In a year when climate change is low on the national political radar, two states are bucking the trend.

In New Hampshire and Washington state, governors' races are incorporating climate change into party platforms and discussing the issue openly.

"We know we have to deal with climate change. I'm a person who believes in science," said Washington Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee, a former congressman, in an October interview with the Washington State Public Affairs Network.

Beyond rhetoric, the results in both state races could determine the fate of proposed ports that would send coal to Asia, changes to state renewable standards and the status of the nation's first operating cap-and-trade program in the Northeast.

The two states also stand out this year because they, along with Montana, are the only races ranked as tossups by political analysis firms like The Cook Political Report.

There are 11 governor's races this year in total, and in the handful of cases like New Hampshire and Washington where the political party could flip, Democrats are defending turf, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at The Cook Political Report.

Green versus green in Wash.
Washington voters are restless partially because the unemployment rate is higher than the national average and "they've had a Democratic governor for so long," said Duffy.

There, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is retiring, setting up a battle between state attorney general Rob Mckenna (R) and Inslee.

If McKenna wins, it would be the first Republican win of the governorship since 1980, noted Duffy.

As is typical for Washington, the race is further to the left than typical Republican-Democrat debates over energy.

Additionally, Inslee is known for the 2007 book "Apollo's Fire," which outlines an aggressive plan to curb greenhouse gases. Among other ideas, the book describes using state pension fund money to boost energy businesses.

Inslee's official energy plan calls for construction of a new biofuels research center and increasing tax credits for renewable energy development.

His green credentials prompted the League of Conservation Voters to make a rare endorsement -- its backing of Inslee was its first stance on a gubernatorial race in 30 years.

McKenna also has received praise from some environmentalists. As attorney general, he led Washington as a co-petitioner in Massachusetts v. U.S. EPA, a 2007 Supreme Court case that determined the agency's power to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants.

When asked about climate change in a media interview this fall, McKenna said "we should be combating it" and promoted his plan for incentivizing electric cars.

Coal port a burning background issue
Even though both men make similar statements on climate, the differences between the candidates on the issue could be huge, said Ross Macfarlane, a senior adviser at the group Climate Solutions, which is not endorsing either candidate.

Washington is the site of several proposed ports to link coal from Montana and Wyoming to Asia.

The next governor -- via appointments to the state Department of Ecology and directives -- will influence the scope of an environmental reviews of those ports conducted jointly by Washington and the federal government.

The governor could determine whether the upcoming environmental review of Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Wash., for example, considers the effect of global greenhouse gas emissions from shipping coal overseas from the project, and not just local effects such as coal dust from trains, explained Macfarlane.

"If a governor really wanted these ports, he could streamline the process [in the Department of Ecology], as well," Macfarlane said.

Neither Inslee or McKenna have a firm position on the issue, but several analysts said McKenna appears friendlier to the coal port option. In a debate this summer, McKenna said coal would travel through Washington on its way to a Canadian port if the state didn't build its own.

"Can these coal projects meet our strict environmental and health processes? If they can satisfy these strict standards, we need the jobs here," McKenna said at the debate.

Differences on renewable portfolio standard
Brendon Cechovic, executive director of Washington Conservation Voters, said the differences between the candidates on coal likely would become clearer after the election. The issue is extremely contentious now, particularly since many labor groups want the ports for jobs, he said.

Inslee and McKenna also differ on the state's portfolio standard, which requires utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from renewables by 2020. Inslee campaigned extensively for its passage while he was a congressman.

McKenna's plan calls for counting more hydropower as part of the standard and blending it with efficiency measures, so utilities get credit for conserving energy and not just building new power.

"That would gut the initiative and defeat the purpose of building new renewables," Cechovic said. His group is spending more than $700,000, the most in its history for a governor's race, to elect Inslee.

Todd Myers, an energy consultant who has advised McKenna, said the Republican candidate doesn't want to get rid of the existing standard.

