Will a new Democratic Congress mean a sea-change in environmental and climate change policy? That is the question being asked by many people who voted out the Republicans. Whatever the short-term euphoria, it remains far from certain what will happen over the next two years and some of the initial signs are not good.

Let’s look at the good news first: with Democrats holding both the House and Senate you can expect an emboldened legislative agenda unlike anything seen during Bush’s previous six years in the White House.

This year’s elections also saw the defeat of nine of the League of Conservation Voter’s “Dirty Dozen” lawmakers, including Richard Pombo (see yesterdays blog), a California Republican whose ties to big energy companies and plan to sell off 15 national parks made him a prime target.

But whether the Democrats actually bring in a host of new progressive laws on issues such as fuel efficiency and climate change remains to be seen.

In the House, Democrat John Dingell from Michigan will direct climate and air pollution policy as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. The veteran lawmaker is expected to hold a series of hearings on global warming specifically, as well as direct oversight of U.S. EPA’s most controversial air emission regulations. But he has already made two telling remarks.

Dingell is widely seen as extremely sympathetic to his home state’s auto industry and he has already declared that he won’t raise fuel-efficiency standards for U.S. automobiles. “I’m not sure that there’s any urgent need for us to address those [fuel economy] questions,” he has said since the election.

Likewise Dingell has already called for “fact-finding” hearings on climate change, something that alarms many environmentalists. Phil Clapp of the National Environmental Trust has raised concerns about any action being taken.

“Congress has now held 239 fact-finding hearings on global warming,” he told the Washington Post. “If another round of fact-finding hearings becomes the Democratic policy on global warming, they will have walked away from everything they’ve talked about for the last five or six years.”

But it is not all bad news. Across the Hill, Senator Barbara Boxer from California will chair the Environment and Public Works Committee. This means that one of the environmental movement’s most outspoken supporters will find herself in prime position to advance legislation that caps emissions.

While 60 votes is the threshold for Senate action, Boxer’s ascension means a brighter spotlight on the administration’s environmental efforts and could translate into floor debate on a number of high-profile issues, including climate change.

Democrat Senator Tom Carper, who easily won his bid for a second Senate term yesterday, said the Democrats’ success in the midterm elections improves prospects for action on a broad climate change measure. “Having a Democratic majority in the House will help our chances for moving clean air legislation that addresses global warming,” says Carper. “It improves our chances to get an economy-wide bill sooner rather than later.”

At least a half dozen climate bills are expected when the 110th Congress convenes in January. “The Congress has been in denial on climate change,” says Representative Tom Allen a Democrat from Maine, and an incoming majority member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “The Congress is going to change. At least the House is going to change.”