Balance of power shifts in several state legislatures, forcing enviros and industry to shift course

Source: Jennifer Yachnin, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It sounds like a foreboding start to the legislative session: New Hampshire state Rep. Adam Schroadter (R) watched his party lose control of the state House to Democrats on Election Day, and he held onto his own seat only after a recount gave him a victory.

But Schroadter, who represents a district just west of Portsmouth, is generally upbeat about the next session, particularly his work on legislation aimed at cleaning up the nearby Great Bay.

“I think we will likely see some bipartisan agreement,” Schroadter said in a recent interview. He added that he expects one of his bills, a measure to reduce the amount of quick-release nitrogen allowed in fertilizer, to pass with a Democratic majority, after it was stalled by his own party last session. “I’m very hopeful that this legislation is going to pass this term,” he said.

Schroadter isn’t alone in his reassessment as he looks to the next legislation session.

In coming weeks, state policymakers, environmental advocates and energy industry representatives will realign their priorities as state legislatures convene for new sessions, but particularly in those nine states — Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin — where the balance of power shifted in state House or Senate chambers, or both.

In Arkansas and Wisconsin, where Republicans will now control both chambers — a historic event in Arkansas, where Republicans haven’t held the Senate since 1874 — environmental activists say they’re preparing to go on defense in the coming months.

Sierra Club John Muir Chapter Director Shahla Werner noted that although the power shift in Wisconsin merely restores the balance the state had most of the previous cycle — Democrats only won control of the state Senate in a midyear recall election earlier this year — she expects more aggressive legislation to roll back state laws on mining, particularly now that legislators aren’t dealing with recall efforts on top of normally scheduled elections.

“We all knew the importance of this election. … We could see what that was going to mean for the state of Wisconsin,” Werner said. “One thing about one-party control is they can take full credit and responsibility for all this extreme legislation. And at the Sierra Club, we will be there to point out how far out of the mainstream some of these policies are.”

Although an effort to ease regulations to allow an ore mine in northern Wisconsin failed last session, Werner said she expects a new focus on mining regulations in the state, including challenges to the state’s so-called mining moratorium, which makes it difficult to open new mines for base metals like gold and copper.

“There are good reasons why we have the mining laws we have in Wisconsin. … It seems like we’re all but certain to have that attack,” Werner said.

The Wisconsin Mining Association did not respond to an interview request last week, but hydrologist Stephen Donohue testified on the group’s behalf at a hearing held by the state Senate Select Committee on Mining in September.

Donohue told the panel that environmental standards do not need to be relaxed to attract more investment in the state, but he argued, as Republicans and industry officials have previously, that the permitting process is cumbersome.

“The basic reason there is no investment in the state from the metallic mining industry is due to regulatory uncertainty of the permitting process and ambiguous rules,” Donohue said, according to a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel report on the hearing.

In Arkansas, Tom McKinney, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club’s state chapter, said the organization hopes the new Legislature will find common ground with Gov. Mike Beebe (D), who is expected to propose a package of energy policy bills next year.

But whether that leaves room for the Sierra Club’s priorities remains to be seen, McKinney acknowledged. “One of the packages that we’re trying to get through the Legislature is simply to mandate that the oil and gas industry use basic best-management practices.”

While the Arkansas chapter won’t set its own agenda until early 2013, when it elects a new executive committee, McKinney said he expects regulations related to hydraulic fracturing to remain atop its watch list.

‘We can be more proactive’

As might be expected, environmentalists in states like Maine, Minnesota and Oregon, where Democrats now control both chambers, are optimistic about setting their new wish lists.

“The environment was a big winner in Maine on Election Day,” said Maine Conservation Voters Executive Director Maureen Drouin, referring to both the success of a $5 million bond for the state’s primary land conservation program, Land for Maine’s Future, and the individual race results.

“The change in political leadership in the House and Senate means that we can be more proactive. … We’re not expecting as many attempts to weaken our current environmental protections. We’ll have to do less defensive environmental protection work,” Drouin added.

