The votes are still being tallied to determine whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden will become the next president of the United States. But despite still-undecided outcomes in states including Maine, Georgia and North Carolina as of Wednesday morning, it appears increasingly likely that Republicans will retain a majority in the U.S. Senate. 

If Republicans do keep control of the upper chamber of Congress, the options for Democrats to push through their wide-ranging energy and climate change policies will narrow significantly — even if Biden wins the election. 

Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, which includes pledges to create a national clean energy standard and target a net-zero carbon power sector by 2035 — a highly ambitious target that many utilities and energy experts say would be exceedingly difficult to achieve — could be expected to face severe opposition from Senate Republicans. More wide-ranging proposals from Democrats in the House of Representatives would appear to be even further out of reach. 

A President Biden could use his executive authority to reverse Trump administration actions to weaken regulations on polluting industries, reduce efficiency standards for automobiles and appliances, open federal lands to oil and gas extraction, and pull the country out of the Paris Agreement on global climate change. But other key steps in his plan, particularly those involving federal funding, will require cooperation from Congress. 

The fault lines between the two parties on these matters were laid out by Senator Lisa Murkowski and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in a Stanford University-hosted event last month. “There’s no shortage of ideas; there’s no shortage of legislation that’s out there, but it’s all about what is in the realm of the political right now,” said Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. 

The two senators agreed that bipartisan support exists for federal policies that could boost clean energy, such as increased research and development spending on energy technologies to help balance an increasingly renewable-powered grid and investing in infrastructure such as transmission capacity to integrate the country’s growing amounts of wind and solar power. 

But the discussion also highlighted the gap between the two parties on policies such as domestic oil and gas production, which Republicans support expanding and which the emissions reduction policies pushed by Democrats would seek to curtail. 

Narrowing prospects for fast action on Democratic climate priorities 

Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat known for giving weekly floor speeches on the need to combat climate change before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted that schedule, argued that Democrats could use the budget reconciliation process to achieve some of their goals if they won control of the Senate. 

An emergency reconciliation bill, which can be passed with a simple majority rather than being subjected to a Senate filibuster, could include shifts in spending on existing channels of federal funding, such as energy incentives for fossil fuel versus clean energy industries. 

But a Republican majority in the Senate would prevent Democrats from managing the reconciliation process through both houses of Congress.

Murkowski insisted the GOP is not opposed to what she termed "commonsense climate policies." But legislative proposals from her party have been sparse. House Republicans proposed a bill this year that would focus on planting trees to sequester atmospheric carbon, but they have not followed up with promised additional bills focused on clean energy and conservation.

Successive polls show that a significant majority of U.S. citizens support action to combat global warming, putting pressure on both parties to seek bipartisan measures to meet the challenge. Murkowski is part of a “Senate Climate Solutions Caucus” that includes Republican senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike Braun of Indiana and Mitt Romney of Utah, along with Democrats. 

Energy bill R&D and transmission infrastructure spending offer possibilities 

Murkowski is also the co-sponsor of the American Energy Innovation Act, a massive energy bill containing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding over the coming years to boost research and development for solar and wind power, energy storage, smart grid, electric vehicles and other key clean energy technologies. The bill faltered this spring but could be reintroduced next year — although its inclusion of funding for the oil and gas industries is likely to face some opposition from Democrats. 

A coronavirus relief bill is likely to be of the first acts of Congress post-election, and it could include clean energy spending imperatives such as the tax extensions being sought by the solar and wind industries. Those credits were left out of the $1.37 trillion spending bill passed by Congress in December, and renewable energy industry groups unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to extend them as part of this spring’s coronavirus relief package

“Enacting these commonsense emergency relief measures into law would stem job losses in every state, keep us from falling even further behind on our climate commitments, and immediately help the renewable sector power the nation’s economic recovery,” Gregory Wetstone, president and CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said in a statement last week.

But if the political calculus that led to these provisions failing to be included in this spring’s coronavirus relief package remains unchanged, it may be difficult for them to pass muster with Senate Republicans.

Broader infrastructure legislation could also provide aid to clean energy priorities such as transmission build-outs to connect far-off wind and solar power to load centers. Wind power in particular is an important economic driver in areas that face the most immediate constraints from lack of transmission capacity, and it garners some support from Republican lawmakers representing wind-rich states such as Texas, Iowa and Kansas. 

“If Biden wins, I think a robust COVID bill would be his first priority,” said Joseph Kelliher, a former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and executive vice president of major renewable energy owner NextEra Energy, at an event hosted by the pro-transmission group Wires last week. “But I don’t think he would want it to be a Christmas tree.” Still, “the infrastructure bill could be number two, right after that.” 

Congress could take several actions to boost the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s ability to spur transmission projects within the complex regulations that guide how costs of new projects can be recovered by investors, said Rob Gramlich, executive director for the transmission advocacy group Americans for a Clean Energy Grid. Those could include tax credits for interregional transmission projects, which now face daunting challenges in being sited, planned and cleared for cost recovery when they cross the “seams” between different transmission grid operator territories, he said. 

Other options could include legislation that makes clear FERC’s authority to organize new models for sharing the costs and benefits of transmission projects that are challenging for existing cost recovery mechanisms, Gramlich said. That could be critical for building more cost-effective offshore transmission networks needed to connect the massive amount of offshore wind being planned by states along the East Coast.