President Barack Obama's re-election, along with key wins by Senate Democrats, ensures that the federal government will press ahead with efforts to promote renewable energy and energy efficiency and to curb greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.
But the scope of these policies could be constrained by congressional opposition and by concern over their economic impact, making it likely that a second Obama term will deliver some, but not all, of environmentalists' top priorities.
Investors were quaking already, pummeling shares of coal-mining companies that waged a vigorous advertising battle against Obama's re-election and which are potential casualties of any curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. Shares of Peabody Energy fell 9.6 percent Wednesday, Arch Coal plunged 12.5 percent, Consol Energy dropped 6.1 percent, and Alpha Natural Resources sank 12.2 percent.
"Obama's re-election . . . provides the basis for positive movement on clean tech and climate action once the new Congress meets," the banking giant HSBC's global research group told investors. But it added, "Silence on climate issues during the campaign until the onset of Hurricane Sandy and continued Republican majority in the House means that scope for strategic action will remain limited."
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will continue to issue regulations curbing fossil fuel production and promoting energy efficiency, according to people who have spoken with senior administration officials but asked not to be identified. Within the next few months, the agency will probably finalize the first carbon standard for new power plants, along with tighter restrictions on soot emissions from all utilities.
By the end of next year, the agency, which is conducting a study of the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, will probably impose some federal standards on the operations that are driving the country's natural gas boom. It could consider imposing tighter fuel efficiency standards on heavy-duty trucks, according to several environmentalists.
"What we expect is the president to deliver on climate, roll up his sleeves and build on the modest success of what he's done so far," said Michael Brune, Sierra Club executive director, adding, "There's a great overlap between what we want and what we think we will get" in a second term.
Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), said a second Obama term could be good for the oil and gas industry. Though a sharp critic of Obama, Gerard said that "the president's views have moved 180 degrees from where they were two years ago. The president is now actively articulating an energy vision, 'all of the above,' which includes oil and gas as the first two he talks about."
Gerard said that the API money spent during the campaign was well spent because it made energy issues more central. "Energy has won," he said.
He said API would look to the administration to streamline drilling permitting and avoid actions to "stymie or limit" hydraulic fracturing. Gerard would oppose a carbon tax, which he said would inhibit production and raise energy costs. But the HSBC note to investors said that a relatively modest $20-a-ton tax on carbon emissions could slash the federal deficit by $1.25 trillion over the next 10 years.
Given Obama's embrace of an "all of the above" energy strategy, many energy industries claimed victory. Denise Bode, chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association, said that "a lot of energy voters voted for strong renewables and a national energy policy." She hopes a package of tax extenders includes a wind production tax credit. Uncertainty has already hurt output at thousands of manufacturers, she said.
At the same time, Luke Popovich, vice president of communications at the National Mining Association, said he still expected Obama to find it difficult to clamp down on the coal industry.
"We still have a divided Congress, we still have the Senate with a strong bipartisan support for coal, and we still have a House anchored largely in opposition to EPA policies," he said. "I'm not sure whether, after all is said and spent, that we're that far removed from where we were. . . . The earth didn't move."
One way the EPA is likely to pursue its climate goals without generating controversy is by using its Clean Air Act authority to push states to strengthen energy efficiency standards for buildings, which are currently set by state and local governments.
"The next step is to deal with buildings and really ramp up our efficiency in buildings," Obama said in an interview with MTV last month. "You know, if we had the same energy efficiency as Japan, we would cut our energy use by about 20 percent. And that means we'd be taking a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere."
The White House declined requests for comment Wednesday.
Robin Roy, who directs building-energy and clean-energy strategy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said efficiency upgrades for buildings are not only "energy savings opportunities — they're cost effective."
Roy noted that by 2030 the United States would save enough energy annually to equal eliminating roughly 50 coal power plants if it brought its residential building codes up to the latest U.S. standards.
Obama, who has only a few times invoked his presidential authority to designate federal lands off-limits to development, also is likely to designate new national monuments in his second term.
Environmentalists, who played a significant role this year not only in the presidential election but also in more than half a dozen Senate races and a few key House contests, made it clear they were far more focused on the administration than Congress for the immediate future.
League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski, whose group spent $14 million this year — winning seven out of its eight targeted Senate races and at least three and possibly four of its targeted House races, described the Senate as "a firewall" against legislation that would continue to win approval in the GOP-controlled House.
While Obama might have been environmentalists' favored candidate Tuesday, it is clear they will start pressuring him right away on several issues, including a push to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. On Nov. 18, the group 350.org will kick off its "Do the Math" tour in Washington with a White House rally, where they will push Obama to block any decisions favoring fossil fuel.
"The biggest thing we need to do right away is not give any more gifts to the fossil fuel industry," said Bill McKibben, 350.org's co-founder. "And that begins with Keystone."
Fred Krupp, who heads the Environmental Defense Fund advocacy group, said the administration will have to decide by the end of the week whether to require airlines to comply with European requirements for buying pollution allowances to offset their carbon emissions.
But Krupp warned against circumventing Republicans. "Part of leadership is listening," he said, "and he and all the senators really need to approach these energy and environment issues by listening to find where that center is to provide real change."
Obama, who did not speak frequently about climate change during the campaign, made it clear in his acceptance speech early Wednesday that he would pursue the matter. He listed cutting U.S. dependence on imported fuel as one of his top priorities for the next term and said, "We want our children to live in an America . . . that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."