Climate change has been overshadowed by health care, immigration and the economy on the campaign trail. But a series of ballot initiatives across the West have the potential to reshape U.S. climate policy.
The races represent an important signpost of how far states are willing to push climate policy in the absence of federal action. In Arizona and Nevada, voters’ appetite for ratcheting up one of the most popular climate policies in America will be tested in a pair of initiatives asking to boost renewables’ share of electricity consumption to 50 percent.
To the northwest, Washington voters will take their second stab at carbon pricing in as many years, deciding whether to embrace a policy long favored by economists as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
There are even climate stakes at play in Colorado, where local discontent about oil and gas production in proximity to residential areas has spurred a referendum on the distance between drilling rigs and dwellings. The race will effectively decide whether drilling continues in one of America’s top oil- and gas-producing states.
“In some ways, these four ballot propositions might tell us more about the future of climate policy than who controls the House or Senate,” said Barry Rabe, a professor who studies carbon pricing at the University of Michigan. “This shows the range of policy approaches that are out there. One is your straight-up carbon tax. But my goodness, for two of these to go back to the energy mandate model, and throw in one that effectively bans fracking in parts of Colorado, it’s an amazing compilation of policy.”
Mostly, there has been money. Lots and lots of money. Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire, has pumped $10 million into the Nevada race and $22 million into the Arizona contest. He isn’t even the biggest spender in the Grand Canyon State. That distinction goes to Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona’s largest utility, which has spent almost $30 million opposing the renewables initiative.
To put that in perspective: Among congressional races, only the Texas and Florida Senate races have seen more money spent.
In Washington, the ballot initiative calling for an escalating carbon fee is now the most expensive in state history. More than $47 million has been raised for the contest, with oil interests dumping roughly $30 million into opposition to the measure. Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, along with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, have donated $1 million to the yes campaign.
“It really underscores the fact that there are some groups hugely affected by this,” Rabe said. “The numbers coming out of Washington for a carbon tax in a state that doesn’t produce fossil fuels are extraordinary.”
Twenty-nine states boast requirements for renewable energy sales, making renewable portfolio standards (RPS) the most popular climate policy in America.
Liberal states have pushed RPS limits higher in recent years. Roughly two-thirds of California’s electricity sales will need to come from renewables by 2030, and all of its power must come from carbon-free sources by 2045. Hawaii boasts a 100 percent RPS, while New Jersey passed a 50 percent RPS earlier this year.
Arizona and Nevada will offer evidence of whether voters in more conservative, sun-kissed states are also willing to pursue ambitious renewable goals. Both states have recently seen contentious fights over net metering, the policy of paying homeowners for sending excess power generated by residential solar panels back to the grid.
“To me, the big point about each of these is they reflect a changing economic reality and a recognition of what customers want and the general public supports,” said Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, a left-leaning think tank.
Arizona’s and Nevada’s largest utilities operate as regulated monopolies and face little competitive pressure to adopt more renewables, O’Boyle said. The falling price of wind and solar “is giving clean energy political cover” to apply that pressure, he said.
Yet the political climate surrounding renewables in the two Southwestern states is drastically different. In Nevada, where Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) and state lawmakers restored net metering last year, renewables are broadly popular (Climatewire, June 7, 2017). An April poll showed more than two-thirds of Nevada residents are in favor of boosting the RPS to 50 percent.
But Question 6, as the measure is known, would enshrine a 50 percent RPS in the Nevada Constitution, meaning it would have to be passed a second time by voters in two years. And its chances have been complicated by a second energy donnybrook, with NV Energy Inc. and several large energy consumers in a showdown over whether to deregulate the state’s power market (Climatewire, Aug. 8).
In Arizona, regulators struck a compromise on net metering, thus avoiding much of the political controversy that has engulfed its northern neighbor (Climatewire, March 10, 2017). But solar advocates have continued to brawl with Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest utility, over its long-term plans, which call for large amounts of new natural gas generation (Climatewire, March 19). That produced Proposition 127, which calls for half of the state’s electricity sales to come from renewables by 2030.
Arizona Public Service has warned the question could lead to the closure of Palo Verde, the nation’s largest nuclear plant. Polls give it little chance of passing.
Tom Pyle, director of the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank, argued the measures have two goals: guarantee wind and solar developers more market share while boosting Democratic turnout on Election Day.
“This is the new frontier for all the new, clean renewable stuff,” Pyle said. “This is a new avenue for the Democrats to push the debate. It will be interesting to see if these larger mandates are defeated or supported.”
If Arizona and Nevada represent a fight over how far to push a tried-and-true climate policy, Washington is a test of whether states are willing to push carbon-cutting efforts outside the power sector. The Evergreen State already boasts one of the country’s cleanest power sectors in the country but risks falling short of its climate goals if it does not tackle rising transportation emissions.
Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions were 11 percent above 1990 levels in 2015, despite a state law requiring emissions to reach 1990 levels by 2020. A 25 percent reduction by 2035 may be even more difficult to reach.
Advocates say Initiative 1631 would put Washington on track to meet those targets by placing a $15-per-ton price on carbon emissions starting in 2020 (Climatewire, Oct. 4). The fee would increase $2 annually through 2035, generating $2.3 billion for clean energy projects, climate mitigation measures and low-income assistance through its first five years.
The question led 50 percent to 36 percent in a recent poll, but 14 percent of voters remained undecided.
“If those ballot measures pass—Nevada, Arizona and Washington—that is a significant statement people think we’re not moving fast enough and taking matters into their own hands,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But the fee has been vehemently opposed by oil refiners, which maintain a large presence in the state. They argue the measure would hit consumers while offering exemptions to utilities, aluminum smelters, and pulp and paper mills.
BP PLC has given almost $12.9 million to the opposition, while Phillips 66 Co. has chipped in $7.2 million and Andeavor has contributed $4.3 million.
The dynamics are similar in Colorado, where Proposition 112 has proposed increasing the setback around drilling rigs from 500 feet to 2,500 feet. The industry there has contributed $20 million to the no campaign, arguing that the initiative would effectively end new oil and gas development in the state.
Climate change has not been at the forefront of that debate, which has largely centered on local concerns. But the climate impact is potentially great. Colorado was America’s seventh top oil-producing state in 2017. Whether it continues in that vein will depend on what voters decide.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.