There was good news of a sort for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Congress on Wednesday. The Senate voted down several bills that would have blocked the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. That collection included one bill—co-sponsored by Republican Senators James Inhofe and Mitch McConnell—that would have actually repealed the EPA’s scientific finding that greenhouse gases are a threat to public health. (That’s the bill that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was referring to when she told TIME last week that politicians were making a “law to overrule scientists.”)
But while the Inhofe-McConnell bill failed to muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster (the filibuster—suddenly the environmentalists’ friend!), 50 senators voted in favor of legislation that essentially denies the reality of climate change, including 46 Republicans in the upper chamber, and four conservative Democrats. (Maine’s Susan Collins was the lone Republican to vote no, preventing the bill from claiming a majority. Except a primary challenge in 3, 2, 1…) In addition, there were a handful of less draconian bills sponsored by Democrats that would have delayed any EPA carbon regulations—and while those pieces of legislation only received a few votes, just the fact that they were put forward indicates that there are a number of conservative Democrats uncomfortable with the idea of climate regulation. The fact that the White House promised to veto any anti-EPA bills apparently wasn’t enough to dissuade them. What’s more, the House is set to vote on similar legislation tomorrow—and with a big Republican majority, it’s sure to pass, although that’s as far as it will go.
So environmentalists can breathe a sigh of relief—but not a deep one. Today’s events shows that the mood on Capitol Hill has definitely turned against advocates of action on climate change, leaving greens essentially playing defense. More worrying, environmentalists have to wonder just how solid the White House will be on this issue. The Obama Administration has sent mixed signals on whether it would go to the mat for the EPA on climate change specifically. In conservations with environmental leaders at the Fortune Brainstorm Green meeting earlier this week, it became clear that while they felt confident of the White House’s backing against any efforts to undo protections around public health—like a move by Republicans to weaken EPA regulations on mercury emissions—greens aren’t so sure that Obama will be with them on climate change. It was telling that in a major speech last week on energy, Obama barely mentioned global warming and did not talk about defending EPA regulations on carbon.
In any case, it’s all hands on deck time for environmental organizations, who’ve seen a stunning reversal of fortune since the heady days of 2009. Their best hope might be the Republican party itself, simply going too far and inviting a public backlash. “This is a huge overreach,” Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp told me on Monday. “The public wants clean air. They want to know that government regulation is keeping them safe from industrial pollution.” I think Krupp is right—but wanting clean air isn’t the same thing as wanting climate regulation. But there’s still plenty of time to find out who’s right. More to come…