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November 16, 2018

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5 midterm votes that could have an outsize impact on climate change

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David Walter Banks / The New York Times

An aerial view of the Boulder Solar Project in Boulder City, March 28, 2018. Voters in two of the nation’s sunniest states, Nevada and Arizona, will vote in the midterms on whether to ramp up the use of renewable electricity sources, particularly solar power.

WASHINGTON — This is the era of deregulation in the nation’s capital: President Donald Trump is rolling back Obama-era climate change regulations that would have cut planet-warming pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes, and he has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the 2015 accord under which nearly every nation pledged to limit greenhouse gas pollution.

At the state level, though, advocates and lawmakers around the country are fighting back.

In some states, questions of climate change policy are on the ballot. While advocates generally agree that national programs, rather than state and local efforts, will be required to tackle global warming, there are a handful of policies on five midterm ballots that could have an outsize impact on the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution, and the direction of national policy.

Arizona and Nevada: Renewable energy requirements

Voters in two of the nation’s sunniest states will vote on whether to ramp up the use of renewable electricity sources, particularly solar power. In both states, the ballot initiative would require electric utilities to produce 50 percent of their electricity from wind and solar by 2030, up from current requirements of 25 percent by 2025 in Nevada, and 15 percent by 2025 in Arizona.

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., already have such programs, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards, although only a handful — those in California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey and Vermont — are as ambitious as those proposed in Nevada and Arizona.

Passage of the initiatives is far from certain. Last year, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada vetoed a bill that would have increased the state’s renewable energy mandate to a less-ambitious 40 percent by 2050. And in Arizona, electric utilities have campaigned against the measure, citing the cost.

Some policy experts say the mandates for more renewable power will drive down the cost, leading to a market-driven spread of cleaner energy.

“When you get this kind of ambitious investment from states, it drives down costs across the country,” said Dallas Burtraw, an expert in electricity policy at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington research organization focused on energy and environment economics. “We’re already seeing this as a result of the state programs in place, and growing the club of states with these very ambitious mandates will take this further.”

Colorado: The future of fracking

In Colorado, the boom in fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has led to a surge in oil and natural gas production and millions of dollars in new tax revenue. It has also raised fears that the process has poisoned residents’ water.

Next week, Coloradans will vote on a regulation designed to scale back how much fracking would be permitted. While the proposed rule would not go as far as the outright bans on fracking in Maryland, New York and Vermont, oil and gas companies fear that, if enacted, the Colorado proposal could spread to other states, curtailing the national oil and gas boom that was precipitated a decade ago by breakthroughs in fracking.

Washington: A first-in-the-nation carbon tax

Voters in Washington state will decide next week whether to pass the country’s first tax on carbon dioxide pollution.

Passage of the measure, known as Initiative 1631, would be seen as a bellwether that could resonate around the country and even the world, as climate scientists and economists push a carbon tax as the central solution to climate change.

Its rejection would most likely be seen as a sign that carbon taxes are not politically viable in the United States.

“If it passed, it would be the first time voters in the U.S. approve a price on carbon,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “That would be unprecedented, and it would be huge.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has already tried and failed twice to pass the nation’s first tax on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions. But both backers and opponents of the idea see his current push as more likely to gain traction, partly because, this time, the plan includes specific guidelines on what to do with the revenue. Funds from the tax would go toward programs to reduce global warming, like the development of wind and solar energy.

“It’s definitely got momentum,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-fossil-fuel think tank that opposes carbon taxes and that supplied the Trump administration with its energy policy blueprint. “If it passes, it will give advocates a glimmer of hope that they can replicate it.”

The measure would impose a tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution in Washington starting in 2020, with the cost increasing $2 a year after that, until the state meets certain emissions targets.

Opponents of the measure, including oil companies like BP and the industrial conglomerate Koch Industries, have poured $28 million into the fight, the most money that has ever been spent to campaign on a ballot initiative in the state, according to data compiled by the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.

New Mexico: A little-known job with big power

In New Mexico, a race to become the state’s next public lands commissioner is drawing attention from national environmental groups and one of the country’s largest oil companies.

At stake is a job with the authority to regulate the emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas operations and is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

In New Mexico, methane leaks are a big deal. Leaks from oil and gas operations in and around the state have created the nation’s largest methane cloud, about the size of Delaware, over the state’s Four Corners region.

Voters will choose between Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat who has vowed to crack down on leaks of methane, and Patrick Lyons, a Republican who was commissioner of public lands from 2003 until 2010. He has the backing of the oil industry, including a $2 million contribution by Chevron to the political action committee supporting his campaign.

The winner will oversee the use of New Mexico’s 9 million acres of public land that have been designated for generating revenue for the state, largely through the leasing to oil and gas companies.

“The New Mexico land commissioner is the most powerful land manager in the country,” said Demis Foster, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico. “They oversee more lands like this than anywhere else and we have the largest methane cloud possibly on Earth.”

“And the oil companies that leak that methane want Pat Lyons to be their landlord,” Foster added.

Lyons’ campaign manager, Deborah Bransford, pushed back on that criticism. Lyons has pledged to rein in methane leaks on oil and gas wells, she noted. He has not endorsed the tougher measures, notably fines for methane leaks, proposed by Garcia Richard.

Regarding donations to Lyons’ campaign from national oil companies that oppose methane regulations, Bransford said: “We can’t control where they donate the money. But they certainly understand that Commissioner Lyons is supportive of the industry and is willing to work with them.”