By Luke Popovich

That’s fancy French for “after the flood.” It’s a phrase historians apply to post-revolutionary periods but suitable for describing Washington after the election that just cast out many congressional Democrats and with them much of the administration’s energy and environmental agenda. The result administered by angry, frustrated voters certainly resembled a flood if not the tsunami that some hoped might also swamp the Senate along with the House.  

But whether you call the mid-term elections a “shellacking,” as the president did, or “repudiation,” the term favored by the new Speaker of the House, the November 2 results will reset Washington’s relations with the coal industry.  First, the positives: forget for now any ambitious climate change legislation that caps or taxes carbon emissions from coal-based power plants.  If the congressional races established anything, it was the political risk of voting for the cap-and-trade bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).  Should another cap-and-trade bill come before the Congress—and that’s very unlikely—expect some 30 fewer House votes now that 30 House Democrats who voted for it were defeated. In most of these races that vote proved unpopular if not fatal.   

For the environmental lobby, the election was a shot in the face.  Ignoring more modest gains from energy efficiency and conservation, they had gambled everything on a cap-and-trade crusade led by a Democratic Congress and a charismatic president. Now some groups, reading the handwriting on the walls of Congress, are folding up their tents and taking their show to state capitals in hope of a more receptive audience.  

Certainly the president got the message. He told reporters there’ll be no comprehensive energy legislation, the kind that supposedly will lift the gritty fossil based economy into the sunny uplands of wind mills and solar panels, for the next few years.  

In fact, it’s unlikely we’ll see much big-ticket legislating of any kind if predictions of partisan gridlock hold up. There’s little reason to expect they won’t. Fiscally-conservative Tea Partiers will pull traditional Republicans to the right while remaining Democrats from safe districts on the coasts and in the inner cities promote their liberal agenda. Fewer moderates are left to separate them. By now, the two sides will probably have already squared off over raising the federal debt ceiling, extending tax cuts and dealing with the president’s debt commission report due this fall.

Are there areas of possible compromise on energy issues? In his post-election press conference, the president mentioned natural gas, nuclear power and electric vehicles. Those of us hoping to hear the words “clean coal” were disappointed. Whether by accident or calculation, he did not say coal would be among the energy issues inspiring fraternal cooperation. The same day, however, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saw possible cooperation on nuclear power and “clean coal technology” and “other things the president said that he’s for that most of my members are for.”  

With fewer chances for legislation to advance its goals, the administration is leaning on its regulatory agencies. The Office of Surface Mining is planning to re-regulate coal mining in valley bottoms nationwide, the Army Corps of Engineers is tightening criteria for coal mining permits, MSHA thinks more regulation will lead to safer mines, and of course the EPA is orchestrating much of this and more with draconian new rules for mining, coal ash, tougher standards for ozone, mercury and other air emissions and, beginning January 2, first-ever greenhouse gas controls on coal-based power plants. That’s why expectations from the new Congress must be realistic: the cavalry is riding to the rescue but the settlers may already be dead.

Voters appear to have said: put the economy first and focus on creating U.S. jobs. Will regulatory agencies listen—feel the voters’ pain instead of causing it?  Some sound skeptical. Sen. McConnell promised he would “keep a spotlight on the various agencies the administration will now use to advance through regulation what it can’t through legislation.” Those sound like fighting words.

Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.