Maria Cantwell, Tom Carper to lead Democrats on key Senate environment committees in 115th Congress

U.S. Senate Democrats, meeting this week to name a new minority leader to take over following the impending retirement of Sen. Harry M. Reid of Nevada, have chosen two veteran legislators to be the party’s leaders on the chamber’s two key environmental policy committees.

Sen. Maria E. Cantwell of Washington will be the ranking member on the Committee on Energy & Natural Resources, while Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware will be his party’s senior member of the Committee on Environment & Public Works.

Cantwell, 58, is a veteran politician, having first been elected to public office in 1986. She served in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1993-1995 before returning to Congress as a U.S. senator after defeating her Republican predecessor Slade Gorton in 2000.

The former technology company executive has prioritized a comprehensive energy bill and worked with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, to move that measure through the Senate during the 114th Congress. That bill, S. 2012, is now in a conference committee following passage of similar legislation by the House of Representatives.

Titled the Energy Policy Modernization Act, S. 2012 would mandate some improvement in the energy efficiency of buildings, encourage renewable energy production by requiring owners of transmission lines and transformers to assure that the electricity grid can accommodate power generated by solar panels and wind turbines, and reduce legal and bureaucratic obstacles to the export of natural gas.

S. 2012 would also permanently renew the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The conference committee consideration of S. 2012 has not yet been scheduled. With only a few weeks remaining in the 114th Congress, it is not clear whether the measure can be sent to President Barack Obama’s desk before adjournment.

“We are currently focused on whether we can reach agreement on the energy bill in this Congress,” a spokesperson for Cantwell who preferred not to be named said in a statement.

Earlier in her career Cantwell successfully convinced Congress to increase the size of Mt. Rainier National Park, establish the Wild Sky Wilderness in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and forbid oil exploration off Washington’s Pacific coast.

Murkowski will continue to chair the energy and natural resources committee, though Republicans will have either a three- or four seat Senate majority in the upcoming Congress, depending on the outcome of a pending election in Louisiana, instead of the 54 seats in the 100-member chamber they now hold.

Carper, 69, was also first elected to the Senate in 2000. He is a former governor of the First State and also served in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1983-1993.

During the 114th Congress Carper voted for a bill that would override Obama’s decision to deny a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and authorize construction of mammoth fossil fuel project. He also supported a 2013 bill that aimed to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from requiring a Clean Water Act permit for the discharge of registered pesticides into lakes, rivers, and streams.

On the other hand,  Carper has often been a defender of strong environmental protections. For example, in January he voted against a resolution that would have killed EPA’s Waters of the United States rule and also voted “no” on two 2015 Senate resolutions that would have nullified the Obama administration’s electric power plant regulations.

Sen. John A. Barrasso III, R-Wyo., will be the chairman of the environment and public works committee during the 115th Congress.

Barrasso, who first came to the Senate in 2007, has established a reputation as being a firm denier of climate science. In that respect he represents little change from the committee’s current chairman, Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe.

As of the time this article is published there has been no announcement of the other members of either committee.

UPDATE, Nov. 18, 2016, 11:44 am: A statement by a spokesperson for Sen. Maria Cantwell was added.

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