But while Democrats won control of both state houses from Republicans, Drouin added that conservationists will remain tempered about the future given a conservative Republican still serves as the state’s top executive: “That certainly changes the political landscape; we still have [Republican] Gov. [Paul] LePage in office, so that’s a consideration.”

Drouin said she expects a battle over the state’s renewable portfolio standard, which LePage has said he wants to reform, criticizing the current laws as too costly.

A LePage spokeswoman did not return a call for comment, but in September, LePage praised a study of the RPS that asserted the rules would increase electrical costs to consumers by 8 percent in 2017.

“This study shows that special interests are hurting Maine’s economy and costing us jobs. We can no longer embrace the status quo,” LePage said at that time. “Unfortunately, low-cost, reliable and green renewables, such as hydropower, are discriminated against in Augusta. Instead, those with powerful political connections have forced higher-cost renewables onto the backs of Maine ratepayers. Common sense dictates that cost must be a factor when evaluating all new energy sources.”

Despite that potential showdown, Drouin said she expects bipartisan support for measures including clean water and wildlife habitat protection, noting a large number of candidates she termed the “conservation majority,” Republicans as well as Democrats, won their races.

In Minnesota, where voters similarly swapped out a Republican-controlled Legislature for two Democratic chambers, Sierra Club North Star Chapter Legislative and Policy Coordinator Justin Fay said the organization is now “primed to move some significant things forward.”

“We absolutely have high hopes for the next couple of years,” Fay told Greenwire last week. While the organization’s agenda is still being put together, Fay said key items will include policy to promote the state’s solar industry.

“Unfortunately, for as much good work as we’ve been able to do in the state over the years, solar has really lagged. We think we’ve got a Legislature that is going to be very able and willing to do some things to put us on the right path,” Fay said, listing public financing and incentives among the group’s wish list.

In Colorado, Democrats will claim power, after the party won the state House and retained its control of the state Senate, while Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) remains in office until 2014.

Environmentalists in the state are pleased with the new “pro-conservation” majority and hope the Legislature will promote the use of renewable energy in the state.

“Last session, we were playing defense and defeating bad bills, and we did manage to get some bipartisan bills through as well,” said Conservation Colorado spokesman Chris Arend.

Like many organizations, Arend said, Conservation Colorado is still determining its own agenda for next year, but he said he would like to see the state improve on its renewable energy standard.

“We’re looking at all options. Our priority overall is to increase the use of renewable energy, and there’s a lot of different ways you can get at that,” he said.

Arend listed a host of other energy-related priorities, including energy efficiency, reduction in the state’s carbon pollution, water conservation and policy on climate change.

“No one wants to see the wildfires that we had last summer, or the drought or the lack of snow,” Arend said.

While it remains to be seen whether a new Democratic House majority will be more inclined to allow regulation of fracking at the local level — the governor has argued the state should control such rules, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is currently locked in a battle with the city of Longmont over its efforts to do so — Arend said the organization would wait for the results of a state rulemaking committee before pursuing any legislation.

Asked what policy goals she’d like to achieve this session, Tracee Bentley, director of policy and legislation at the Colorado Energy Office, a state agency, suggested she’d rather take the long view.

“We can achieve some really great things energy-wise this session, but we really should be thinking about a five-, 10-, 15-year plan, rather than always taking it session by session. … If we have really great big ideas, we shouldn’t feel pressure to hurry them up,” Bentley said.

Bentley said focusing on a longer-term plan, rather than the current session, might allow the governor’s office to work out priorities such as fugitive emissions capture and how the state might find a way to create incentives for such a program.

“We have a couple of priorities that the governor has multiple agencies working on that we just think make sense,” Bentley said. “Where the complication comes in is, how do you get there?”

Still, Bentley argues she doesn’t expect to see a massive shift in the legislation simply because the balance of power has shifted in the state House.

“The vast majority of legislation we will see introduced this year is in areas that our office has already been working on for years,” Bentley said.