Republican gains in Wash. Legislature spoil plans for a West Coast bloc of climate action states

Source: Nathanael Massey, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, November 7, 2014

A mixed bag of electoral victories in Washington state and Oregon on Tuesday night opened some room for the ambitious climate agendas of the states’ green-minded governors. But failure to tip the Washington Senate left environmentalists just shy of the across-the-board victory many had hoped for.

Democrats in Oregon had previously dominated both chambers of the state Legislature but had seen several key environmental measures stalled by the defection of a single Democratic state senator, Betsy Johnson, across the aisle. By netting an additional seat Tuesday, Democrats now have the space they need to work around Johnson’s vote and move forward with measures on local coal traffic, carbon pricing and renewable energy.

In his own victory speech, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) highlighted global warming as one of the issues facing his state in the near term. “Together, we can improve our environment and find a way to reconcile our way of life with the unprecedented changes happening to our air, land, water and to our climate itself,” he said.

Environmentalists in Washington state had hoped for a similar result at the polls Tuesday night, needing to flip at least two seats to unseat right-leaning Senate Democrats. But in key races — races that attracted funding from the NextGen Climate super political action committee, as well as local environmental groups — Republicans emerged ahead, maintaining a narrow majority that promises to complicate the aggressive environmental agenda of Gov. Jay Inslee (D).

A ‘repudiation’ of climate in Wash.?

Republicans went so far as to call the election a “repudiation” of Inslee’s climate agenda. “Our voters were thinking about issues that actually matter in their lives,” said state GOP Chairwoman Susan Hutchinson. “They were thinking about their kids, their schools, their jobs.”

Inslee himself tried to strike a conciliatory note, telling The Seattle Timesshortly after the election results had been called that “I’ve talked to a few Republicans who have even said the words ‘climate change,’ so that’s a start.”

Inslee has advanced the idea of a carbon tax as a possible solution to yawning budget shortfalls, the result of a court ruling on funding gaps for public schools, and most political analysts believe that, given the political momentum from other parts of the state government, some form of climate legislation is likely to pass in the state Senate.

A task force assembled by the governor will meet on Nov. 21 to finalize a report on carbon pricing. The task force has previously discussed the merits of both cap and trade and a carbon tax, though it has yet to express a preference for either.

In Oregon, a similar report on possible avenues for local carbon pricing is expected on Nov. 15.

Alliance with Calif.

Both states are allied with California under a number of regional agreements, most recently the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, which calls for coordinated action to reduce the region’s carbon emissions. Because of their close proximity and already interlinked power markets, most analysts consider Washington and Oregon the most likely candidates for an expansion of California’s carbon market, which has been in effect for two years.

The northern states could either join into the market wholesale, or create their own regional markets and link to California, as the Canadian province of Quebec has already done.

The two states are also considering legislation to set fuel economy limits for vehicles.

The prospect of state Senate victories in the two otherwise-green states saw an uncommon degree of national attention focused on the Northwest in the run-up to the election. Aside from Colorado, they were the only two states to receive injections from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer’s NextGen super PAC.

In Oregon, one Republican candidate targeted by NextGen dollars lost her race Tuesday, and another won by only a razor-thin margin. But in Washington, a higher level of spending wasn’t enough to unseat Republicans in three key races.

Hutchinson said that the presence of outside money turned off voters in her district. “Steyer made his money investing, but he’s made two bad investments in Washington so far — in special elections last year, and the [midterm] election this year,” she said.