The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Climate change initiatives were on the ballot. They didn't fare well.

with Paulina Firozi


In their bid to help Democrats recapture the House on Tuesday, environmentalists emphasized what they called the Trump administration's failure to address the biggest environmental problem facing the world: climate change. 

At the same time, those same green groups failed to convince voters across a swath of resource-rich Western states to wean themselves off the fossil fuels that are contributing to climate change in the first place.

Brady Dennis and I reported last night that voters across a swath of resource-rich Western states largely rejected ballot initiatives aiming to nudge the nation away from burning fossil fuels and toward harnessing renewable sources of energy.

Voters in Arizona, one of the nation’s most sun-soaked states, handily shot down a measure that would have accelerated its shift toward generating electricity from renewables, particularly solar. 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.

Residents in oil- and gas-rich Colorado defeated a measure to sharply limit drilling on state-owned land. Environmental advocates there failed to pass a measure that 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 would have allowed local governments to require even longer setbacks.

Even in the solidly blue state of Washingtoninitial 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 early Wednesday, but even then there was another hurdle. Before the measure could become law, it has to survive a second vote in 2020.

Finally in Florida, climate campaigners did win at least one victory Tuesday. Voters there, 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 in state waters. But even then, it was unclear whether offshore drilling alone motivated 69 percent of voters to support the measure, because it was paired with a proposal to prohibit indoor vaping.

The failure of the most ambitious ballot measures underscores the difficulty of tackling a global problem like climate change policy at the state and local level, as well as the huge sums of money any effort is likely to require from both sides. And yet, as scientists warn that the world is running short on time to prevent devastating levels of global warming, environmental advocates and Democratic lawmakers have placed much hope in state and local governments to counter the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era efforts to combat climate change.

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.

“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,” Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, an industry-backed, free-market advocacy group, said in a statement.

Following Democratic House gains and Republican Senate gains, The Fix's Aaron Blake analyzes the winners and losers from the 2018 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

— “A new day in America”: That's what Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, said after her party successful reclaimed control of the House on Tuesday, and picked up as of this morning 15 governorships, compared with the 18 won by Republicans. Still, Republicans were set to expand their majority in the Senate.

What do the outcomes mean for energy and environmental policy?

  • Let the investigations begin: Finally with the keys to one of the chambers, Democrats can now use the full investigative powers of Congress to scrutinize the policies and personnel of the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department and other parts of the Trump administration. Expect to see the House Energy and Commerce, Natural Resources and Science committees very active issuing subpoenas and holding hearings in the next two years.
  • What House Democrats will probe: The ranking members of some of those committees offered a previews of their priorities before the election. The next likely Natural Resources chair, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), promised before the election to call Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to testify in February on "the recent attempted firing of his inspector general." Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who will likely lead Energy and Commerce, said before the election the committee will focus on climate change, drinking water infrastructure and their "serious concerns with how Trump’s EPA has consistently sided with the special interests over people’s health and the environment."
  • A message from the DNC to EPA: In an interview after his party secured control of the House majority, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said Democrats would make sure the head of the Environmental Protection Agency “understands climate science," perhaps signaling that climate change could take a leading role for the party that has regained some power. 
  • Clean energy candidates get governor mansions: Among the winners of governor races Tuesday were a half dozen Democratic candidates who had 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 Conservative Voters. Those governors-elect are Jared Polis of Colorado, J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, Janet Mills of Maine, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Kate Brown of Oregon and Tony Evers of Wisconsin.
  • Scott and Nelson in standoff: In the Senate, one race notable for the role toxic algae played in it seems to not be going Democrats' way. In the Florida Senate race, outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Scott — or "Red Tide Rick" to environmental activists — leads Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson by less than half a percentage point, making the race still too close to call, according to the Associated Press.
  • "Noah's Ark" climate caucus springs leak: Among the more than two dozen House seats gained by Democrats were a number held by the few GOP members of Congress willing to acknowledge climate change. Though the final tally is not in, at least 11 members of the House Climate Solutions Caucus lost reelection. The group was often called the "Noah's Ark" caucus because it requires a Democrat and Republican to be admitted a pair at a time. Among Tuesday evening's losers is one of its founders, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who had proposed a carbon tax bill earlier this year. He was unable to fend off a challenge from Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in a district that favored Hillary Clinton by 16 points in 2016.
  • And out West: Voters in California rejected a measure to repeal a state fuel tax increase and an increase to vehicle registration fees, which provides funding for road repair and other projects. “A coalition of business groups and construction industry unions raised more than $40 million to defeat the measure and flooded television airwaves in the final month of the election with advertisements,” the Sacramento Bee reports, “including one starring [California Gov. Jerry Brown] that warned of dire consequences if it passed. Proponents raised just a tenth of that amount.”

— A kerfuffle outside of Ryan Zinke's Capitol Hill home: There was a bizarre scene outside of Zinke’s home on Capitol Hill that involved impersonation and the Park Police, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin, Lisa Rein and Darryl Fears report.

After one of Zinke’s neighbors asked the driver of an idling car to move the vehicle, a man who appeared to be about 6 feet tall, white and about 30 years old emerged from Zinke’s front door.

“He said, ‘I’m Ryan Zinke.’ I said, ‘Dude, you’re not Zinke.’ I asked, ‘Who are you?’ " the neighbor, Paul Legere, recounted.

Soon after the man, who then said his name was “Scott,” retreated back inside the home behind him, the U.S. Park Police arrived. It was Zinke who had called them.

As Lincoln Park resident Gina Arlotto put it on the neighborhood's email group: "Nothing makes sense anymore.”

— FERC chairman vs. Clean Power Plan: Neil Chatterjee, the new chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, filed comments last week criticizing the Obama administration’s proposed carbon rules and praising the Trump administration’s replacement to the Clean Power Plan.

What he's said before: Chatterjee’s commentary on the Obama-era plan comes after the FERC chairman pledged to keep politics out of the agency’s decision-making. “When I first came to the commission last fall, coming from a partisan legislative role in which I worked on behalf of my boss to fight against the retirement of coal-fired generation,” he said during a briefing with reporters last week. He added, "I evolved into the role."

Why it matters: “Chatterjee's comments are unusual for a regulator at FERC, whose officials contributed to major changes in the CPP before it was scrapped by the Trump administration,” Utility Dive reports.



  • The American Enterprise Institute holds an event on the conservative case for a carbon tax.

Coming Up

  • The United States Energy Association holds an event on the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy Solid Oxide Fuel Program on Thursday.
  • The National Regulatory Commission holds a webinar on the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station on Thursday.

— Makes waiting in the rain to vote worth it: A dazzling sunset and accompanying rainbow emerged in the Washington sky on Election Day, and it followed two days of rain “which catapulted 2018 into first place among wettest years on record year,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports.