If the GOP wins control of the House next week, senior congressional Republicans plan to launch a blistering attack on the Obama administration's environmental policies, as well as on scientists who link air pollution to climate change.
The GOP's fire will be concentrated especially on the administration's efforts to use the Environmental Protection Agency's authority over air pollution to tighten emissions controls on coal, oil and other carbon fuels that scientists say contribute to global warming.
The attack, according to senior Republicans, will seek to portray the EPA as abusing its authority and damaging the economy with needless government regulations.
In addition, GOP leaders say, they will focus on what they see as distortions of scientific evidence regarding climate change and on Obama administration efforts to achieve by executive rule-making what it failed to win from Congress.
Even if Republicans should win majorities in both the House and Senate, they would face difficulties putting their views into legislative form, since Senate Democrats could use the threat of filibuster to block bills just as the GOP did on climate and other issues during the past year.
Also, Obama could use his veto power.
But the GOP's plans for wide-ranging and sustained investigations by congressional committees could put the EPA and administration environmental policymakers on the defensive and create political pressures that could cause Obama to pull back on environmental issues as the 2012 presidential election draws closer.
In comments last week, White House officials said they are considering hiring more lawyers to the Office of Legal Counsel to gird for the possible battles ahead. Yet even with the White House running interference for the EPA and other agencies, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson conceded that a Republican anti-regulatory campaign could end up effectively hamstringing her agency's work.
The new rules EPA has issued over the last year on vehicle emissions and those expected soon for industry, Jackson said, "would be endangered by many, if not all, of the efforts we've seen to take away the agency's greenhouse gas authority."
Over the last two years, the Obama administration and the EPA have stepped up pressure on industry, utilities and states to curtail pollution. A 2007 Supreme Court ruling opened the door for the EPA to use its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in new rules for vehicle emissions and, starting early next year, regulations for emissions from utilities.
In contrast to the previous administration, the Obama White House has also embraced the broad consensus within the scientific community that human activity, mainly through the emitting of carbon dioxide, has led to global warming.
All that will be up for scrutiny in the event of a Republican takeover of the House, which political analysts are predicting. The Republican Party has hammered at the administration's environmental agenda during the campaign. And rejecting the work of climate scientists has become increasingly common among conservatives.
Several key Republican Congressmen — most notably Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who could take over the chairmanship of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — have said they plan to investigate climate scientists they contend manipulated data to prove the case that human activity is contributing to global warming.
Using control of congressional committees — and their investigative powers — to attack the opposition is not a new idea. After Democrats gained control of Congress in 2006, they held critical hearings on everything from an energy task force run by Vice President Dick Cheney to the Bush administration's support of abstinence-only sex education.
Similarly, during the Clinton administration, when Republicans took over they appointed independent counsels to investigate various aspects of the administration, leading to the Whitewater probe and the impeachment proceedings, among others.
In a recent op-ed article, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, declared that the GOP is preparing to "declare war on the regulatory state."
A steady flow of letters, subpoenas and congressional hearings would prove "incredibly disruptive" to an agency's ability to work and promulgate rules, said Kate Gordon, of the energy policy project at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research and advocacy group in Washington.
Congressional inquiries also offer a platform for energizing the GOP's conservative base in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
The investigations are expected to target questions about EPA's preparedness for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Already, House Republicans have written letters to the Interior Department questioning the moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling that the administration invoked after the explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers and spilled nearly 5 million barrels of oil.
But the primary focus will be on the EPA's determination last year that carbon dioxide and other emissions endanger public welfare by contributing to climate change. Armed with this finding, the EPA has moved to reduce greenhouse gases by mandating emissions reductions in vehicles and will soon move to regulate stationary sources like power plants and factories.
House Republicans like Issa and James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming have criticized the EPA for basing its endangerment finding on what they consider flawed research. Republicans assert that the science on climate change is not yet "settled," despite the vast global scientific consensus about its human causes.
Specifically, Issa has said he wants to investigate the "Climategate" scandal that broke late last year, when hackers illegally obtained and released thousands of emails of climate scientists working with a leading British laboratory.
Climate skeptics, among them House Republicans like Issa, contend that the sniping and harshness in some emails prove that climate scientists suppressed dissenting studies and that science showing the link between greenhouse gases and climate change is biased and tainted.
Several independent panels abroad and in the U.S. that reviewed the emails cleared the scientists of wrongdoing and found their research to be reliable. The EPA has also said that "nothing in the emails undermines the science upon which" the endangerment findings are based.
Like officials within the administration, scientists around the country who expect to be investigated by Issa and others are getting legal advice on how to best protect themselves. Among them is Michael E. Mann, professor of meteorology at Penn State University and one of the researchers who developed the "hockey stick" graph that shows a recent spike in global temperatures.
Issa named Mann in a letter to the EPA as a scientist whose work was not "unbiased, accurate or reliable."
"I don't think we can cower under the politically motivated attacks by the forces of anti-science, which includes prominent politicians who are in the pay of the fossil fuel industry," Mann said in a telephone interview about his approach to possible congressional investigations.
"One prepares for this by doing one's best to get the truth out because we have nothing to hide as climate scientists: We can stand proudly on our research," he said.