new climate regulations will be entrenched in a firmly partisan battle, which could ultimately produce a more red and less green Congress.