Inslee, by focusing on tax credits and other financial incentives in his book and campaign, wants to pick business winners and losers, he said. Inslee "seems to be in love with certain technologies, and that is dangerous," he said.

The state Republican Party has sent out numerous press releases noting that some of the renewable businesses supported by Inslee in his book have faced financial troubles.

On hydropower, Myers said there are some years when large amounts of snowpack provides more water for generation than usual in Washington. In those years, it doesn't make sense to "dump water from dams" in favor of wind or solar, he said.

McKenna, he said, thinks it makes sense for that extra hydropower to count under the standard.

Washington already has a much smaller carbon footprint than other states that use a lot of coal. Lowering the state's emissions much more in the electricity sector is like "squeezing more blood from a turnip at this point," he said.

In his plan, Inslee notes excess hydropower capacity but emphasizes "virtual batteries, scheduled transmission improvements and power swaps" as the way to use the extra juice without cutting out other renewables.

His campaign has fired back that Mckenna is distorting Inslee's book. The campaign says the Republican is more likely to send wind and solar jobs to China and end Washington's status as a leader in clean energy.

N.H. nail-biter
Across the country in New Hampshire, the debate over climate change is similarly contentious.

Democratic Gov. John Lynch is retiring. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamatogne is in a nail-biter race against Democrat Maggie Hassan, a former state senator.

Lamatogne is pushing to follow New Jersey's lead and pull New Hampshire out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program limiting utility emissions in New England states, New York, Delaware and Maryland. To Lamatogne, the carbon-trading plan is a tax that is picking energy winners and losers, skewing the free market.

"New Hampshire's participation in programs like the regional greenhouse gas initiative (RGGI) programs that force customers to pay high prices in order to subsidize noncompetitive energy supplies and fund government programs, must come to an end," Lamatogne says in official campaign literature.

He also has sparred publicly with Hassan about the issue in debates. The New Hampshire branch of Americans for Prosperity, a group co-founded by oil billionaire David Koch, has weighed in with radio ads slamming Hassan for supporting the "RGGI tax." The group also named Lamatogne "conservative of the year" in 2011.

Hassan, who was instrumental in bringing the state into RGGI, has been outspoken about defending it.

Lamatogne's position is significant for two reasons, analysts say.

Last year, Lynch vetoed a bill that would have pulled the state out of the program. The state Senate failed to override Lynch by one vote.

If Lamatogne makes it into the governor's mansion, renewed attempts to pass a repeal bill could be successful.

"I have no doubt this will come up again" in the Legislature, said Michael Licata, a vice president of public policy at the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire, adding that text of repeal bills already are floating around the statehouse.

RGGI decisions could reverberate beyond N.H.
Second, the regional program is undergoing its first major review in three years. Officials in nine states are examining whether to change the program's emissions limits and protocols via public meetings.

An incoming governor dedicated to pulling the state out, in the same way Gov. Chris Christie (R) did in New Jersey, could make it more difficult to make dramatic changes regionally. Even if Lamatagone were elected and failed in getting a legislative bill through, his rhetoric would be heard elsewhere, said Johnanna Neumann, regional director at Environment New Hampshire.

"The bully pulpit matters," Neumann said.

Critics have long said RGGI has a weak carbon cap and does little to cut emissions. They point to the fact that low natural gas prices and the recession helped push regional greenhouse gas output below emission limits before the program got started in 2009, leaving little incentive for utilities to do anything further (ClimateWire, Jan. 12).

But for supporters like Hassan, the program's carbon auctions have funded energy efficiency programs that have cut electricity usage and decreased emissions beyond where they would be otherwise. They point to a 2011 report from the Analysis Group finding that RGGI added $17 million in net economic benefits to the state.

In a Laconia Daily Sun editorial supporting Hassan, former New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Fernald noted that New Hampshire residents consume electricity from out of state, meaning that state taxpayers would still have to pay for the program via carbon fees on utilities bills if it left the program.

Climate change "may be the biggest issue we face in the world today. Ovide Lamontagne would let the rest of New England take our RGGI money," wrote Fernald.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500