Now that the midterms have very nearly ended this is a great time to take stock of the results in terms of energy policies and climate change. This is a complicated picture with every side in the energy debate able to claim victories. Because of the sheer scale of the midterms, it makes sense to analyze the results from the local level, the state level where a lot of the action is happening, and at the federal level where the results presage more gridlock.
Fortunately, despite the gridlock in Washington, it is at the state and local that politicians have real, direct effects on citizens and energy policies and there is evidence that citizens respond to leaders with good energy policies. Indeed, on this blog my colleague Ajay wrote shortly before the midterms about the important effect of state leaders. Well worth a read here.
Looking at the local level, there are simply too many races to follow and analyze in anything other than high level figures. As well, energy is just one of the issues voters consider when choosing whom to support. That said, a useful proxy for concern about energy and the environment is looking at the 154 mayors in the United States who have signed the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. The covenant is an international alliance of thousands of cities across six continents covering more than 700 million people and is dedicated to combating climate change and transitioning to a low carbon economy. Participating cities share best practices and work together to roll out low carbon solutions to common problems.
To focus on elections and the big races, twelve mayors in the 100 largest cities in the country were up for reelection and half signed the covenant. Of those twelve, the half who signed won re-election, and of the other half two won, two lost, and two are in runoffs scheduled for 2019. This isn’t new either, every mayor who signed the covenant in the two years since it was established has won reelection. The trend is clear at the local level that mayors who are concerned about energy issues do better at the polls.
Moving now to state level energy and climate politics, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, 16 states and Puerto Rico announced they were still in and going to abide by the accord. Democrats won governorships in seven states and full control in several others, meaning more states will most likely join with with the original 16 states in supporting the agreement given the incoming governor’s stated positions on climate change.
All seven new governors in Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Nevada have declared that they view climate change as a serious issue and in two states, Michigan and Wisconsin, their new governors have declared their goal of getting to 100% clean energy. In Maine the incoming governor has announced she will overturn the current governor’s moratorium on new wind turbines.
There were a number of important energy related referendums on the ballot this year. Washington state has long been active trying to impose the country’s first carbon tax. In 2018 voters rejected (56.4%-43.6%) a proposal to impose a carbon tax for the second time since 2016. This may not be the end of the story there though at the state may still take up the proposal legislatively given expanded democratic majorities in the state legislature.
Results were similarly positive for fossil fuels in Colorado where voters rejected (56.5%-43.5%) a proposal to increase setbacks for oil and gas wells. A setback is the required distance between an oil and gas well and certain types of building (with the type depending on the state). This proposal would have resulted in a ban on oil and gas wells in 85% of land in the state not controlled by the federal government. As well, in Arizona voters overwhelmingly (69.8%-30.2%) rejected a measure to mandate an increase their energy from renewable sources from the current goal of 15% by 2025 to 50% by 2030.
In Nevada voters went a different way and voted in favor (59.3%-40.7%) of a constitutional amendment to mandate 50% renewable power by 2030. This state is well positioned for this goal as it already gets 25% of its energy from renewables, mainly from geothermal sources. Despite the success of this measure, Nevada requires amendments be passed by voters in two consecutive elections so we will hear about this again in 2020.
As well, voters in Nevada also voted down (67%-33%) an amendment to privatize their electricity market and instill competition in their electricity supply marketplace, preferring their current monopoly structure. This was actually the second time the measure was on the ballot, having been approved previously in 2016.
In Florida voters approved (68.7%-31.3%) a ban on offshore drilling which, because of a quirk of Florida law, also banned e-cigarettes in the workplace. While Florida already has a legislative ban on offshore drilling, enshrining a ban in the state constitution provides additional protection for Florida’s waters. Finally, in California voters defeated (56.8%-43.2%) a measure to roll back a 2017 fuel tax increase and require voter approval for future fuel tax increases in the state. This measure was pushed in response to the state’s recent increase in fuel taxes to combat climate change.
At the federal level the most important outcome is the devastation of the bipartisan climate solutions caucus in the House of Representatives. This 90 member caucus, consisting of 45 members from each party and established in 2016, is dedicated to addressing the risks of climate change. Despite, or perhaps because of, this bipartisan effort, 22 of the 45 Republicans in the caucus lost their reelection bids, including Republican co-chair Carlos Curbelo of south Florida.
The caucus’s rules require equal members of both parties so the caucus will have to shrink, bring on new Republicans, or dissolve altogether. Despite the turmoil and possible demise of the climate solutions caucus, debate and action in the House will not stop anytime soon.
This is because Democrats have already announced they will reconstitute the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Climate Change. This committee ran from 2007 to 2011 when Republicans allowed it to lapse. The committee investigates climate change and energy issues, issuing reports and conducting hearings. However, the original committee lacked legislative drafting powers, having to coordinate with various standing committees. We will see if Democrats choose the give the committee additional powers in the next congress.
Despite these moves in the house, not much changed in terms of energy policies in the Senate since Republicans have simply expanded their existing majority. Overall in the federal government both sides are driving in different directions with one side favoring pushing renewable energy aggressively as part of what is being increasingly referred to as a green new deal and the other rolling back restrictions on fossil fuels. These drives are utterly incompatible and in many cases there is not even serious debate on their respective visions.
Summing it all up
It is clear from the local and state level results that voters care about renewable energy and the environment and want their political leaders to push solar and wind as in Nevada or Florida. At the same time, voters do not want to pay more for energy as in Washington state. There are of course exceptions, such as in Arizona and California respectively. Voters also respond well to local leaders who take climate change and renewable energy seriously, suggesting that this is a winning election strategy for politicians.
Finally, at the federal level work on climate change and renewable energy may have just gotten harder as many Republicans who were involved in bipartisan efforts lost their reelection bids. Of course the reasons for an election outcome are manifold but this result will be a worry for Republicans who are serious about renewable energy and climate change at the federal level going forward. We will see what happens as these newly elected politicians take their seats and here at New York Energy Week we will be following up and writing more as promises are turned into action.