Brady Dennis and Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post
Efforts to nudge the nation away from burning fossil fuels and toward harnessing renewable source of energy were rejected by voters Tuesday across a swath of resource-rich states in the western United States.
Voters in Arizona, one of the nation’s most sun-soaked states, shot down a measure that would have accelerated its shift toward generating electricity from sunlight. Residents in oil- and gas-rich Colorado defeated a measure to sharply limit drilling on state-owned land.
Even in the solidly blue state of Washington, initial results were poor 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.
The failure of the ballot measures underscores the difficulty of tackling a global problem like climate change policy at the local level, even as environmental advocates and lawmakers have turned to state governments to counter the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and as scientists warn the world has only a bit more than a decade to keep global warming to moderate levels.
Since President Donald Trump took office, a handful for Democrat-controlled states – notably California – have vowed to be a counter weight on energy and environmental policy to the president, who frequently dismisses the consensus among climate scientists that the way we use energy 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 supposed 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, a free-market advocacy group, said in a statement.
Supporters and proponents poured an eye-popping amount of money into the fight over the future of energy in Arizona. At more than $54 million, only two Senate races in the country – in Florida and Texas – saw more spending this year.
The influx of cash underscores how much both sides believed was at stake. The ballot initiative would have amended the Arizona constitution to require electric utilities to use renewable energy for 50 percent of their power generation by 2035. That might seem easily within reach in sunny Arizona. But the state currently gets only about 6 percent of its energy from the sun.
The state’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, or APS, emerged as the most fervent opponent of the proposal, pouring more than $30 million into a political action committee called Arizonans for Affordable Electricity. In an aggressive ad campaign, the group argued that the measure would cost households an additional $1,000 a year.
“We’ve said throughout this campaign there is a better way to create a clean-energy future for Arizona that is also affordable and reliable,” APS chief executive Don Brandt said in a statement Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, an alliance of dozens of organizations called Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, argued that the shift toward cleaner energy will improve public health and create good jobs in the state. The group got a huge assist from California billionaire investor and political activist Tom Steyer, who donated the lion’s share of the nearly $23.6 million raised through the end of September.
Neighboring Nevada had a similar proposal on its ballot, though the outcome there is unclear as of Tuesday evening.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have programs, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards, or RPS, that require utilities to ensure that certain amount of the electricity they sell comes from renewable resources. But only a fraction of those have targets as ambitious as the ones proposed this year in Arizona and Nevada. For instance, New York and New Jersey also have targets of 50 percent renewable energy by 2050. Hawaii would require 100 percent of its energy to be from renewable sources by 2045.
During the 2018 campaign, however, 11 Democrats candidates for governor 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. Several of those candidates, including Jared Polis in Colorado, won their races.
But elsewhere on the ballot in Colorado, environmental advocates failed to pass a measure known as Proposition 112. The initiative 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 allows local governments to require even longer setbacks.
As oil production has soared in Colorado in recent years and the population has grown, more and more residents are living near oil and gas facilities. Those who supported the ballot measure argued it was necessary to reduce potential health risks and the noise and other nuisances of living near drilling sites. Opponents countered that the proposal would virtually eliminate new oil and gas drilling on non-federal land in the state – they have derided it as an “anti-fracking” push – and claimed it would cost jobs and deprive local governments of tax revenue.
The industry-backed group, Protect Colorado, raised roughly $38 million this year as it opposed the controversial measure, which it says would “wipe out thousands of jobs and devastate Colorado’s economy for years to come.” By contrast, the main group backing the proposal, known as Colorado Rising for Health and Safety, raised about $1 million.
“We appreciate Colorado voters who realized what a devastating impact this measure would have had on our state’s economy, school funding, public safety and other local services, ” Karen Crummy, spokeswoman for Protect Colorado, said in an email late Tuesday. “The oil and natural gas industry and its employees look forward to discussing concerns with reasonable people looking for reasonable solutions.”
Separately, Chip Rimer, chairman of the board for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, called Proposition 112 “an extreme proposal” that would have devastated the state’s economy. “Moving forward we will continue working together with all stakeholders to develop solutions that ensure we can continue to deliver the energy we need, the economy we want and the environment we value,” he said in a statement.
Coloradans also rejected a separate but related measure Tuesday that would have amended the Colorado constitution to allow property owners to seek compensation if government actions devalue their property. The proposal has been sharply criticized by dozens of city councils and panned by Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, who called it “a dangerous idea” in which “unscrupulous developers and speculators could make claims on local governments for literally anything they think has hurt the value of their land.”
Meanwhile in the state of Washington, the effort to put a price on carbon emissions is on the verge of defeat, with 56.3 percent of voters rejecting the measure and 43.7 percent supporting it as of Tuesday evening, when two-thirds of the votes were counted. An official at the Washington secretary of state’s office said Monday the vote-by-mail system in the state means it could take several days for a final vote tally.
With the measure known as Initiative 1631, Washington would become the first state in the nation to tax carbon dioxide – an approach many scientists, environmental advocates and policymakers argue will be essential on a broad scale to nudge the world away from its reliance on fossil fuels and to combat climate change.
But that proposal, like other environmental initiatives across the country, had come with a fight, pitting big oil refiners against a collection of advocates that includes unions, Native American groups, business leaders like Bill Gates and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as well as the state’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee.
It also has set a spending record along the way for a state ballot initiative. The group pressing for the carbon fee, known as the Clean Air Clean Energy coalition, has raised more than $15 million. Meanwhile, oil companies belonging to the Western States Petroleum Association have pumped more than $31 million into opposing the measure, according to the state’s public disclosure commission.
Seventy percent of the revenue generated by the measure is earmarked for renewable energy investments, while the remaining 25 percent would go toward water and forest programs. The measure also would exempt eight energy-intensive manufacturing plants, fund training and early retirement plans for affected workers and create a board to allocate future revenue.
The initial $15-a-ton fee would kick in beginning in 2020, then increase $2 per ton (plus inflation) each year until 2035, when it would either freeze or rise, depending on whether the state had met its targets to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to the ballot questions, one of the lone bright spots for climate campaigners Tuesday was in the Sunshine State.
Florida voters, likely with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill still fresh in mind, decided to amend the state constitution to ban offshore oil and gas in state waters.
That decision served as another blow to efforts by the Trump administration and the oil industry to expand offshore drilling nationwide. While Trump’s Interior Department initially suggested allowing drilling across 90 percent of the outer continental shelf, oil lobbyists eyed the section of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida as one of the biggest prizes.