Will Vitter Replace Inhofe on the Senate Environment Committee?

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At a campaign event in Louisiana a few weeks ago, Sen. David Vitter told his constituents that there was a "very good chance" of him becoming the top Republican on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee next year. One person this may have been news to is Sen. James Inhofe, the current ranking Republican on the committee. Sen. George Voinovich, who ranks between Inhofe and Vitter, is retiring, but Inhofe has a couple of years before he'll term out of his ranking position.

Vitter's office did not respond to a request for comment, and he's apparently been stonewalling other members of the media as well. Politics of the switch aside, though, how would a Vitter-led Republican EPW caucus differ from Inhofe's? The question is especially pressing since the committee's ranking Republican would replace Sen. Barbara Boxer as committee chair were the Senate majority to switch after November.

Inhofe has used his EPW pulpit to broadcast his belief that climate change is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." In February, he playfully poked fun at climate activists after an epic snowstorm in Washington by circulating a photo of an igloo his grandchildren had built and labeled "Al Gore's New Home." Needless to say, members of the environmental community did not find the gesture very amusing and consider Inhofe to be one of the biggest obstacles to comprehensive climate legislation on the Hill.

I spoke to Heather Taylor-Miesle, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Action Fund, and Mike Palamuso, communications director for the League of Conservation Voters, about whether they thought a Vitter-led Republican EPW caucus would be more conducive to environmental legislation than an Inhofe-led one.

"Sen. Inhofe has not been friendly to the issue," Taylor-Miesle said, "so at least we've had our practice. You don't want to say, 'Could it get any worse?', because I'm a big believer that it can always get worse. But at the same time, it's the same old, same old."

Palamuso agreed that it could always get worse:

Obviously, Sen. Inhofe has been the Senate's chief global warming denier. But Sen. Vitter has a lifetime score on our national environmental scorecard of just 3 percent and ranks among the Senate's top recipients of oil and gas money. While I suppose it's possible his rhetoric on climate may not be quite as flamboyant as Inhofe's, they're both among the worst in terms of taking money from oil and gas interests.

Vitter rankled environmentalists after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded by proposing a bill that retained a liability cap for oil companies responsible for spills. Inhofe also wants to retain a cap so that smaller drilling operations aren't scared out of business. Both senators frequently come under attack for their ties to the oil and gas industries, and Inhofe has also been targeted for his ties to coal. Both are strong proponents of offshore drilling. 

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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