Greens, Dems see policy opportunities after big wins

Source: Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, November 9, 2017

Environmentalists and Democrats did their victory laps yesterday.

Their preferred candidates prevailed in statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey, as well as key races in Washington state, a feat that they say demonstrates the depth of voter concern about clean energy and the changing climate.

“It’s a very exciting day,” Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, told reporters yesterday. “We’ve been saying for a while that climate change is on the ballot this year, and the election results yesterday made it clear.”

Time will tell whether Tuesday’s votes prove a harbinger of things to come in 2018. Right now, though, environmentalists see a fresh opportunity to shape policy in states — particularly Virginia and Washington — where fossil fuel interests have a significant voice in the political sphere.

In Virginia, incoming Gov. Ralph Northam embraced environmental issues and climate science on the campaign trail. Justin Fairfax, who will replace Northam as lieutenant governor, is also a favorite of environmentalists.

Their victories mean the state will move forward with Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) executive order to cap carbon emissions from power plants, a plan that Republican candidate Ed Gillespie had called a “job-killing” regulation. That will likely involve joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program encompassing nine Northeastern states.

Environmentalists say joining RGGI would be significant. Coal is a big industry in Virginia, and annual emissions in the commonwealth are nearly as high as those in New York, the biggest emitter in RGGI.

Virginia has been moving closer to joining during the past year, but a Gillespie victory would have shifted the pendulum in the opposite direction (Climatewire, Sept. 26).

Democrats also picked up at least a dozen seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, with a handful of other slots close enough to warrant a recount. The chamber is still in flux, and it will likely end up close to a 50-50 split between the two parties. Tuesday’s results mark the first time since 2000 that Democrats have a shot at control.

Greens are hoping they’ll have enough votes now to push legislation through on the state level to clean up coal ash ponds and initiate other environmental measures.

“We know we’re going to continue our progress on clean energy, and we know we’ll have a governor who will stand up against offshore drilling and the other environmental attacks coming out of Washington,” Mike Town, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters, said during a call with reporters.

Environmentalists may be particularly keen on the latter point — offshore drilling — given President Trump’s push for expanded oil and gas operations off Virginia’s coast.

But even with Northam in office, the energy industry isn’t backing down from the issue. Northam is a noted moderate, and like many Virginia Democrats before him, he could take a middle-of-the-road approach on offshore drilling, said Frank Maisano, a partner in Bracewell LLP’s Policy Resolution Group who represents energy clients, including utilities, natural gas firms, refiners and renewable producers.

“It’s not going to be as helpful as having Ed Gillespie in there, but there’s always a nuanced approach to offshore drilling because most of the state still supports it, including Democrats,” Maisano said.

Maisano noted that even Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a former Richmond mayor who worked his way up through Virginia ranks serving as lieutenant governor and then governor, did not oppose drilling offshore until he joined the presidential ticket with Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“I think Northam has a more moderate understanding on some of these energy issues,” Maisano added.

That may be a sound assessment given Northam’s history. Though he stressed climate and the environment on the campaign trail, Northam declined to explicitly oppose a pair of major pipeline projects that would run through Virginia, which are pending final approval from state regulators (Greenwire, Sept. 14).

New Jersey

Environmentalists and clean energy groups alike will have similar opportunities in New Jersey with Democrat Phil Murphy, who easily bested Republican Kim Guadagno in the governor’s race.

Murphy’s environmental proposals rank as some of the most ambitious in the country, with a plan to entirely power the Garden State with clean energy by 2050.

“We viewed this election as a real opportunity to repudiate Trump’s destructive and unpopular environmental agenda,” said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters.

He added, “The first candidate to commit to our 100 percent clean energy pledge was Phil Murphy.”

As in Virginia, Murphy’s election will likely mean New Jersey will join RGGI. The Garden State was originally part of the cap-and-trade program, but Gov. Chris Christie (R) withdrew in 2011.

Perhaps more importantly, Murphy’s proposal calls for a sweeping offshore wind project to bring online 3,500 megawatts of wind power by 2030.

That, Maisano said, may be the most significant energy policy outcome in any of Tuesday’s elections.

New Jersey has long had opportunities to advance offshore wind projects, but Christie shied away, effectively punting the idea until after the 2017 election, Maisano said.

“Offshore wind has struggled to get footing in many places, even though we’ve been pushing it, we’ve had a government pushing it,” Maisano said. “I think freeing up the logjam in a state like New Jersey where there has been a significant amount of work already done will be the most significant takeaway and most significant opportunity that yesterday’s election presents for energy industries.”

Washington

Fossil fuels did pick up a win in Washington state, where voters knocked down a proposal to stop coal trains from traveling through the city of Spokane.

The ballot measure, known as Proposition 2, sparked a heated debate in the city over whether to fine owners of rail cars carrying uncovered coal or oil that hasn’t been treated to reduce flammability (E&E News PM, Aug. 17).

Spokane is a major juncture between coal mines and Bakken oil rigs in the West and export terminals along the Pacific coast.

“With the city’s own legal advisers saying for more than a year Proposition 2 was unenforceable and potentially illegal, a no vote was the only responsible way to avoid costly lawsuits that would waste city resources from more important things,” said Michael Cathcart, spokesman for the Committee to Protect Spokane’s Economy, a group that lobbied against the measure.

Greens in Washington had other reasons to celebrate yesterday. As of last night, Manka Dhingra looked to be in solid control of the race for a Seattle-area seat in the state Senate, which would give Democrats unified control of the state Legislature.

The win clears a path for Gov. Jay Inslee’s ambitious climate change agenda, a fact the Democrat touted in an interview with The Seattle Times yesterday.

Environmentalists were undoubtedly happy with the prospect of furthering Inslee’s climate policies. Washington Conservation Voters’ Action Fund poured $500,000 into supporting Dhingra, the most the group has ever invested in a state Senate race.

“We’re thrilled that [Inslee] now has a pro-environmental House and Senate that is ready to work with him to address some of our state’s biggest environmental issues,” said Shannon Murphy, president of Washington Conservation Voters. “It puts our state back on offense on key issues, like oil transportation safety, toxic cleanup and prevention, and reducing climate pollution.”

But Murphy also emphasized a lesser-known race for a key seat on the Port of Vancouver Board of Commissioners. Don Orange beat out Kris Greene, an industry-backed candidate, a vote that’s seen as the death knell for an oil terminal proposal that has been in the works for years.

“It was largely seen as a referendum against the largest oil-by-rail terminal in North America, so now we have a port commission majority that has a clear mandate against this terminal and for clean energy jobs for all,” Murphy said.

Capitol Hill

In the nation’s capital, meanwhile, Democrats sought to link Tuesday’s results in Virginia to the topic du jour in Congress: tax reform.

Northam dominated in suburban districts that benefit from state and local tax deductions, which would be scrapped in current Republican tax reform proposals.

“The election results should be a stop sign for Republican efforts to pass this bill,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

That may be wishful thinking, but it was clear yesterday that Democrats think a partisan tax bill could be an electoral boon for the left.

“As Clint Eastwood says, ‘Make our day.’ Pass this bill that is so bad for the suburbs,” Schumer said.