The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Voters rejected most ballot measures aimed at curbing climate change

From Arizona to Colorado, voters reject measures to ramp up renewables and limit drilling.

Measures to curb climate change foundered in many Western states, but environmental advocates did see victories in Florida and Nevada. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

In Arizona, voters said no to accelerating the shift to renewable energy. In Colorado, they said no to an effort to sharply limit drilling on nonfederal land. And a measure to make Washington the first state to tax carbon emissions appears to have fallen short.

The failure of environmental ballot measures in Arizona and Colorado — and the likely defeat of a proposal to impose fees on carbon emissions in Washington state — underscore the difficulty of tackling a global problem such as climate change at the state and local level, where huge sums of money poured in on both sides.

Even as a U.N.-backed panel of scientists recently warned that the world has barely a decade to radically cut its emissions of greenhouse gases that fuel global warming, the Trump administration has been busy expanding oil and gas drilling and rolling back Obama-era efforts to mitigate climate change. Environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers have placed much hope in state and local governments to counter those policies.

But while Tuesday saw the election of numerous candidates dedicated to climate action, individual ballot measures aimed at the same goal largely foundered.

“What we learned from this election, in states like Colorado, Arizona, and Washington, is that voters reject policies that would make energy more expensive and less reliable,” said Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, an industry-backed free-market advocacy group.

Richard Newell, president of the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future, drew a different conclusion.

“The complexities and politics of the clean energy transition are best navigated through a legislative process, which has been the basis for virtually all significant state level climate and renewable energy policy,” Newell said in an email. “I would not take this as a repudiation of public desire to address climate change, including through carbon pricing or clean energy standards, but rather that the details and who is engaged in the policy formulation matter, a lot. That’s tough to do through a ballot initiative.”

Even in the solidly blue state of Washington, initial results looked grim for perhaps the most consequential climate-related ballot measure in the country this fall: a statewide initiative that would have imposed a first-in-the-nation fee on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming. While voters in King County, home to Seattle, turned out heavily in favor of the measure, residents across the rest of the state largely opposed it.

One bright spot for environmental advocates came in Nevada, where voters appeared poised to pass a measure similar to the one Arizonans rejected. It would require utilities to generate 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030. The proposal was leading handily with most votes tallied Wednesday. But before the measure could become law, it has to survive a second vote in 2020.

Since President Trump took office, a handful of states — notably California — have vowed to serve as a counterweight on energy and environmental policy to a president who frequently dismisses the government’s own findings that human activity is warming the globe. In September, California codified into law a commitment to produce 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free courses by 2045.

But Tuesday’s ballot question results demonstrate the limits to which other states are willing to follow California’s lead — particularly when campaigners against the proposals emphasize the potential impact on pocketbooks.

Supporters and proponents poured an eye-popping amount of money, more than $54 million, into the fight over the future of energy in Arizona. Only two Senate races in the country — in Florida and Texas — saw more spending this year.

The influx of cash underscores how much both sides believed was at stake. The ballot initiative would have amended the Arizona constitution to require electric utilities to use renewable energy for 50 percent of its power generation by 2035. That might seem easily within reach in sunny Arizona. But the state now gets only about 6 percent of its energy from the sun.

The state’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, or APS, emerged as the most fervent opponent of the proposal, pouring more than $30 million into a political action committee called Arizonans for Affordable Electricity. In an aggressive ad campaign, the group argued that the measure would cost households an additional $1,000 a year.

“We’ve said throughout this campaign there is a better way to create a clean-energy future for Arizona that is also affordable and reliable,” APS chief executive Don Brandt said in a statement Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, an alliance of dozens of organizations called Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona argued that the shift toward cleaner energy will improve public health and create good jobs in the state. The group got a huge assist from California billionaire investor and political activist Tom Steyer, who donated the lion’s share of the nearly $23.6 million raised through the end of September.

