The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee may see its climate change rhetoric dialed back a notch next year as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) inherits the top GOP spot from noted skeptic James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
While Vitter says he is skeptical that human emissions are playing the chief role in driving climate change, he said in an interview with E&E Daily that he is likely to devote less of his energies to climate skepticism than his predecessor did, focusing instead on a suite of issues including water infrastructure legislation, an overhaul to the Toxic Substances Control Act and reforming the highway trust fund.
"I share his intense skepticism," Vitter said of Inhofe. "But I would not expect it to be as much the focus of my time and attention on the committee."
Inhofe, who will become ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has made climate change his signature issue on the EPW Committee, where he will continue to serve -- and may yet become ranking member of one of its subcommittees. The chairman of the panel until Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2007, Inhofe has visited U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings, appeared on talk shows and written a book to spread his belief that climate change is "a hoax" perpetrated by special interests to control the American economy.
Vitter said he also has serious doubts that human emissions are contributing to climate change, if climate change even exists.
"I certainly think it's significant and not adequately explained away, as folks have tried to do, the scandals that went on in climate science in the last five years and the doctoring of data that went on," he said.
Vitter was referring to the so-called Climategate incident in which climate scientists' emails were stolen from a server at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit and published out of context. Skeptics have pointed to the incident as proof that scientists manipulated data to show warming where none existed, but several independent investigations have cleared the researchers of wrongdoing.
But Vitter said that recent events have made climate change a less important issue. For one thing, climate change legislation is "dead" in Congress, he said.
And while U.S. EPA will move ahead with regulations under the Clean Air Act, Vitter pledged to use his new post to push back, particularly against rules that are "beyond the proper authority of the administration."
Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill kept up the drumbeat for four years on what they call EPA's regulatory overreach with the majority-Republican House passing numerous bills to strip the agency of its authorities.
Democrats control the Senate, but Vitter noted that the chamber's Republicans still have ways to hold the Obama administration's feet to the fire on regulation.
"In the Senate we have tools at our disposal that aren't available in the House, like dealing with nominations and other things that the administration needs to pass through the Senate," he said.
Vitter himself has used the Senate's advise and consent role numerous times to pressure the administration, blocking the confirmations of Interior Department officials and placing a hold on the Interior secretary's pay raise until the agency accelerated its approval of offshore drilling permits.
It is unclear how many confirmations the Senate will be asked to vote on in the second term, but some observers have said Obama might press Cabinet members to stay in part to avoid that battle.
Vitter also cited the Congressional Review Act and riders on appropriations bills as opportunities to combat regulation, particularly if Congress passes stand-alone spending bills rather than continuing resolutions.
Democrats in the Senate have managed to keep such items off spending bills in recent years, but Vitter said Republicans would keep trying.
"I'm not suggesting it's going to be easy, but I'm just saying that that's very much on the table," he said.
Vitter said he would especially oppose any new federal efforts to step up regulation of hydraulic fracturing, a means of natural gas production he said has paid untold dividends for job creation and energy supply.
EPA finalized an air quality rule for oil and natural gas production earlier this year that provides federal regulation for volatile organic compounds from "fracking" for the first time, and some environmentalists have asked EPA to promulgate new rules for methane emissions released during the process.
But Vitter said federal regulation of this kind would be "an enormous mistake."
"I think that's been an enormous positive in the economy in the last few years," he said. "It's been masked a little bit by the recession; but for that process and cheap natural gas, I think you could probably add a point to unemployment at least."
Reaching across the aisle on TSCA reform
Vitter hopes to find a bipartisan consensus to make reforms to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA. A bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), which would make manufacturers responsible for proving their substances are safe before they enter commerce, cleared the EPW Committee in July.
But Vitter predicted it wouldn't go any further. Lautenberg's proposal "hasn't passed for seven years, and the fundamentals haven't changed," he said. Without a governing majority in the Senate and control of the House, Democrats would have to collaborate more with Republicans, he said.
Vitter, who met with Lautenberg before the markup but did not support his bill, said the two men have "very different core approaches" to TSCA reform. He said he favors a bill that would focus on a more limited segment of the chemical industry.
"I'm going to continue to reach out to Frank and continue to work with Democrats on a bipartisan TSCA bill," he said.
Vitter said he was optimistic that Democrats and Republicans could find common ground on a water infrastructure bill the committee hopes to see enacted next year and that he named as his top priority.
He hoped the measure would include language he sponsored with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) that would expedite Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects. Another item on his wish list: reforming industry-funded trust funds for updating ports and dredging waterways to ensure they are dedicated to that purpose.
Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Don Briggs said in an interview that Vitter was a reliable and knowledgeable ally to his state's petroleum industry, intervening in state and federal issues that are important to industry leaders.
He said that Vitter's new position, along with his knowledge of the Bayou State's energy issues, "gives him a lot of credibility on the Hill in the case of oil and gas issues."
"He comes from a major producing state," Briggs noted. "It would only be natural for him to be keenly aware of issues that involve Louisiana's biggest industry."
Briggs said his membership is very concerned about EPA rules for refining and fracking, which he called "a big issue that is probably around the corner." He said Vitter would prove a formidable critic of those rules.
But he said the senator had sometimes parted ways with the industry, too. Most notably, Briggs said, he jumped on the bandwagon in pushing for punitive damages against BP PLC for its 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, something that industry advocates feared would harm an economically important company.
"David has absolutely gone after them, and holding their feet to the fire," he said.
Briggs said he had told Vitter that wringing money out of BP would "kill off a very, very important company to Louisiana."
Fighter for animal rights
A less well-known area of interest for Vitter is animal rights, but he is the owner of a rescue dog and has worked to prevent animal cruelty since he was a state legislator pushing legislation to criminalize cock fighting.
Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, pointed out that Vitter had also co-sponsored legislation by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) to crack down on puppy mills that breed dogs in inhumane conditions. With Senate EPW Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), he has sponsored legislation to ban the trade of primates as pets.
"He's really an incredible leader on animal welfare issues in Congress," said Pacelle, though he added that Vitter and the Humane Society had probably parted ways on some wilderness-related legislation.