Federal Policy Vacuum Spurs Surge of State Environmental Ballot Measures

Federal Policy Vacuum Spurs Surge of State Environmental Ballot Measures

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At least 11 states will get a chance to vote this fall on a variety of environmental ballot measures—a surge of activity that could foreshadow the policies of a future Democratic administration.

The measures run the gamut: from a proposal to protect salmon in Alaska to a carbon tax in Washington state to twin efforts in Arizona and Nevada to force utilities to generate at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030.

“These are big policies,” said Bill Holland, state policy director for the League of Conservation Voters, which is supporting several of the initiatives. “These are really significant actions that voters are being asked to take a position on.”

“The urgency of [combating] climate change continues despite federal inaction,” he added in reference to the Trump administration and Republican-controlled Congress.

The slate of at least 11 pro-environment ballot measures represents a slight uptick from recent elections, according to E&E News research and a database maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan umbrella group that tracks state politics and policies.

Whether the initiatives succeed could depend on a mix of local politics and the national mood. If successful, they could also set markers for a Democratic environmental and climate platform, whipsawing the nation’s regulatory program.

Typically, the party that doesn’t control the White House—and its allies—makes gains during a midterm election. Turnout will be key.

An average of several polls conducted between Aug. 15 and Tuesday among registered and likely voters found that 54 percent of those surveyed believed the country was on the wrong track compared with 39 percent who believed it was on the right track, according to RealClearPolitics, a clearinghouse of campaign data.

“Since the Trump administration has made it clear that they aren’t doing anything to prevent climate disaster, we’re committed to doing everything we can at the state level,” said Aleigha Cavalier of NextGen America, which is backing the renewable energy initiatives in Arizona and Nevada.

Some of the ballot questions, such as the carbon tax proposal in Washington, are retreads of previous, failed attempts.

But they’re not exactly the same. In fact, they’re more aggressive than earlier iterations. In some respects, that may be reflective of liberal angst over the perception of how much industry has secured from the Trump White House, said Amy Myers Jaffe, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“That’s the problem with the industry—they start out with this hysteria, and then they reject reasonable regulations, and then they end up with some sort of massive overcorrection,” Jaffe said.

Jaffe name-checked a few instances in which the Trump administration actually awarded industry with more than what it sought: The auto industry wanted to slow vehicle fuel efficiency targets, but it didn’t want to upend the one national standard it had with California; some smaller oil and gas drillers wanted to scrap methane regulations, but bigger companies were complying; and offshore energy explorers wanted more access to the oceans, but nobody asked to ditch the oversight system established after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, voters in states are taking matters into their own hands.

In Colorado, a measure that industry said would essentially ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will go before voters in November. Washington will decide whether to greenlight an even more liberal carbon fee than the tax it rejected two years ago for, in part, being insufficiently progressive.

And Floridians could weigh in on whether to block offshore drilling—and, oddly enough in the same measure, vaping.

“Politics is weird in 2018,” said Todd Myers, environmental director with the conservative Washington Policy Center. His organization opposes the state’s carbon fee initiative, which Myers said will raise energy costs and provides little oversight on how revenues will be spent.

“Typically, we don’t vote for massive tax increases, but it’s not a normal political year,” he said.

The Arizona initiative requiring utilities to source at least 50 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources is symptomatic of a greater political illness, said Victor Riches, president of the conservative Goldwater Institute.

The effort is being bankrolled by Tom Steyer, the liberal mega-donor who originally made his name on climate issues and, now, by pushing to impeach Trump. Riches said it fails to find common ground among environmentally conscious voters and Republicans because it doesn’t count nuclear as a way to meet the electricity goal.

That means the Palo Verde Generating Station, a nuclear facility that’s the state’s largest carbon-free power supplier, could be forced to shutter to make room for the ballot initiative’s renewable target.

“I think the only thing that I would say that is really unique about this time is there is just a greater amount of vitriol in political discourse in general, and that probably encourages people to push further than they otherwise would,” Riches said.

Riches said he’s used to seeing the pendulum of environmental policy swing between administrations. That’s been more pronounced across the past three presidencies as Congress has become increasingly gridlocked and the executive branch has pursued a greater role in policymaking, largely through regulation. The swings in “rhetoric” have grown more volatile, too, he said.

That states would swing back shouldn’t be surprising, said K.C. Golden, senior policy adviser with Climate Solutions, who supports the Washington carbon fee initiative.

The Trump administration has unraveled myriad policies to address climate change. At the same time, people in the Pacific Northwest choke on smoke from raging California wildfires that climate scientists say will become more likely and intense with the drier conditions and higher temperatures a warming planet brings to the area.

“I think that people are scared and they’re hungry for solutions,” Golden said. “And they’re worried about our institutions’ ability to deliver that when they’re run by people who flip the bird at objective reality.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.

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Jim Staab

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