Twenty-nine states and the District already have programs known as Renewable Portfolio Standards, or RPS, that require utilities to ensure a certain amount of the electricity they sell comes from renewable resources. But only a fraction of those have targets as ambitious as the ones proposed this year in Arizona and Nevada. For instance, New York and New Jersey also have targets of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030. Hawaii would require 100 percent of its energy to be from renewable sources by 2045.

During the 2018 campaign, however, 11 Democratic candidates for governor vowed to try to get all of their respective states’ electricity from “clean” energy sources by the middle of the century, according to surveys done by the state affiliates of the League of Conservation Voters. Several of those candidates, including Jared Polis in Colorado, won their races.

In Colorado, environmental advocates failed to pass a measure known as Proposition 112. The initiative would have required new wells to be at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and other “vulnerable areas” such as parks and irrigation canals — a distance several times that of existing regulations. It also allows local governments to require even larger setbacks.

As oil production has soared in Colorado in recent years and the population has grown, more and more residents are living near oil and gas facilities. Those who supported the ballot measure argued it was necessary to reduce potential health risks and the noise and other nuisances of living near drilling sites. Opponents countered that the proposal would virtually eliminate new oil and gas drilling on nonfederal land in the state — they have derided it as an “anti-fracking” push — and claimed it would cost jobs and deprive local governments of tax revenue.

The industry-backed group, Protect Colorado, raised roughly $38 million this year as it opposed the controversial measure, which it says would “wipe out thousands of jobs and devastate Colorado’s economy for years to come.” By contrast, the main group backing the proposal, known as Colorado Rising for Health and Safety, raised about $1 million.

“We appreciate Colorado voters who realized what a devastating impact this measure would have had on our state’s economy, school funding, public safety and other local services, ” Karen Crummy, spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, said in an email late Tuesday.

Separately, Chip Rimer, chairman of the board for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, called Proposition 112 “an extreme proposal” that would have devastated the state’s economy. “Moving forward we will continue working together with all stakeholders to develop solutions that ensure we can continue to deliver the energy we need, the economy we want and the environment we value,” he said in a statement.

Coloradans also rejected a separate but related measure Tuesday that would have amended the Colorado constitution to allow property owners to seek compensation if government actions devalue their property. The proposal has been sharply criticized by dozens of city councils and panned by Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who called it “a dangerous idea” in which “unscrupulous developers and speculators could make claims on local governments for literally anything they think has hurt the value of their land.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, the effort to put a price on carbon emissions appeared on the verge of defeat early Wednesday, with 56.3 percent of voters rejecting the measure and 43.7 percent supporting it with two-thirds of votes counted. An official at the Washington secretary of state’s office said the vote-by-mail system in the state means it could take several days for a final vote tally.

Known as Initiative 1631, the measure would have made Washington the first state in the nation to tax carbon dioxide — an approach many scientists, environmental advocates and policymakers argue will be essential on a broad scale to nudge the world away from its reliance on fossil fuels.

But that proposal, like other environmental initiatives across the country, faced a bitter fight, pitting Big Oil refiners against a collection of advocates that includes unions, Native American groups, business leaders such as Bill Gates and former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as well as the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee.

It also has set a state spending record along the way for a state ballot initiative. The group pressing for the carbon fee, known as the Clean Air, Clean Energy coalition, has raised more than $15 million. Meanwhile, oil companies belonging to the Western States Petroleum Association pumped more than $31 million into opposing the measure.

The initial $15-a-ton fee would have kicked in beginning in 2020, then increased $2 per ton (plus inflation) each year until 2035, when it would either freeze or rise, depending on whether the state had met its targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate campaigners did win at least one victory Tuesday in the Sunshine State. Florida voters, perhaps with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill still fresh in mind, overwhelmingly decided to amend the state’s constitution to ban offshore oil and gas drilling in state waters.

But even then, it was unclear whether offshore drilling alone motivated 69 percent of voters to support the measure. It was paired, oddly, with a proposal to prohibit indoor vaping.