Sen. James Inhofe has kept a relatively low profile on environmental issues since he relinquished the top GOP seat on the Environment and Public Works Committee last year.
But the Oklahoma Republican -- beloved by some industry interests and conservatives but loathed by environmentalists -- could soon be charging back into the spotlight.
Inhofe is likely to reclaim the EPW gavel if Republicans win control of the Senate in this year's midterm elections. He's a fierce opponent of the Obama administration's environmental policies and one of the most vocal climate change skeptics in Congress, who has called the idea that man-made emissions are causing climate change the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
The prospect of Inhofe taking the helm of the Senate panel already has greens cringing.
"If he becomes the chairman, health and environmental groups better batten the hatches," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the environmental group Clean Air Watch.
A leadership transition would mark a seismic shift in the tone of the EPW Committee -- known as one of the most ideologically polarized panels in the chamber. Inhofe would be snagging the gavel from California Democratic Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, one of the Senate's staunchest environmental advocates, who has been setting the agenda since Democrats took control of the chamber in 2007.
"Switching from Barbara Boxer to Jim Inhofe will mean that the committee will remain very, very polarized," O'Donnell said, "since both of them are fairly polarizing figures." He said it would also mean that instead of serving as a "shield for the executive branch," the committee could turn into "a battering ram against the executive branch."
Inhofe 'won't hesitate' on Obama oversight
Republicans have complained that Boxer and the Senate Democrats have neglected to properly conduct oversight of the Obama administration. Without gavels, the GOP hasn't had the ability to set committees' hearing agendas or subpoena witnesses. EPW ranking member Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) has repeatedly accused Boxer of failing to investigate controversial U.S. EPA rules and other environmental policies.
As the minority party, GOP members of the committee have "raised many questions, and the majority has had the ability to either undercut or limit the effectiveness of the arguments they've made," said Frank Maisano of Bracewell & Giuliani, whose firm represents a variety of industry clients.
If Senate Republicans have the majority come January, they'll have two years to sink their teeth into the Obama administration's policies.
"I don't think we've seen really any oversight of the Obama administration by the committee," said Andrew Wheeler, who was Inhofe's EPW staff director from 2003 until 2009. Inhofe was chairman of the committee from 2003 until 2007 and then ranking member under Boxer until Vitter took that spot early last year.
Inhofe was chairman during the George W. Bush administration and conducted "a lot of oversight" of the GOP administration, Wheeler said. "I know he won't hesitate" to conduct oversight of the Democratic Obama administration, Wheeler added.
Among the topics Inhofe would likely zero in on: EPA's rules to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, a controversial EPA proposal to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act and the science underpinning federal environmental rules. EPA management could also be the topic of some oversight hearings.
Vitter has accused Senate Democrats of failing to properly scrutinize some of the problems investigators have flagged at EPA, including personnel misconduct and administrative issues that have come to light in the wake of the long-standing fraud of former employee John Beale. The former top air official -- who is now serving time in prison -- lied for years about doing secret CIA work while taking home a government salary.
Climate science sparring on the docket?
Vitter hasn't focused as much on disputing climate science as Inhofe did when he was the panel's top Republican, but that topic could re-emerge as a central theme in the committee.
"He doesn't seem to have backed away from that issue. I expect him to get up on that soapbox and talk about his views," said Chris Miller, who spent years as an EPW Democratic staffer before becoming an energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Wheeler, however, said he thinks Inhofe will have a slightly different approach to tackling climate change policies this time around. "I think his climate work will probably be focused more on the EPA regulations," he said.
Inhofe's approach would be guided in part by the staff he picks to run the office. Vitter cleaned house when he became ranking member in early 2013, purging some of Inhofe's former aides and staffing up with some oversight experts as he made EPA investigations one of his top priorities (Greenwire, Jan. 10, 2013).
Inhofe could opt to keep Vitter's staffers on board, bring back his former aides or bring in fresh faces. Some of Vitter's EPW staff could opt to stay in his personal office or work on his campaign as he runs for Louisiana's governor next year.
"I think Inhofe had a general preference for people who had either industry experience or some good executive branch experience," Miller said.
Vitter's approach to oversight could "create some pressure for Inhofe to do similar types of things," Miller added, "But I don't think he's prone as much to those kinds of things." There's a sense, Miller said, that for Vitter, "this isn't so much about his time in the Senate as to where he wants to go next."
Inhofe, who turns 80 next month and is not looking at another political office, is "a little bit more of a traditionalist," Miller said. "I think he's probably more interested in getting what can be done actually done."
An Inhofe spokeswoman said the senator couldn't be made available for an interview about what his agenda would be as chairman. She said he's focused for now on winning his election back home -- largely a foregone conclusion -- but would be honored to serve in a leadership position if the GOP takes control of the Senate.
Inhofe isn't in danger back home. He's facing off against Democrat Matt Silverstein, an investment planner and political novice. Silverstein has trailed Inhofe by about 30 points in recent polls, according to Real Clear Politics.
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