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New US House speaker likely to sustain GOP push to roll back climate policies

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US House Republicans on Oct. 25 elected Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, pictured at right holding the gavel, as the next House speaker.
Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News via Getty Images North America.

The newly elected speaker of the US House of Representatives appears likely to reinforce GOP efforts to roll back Biden administration climate policies and support domestic fossil fuel production.

On Oct. 25, the House elected Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) as speaker, elevating a lawmaker who has voiced skepticism of mainstream climate science and hails from a state with a substantial fossil fuel industry. The vote came after the party's hardline conservative wing mounted a successful effort in early October to remove prior speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) from the leadership role.

Johnson's home state was the third biggest producer of dry natural gas in the US for 2022, and its coastal waters supply oil from federal offshore leases. According to independent research firm Open Secrets, the oil and gas industry gave $84,350 to Johnson's campaign committee in the 2021-2022 House election cycle, the second biggest group by spending after retired donors.

In a statement, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) congratulated Johnson on his election to speaker.

"As a representative from Louisiana's 4th Congressional district, Rep. Johnson knows the importance of both Haynesville shale and Gulf of Mexico production to America's energy future," IPAA President & CEO Jeff Eshelman said. "IPAA looks forward to working with Speaker Johnson and his team on the issues that impact independent oil and natural gas producers across the country."

Johnson has previously questioned the cause of climate change, contrasting the consensus among most climate scientists that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are sharply accelerating global warming.

"The climate is changing, but the question is, is it being caused by natural cycles over the span of the Earth's history?" Johnson said in 2017. "Or is it changing because we drive SUVs? I don't believe in the latter. I don't think that's the primary driver."

The League of Conservation Voters blasted Johnson's election to speaker, with the group giving him a lifetime voting score of 2% on climate and environmental issues.

"Johnson has led attacks on our elections, denied that climate change is a result of fossil fuels and polluters, and appears poised to continue to cater to Big Oil and Gas allies as Speaker," the group's senior vice president of government affairs, Tiernan Sittenfeld, said in an Oct. 25 statement.

Johnson's office did not immediately respond to a call on his climate and energy stance or plans on the issues as speaker.

Despite major environmental groups' criticisms, conservative clean energy advocates noted that Johnson has support from leading Republicans on energy and environmental issues. Those supporters include House Natural Resources Committee Chair Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Conservative Climate Caucus Chairman John Curtis (R-Utah).

Heather Reams, president of right-leaning Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, said the group welcomes the opportunity to work with Johnson "to promote affordable, reliable, and clean America-made energy."

Ahead of Johnson's ascent to speaker, the GOP-majority House has already been working this Congress to undo key climate and clean energy policies backed by Democrats, including major portions of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022. The bill contained an estimated $369 billion in climate and energy spending, largely in the form of tax incentives.

The House GOP has also challenged Biden administration policies on oil and gas leasing in federal areas, a cause Johnson will likely continue to back in his new role.

But Republican House proposals to repeal sections of the IRA and other Biden energy and climate policies have repeatedly faced opposition from the Democrat-controlled Senate and White House, dooming their chance of enactment.

Near-term priorities, long-term questions

In an Oct. 23 letter to colleagues, Johnson laid out a proposed plan of action as speaker. The plan included passing several annual appropriations bills for fiscal year 2024 before a continuing resolution to fund the federal government expires Nov. 17. One of the House's first orders of business under Johnson is consideration of the fiscal year 2024 energy and water appropriations package.

If another stopgap funding measure is needed, Johnson suggested legislation that lasts through either Jan. 15 or April 15 of 2024 "to ensure the Senate cannot jam the House with a Christmas omnibus."

Avoiding a government shutdown would better allow federal agencies to move ahead on key administration policies, including the implementation of the IRA. But the fate of climate and energy policy in the House under Johnson remains a question.

The Louisiana lawmaker is "certainly on the more conservative side" of the Republican caucus, the Bipartisan Policy Center's energy policy director Xan Fishman said in an interview.

In recent years, Johnson has voted against major bipartisan legislation affecting energy, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and the CHIPS and Science Act. He also voted against certifying President Joe Biden's electors in the 2020 election.

"Something to keep an eye on is not as much what he says on climate, but whether or not he is going to capitulate to an extreme set in his party and hand over the lead to China in these lucrative [clean energy industries]," said Ryan Fitzpatrick, senior director of centrist think tank Third Way's energy and climate program.

"We'll see the impact that he has when we know whether or not he will support massive cuts to [research, development and demonstration] budgets that are helping the US compete and lead in clean energy technologies," Fitzpatrick said in an interview.

But Democrats' control of the Senate and White House, along with the GOP's thin House majority and rules allowing even one House member to call for a vote on ousting the speaker, could limit any big policy moves.

"At the end of the day, any legislation is going to have to be a bipartisan deal," Fishman said. "That basic fact hasn't changed."

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