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Fossil fuel money crushed clean energy ballot initiatives across the country

A carbon tax, limits on fracking, a renewable energy standard — all defeated.

A photo of an underwater diver holding a sign supporting a carbon-pricing initiative.
Clean energy initiatives, including Washington’s 1631, mostly drowned.
Hannah Letinich, Yes On 1631

Most eyes Tuesday night were on the key House, Senate, and governor races — and Democrats had a mixed night, taking the House but watching as newfound heroes Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Gillum went down to defeat. But there were several climate change- and energy-related ballot initiatives up for a vote across the country as well.

Let’s start with the big one.

Washington voters reject a carbon tax, again

The most consequential news of the night, and the most disappointing to climate hawks, is the resounding (56-44) defeat of Initiative 1631, which would have funded a rolling series of investments in clean air, water, and land use programs with a rising fee on carbon emissions.

It is the second carbon tax initiative Washington voters have rejected in recent years — there was also Initiative 732 in 2016. I-732, a fully revenue-neutral tax, was meant to appeal to enough conservatives to form a winning bipartisan coalition. It did not.

I-1631, very much revenue-positive, was meant to appeal to the entire left, mainly by spending money on and in vulnerable communities. The thinking was that a united, well-funded left could get a carbon tax over the hump. It did not.

The 1631 coalition.
Courtney Baxter, Yes On 1631

In the end, 1631 only did about 4 points better than 732. It was a dispiritingly similar story: In liberal Seattle, the measure won, but it was overwhelmed by “no” votes from suburban and rural parts of the state.

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the public is not quite ready for state carbon taxes, especially when up against aggressive efforts to stop them by the oil and gas industry. The No on 1631 campaign ultimately raised $31.5 million, and almost all of that money came from oil companies outside the state, including BP and Koch Industries.

(It is some consolation to Washington lefties that Democrats are doing very well in state legislative races, so a legislative climate solution may once again be on the table soon.)

A renewable energy mandate loses in Arizona

Those who think renewable energy is more popular than carbon taxes didn’t get great news on election night either.

In Arizona, Proposition 127, which would have set a mandate for all the state’s utilities to get 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2030, was crushed, 70-30.

Prop 127 ended up being the most expensive ballot initiative race in state history, a face-off between billionaire do-gooder Tom Steyer (who ended up spending almost $18 million) and the owner of the state’s big utility, Arizona Public Service Co., which spent almost $22 million.

Several factors contributed to the defeat. The utility-friendly secretary of state wrote ballot language highly unfavorable to the measure (it included the phrase “irrespective of costs to consumers”). The $22 million paid for a barrage of advertising threatening rising costs on consumers, and raising the threat that the measure would force a shutdown of the state’s Palo Verde nuclear power plant (a threat that backers said was unfounded). There were legitimate concerns about how the state’s power system might adapt.

And finally, Arizona is a red state and Californian Steyer is a convenient boogeyman.

The People’s State Of The Union
Billionaire Tom Steyer explains his plans to save the world.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Nevada goes big on renewable energy

Meanwhile, over in Nevada, there was also a ballot measure — Question 6 — that would impose a 50 percent renewable energy mandate on state utilities, also targeting 2030. (Yes, this was another Steyer joint.)

In Nevada, the initiative has faced little opposition and cruised to victory.

Why? A couple things. For one, noted renewable energy enthusiast Elon Musk built his giant gigafactory in Nevada and, like many modern tech businesses, wants renewable energy. Las Vegas, the state’s biggest city, already gets 100 percent of its power from renewables. The state is already heading this direction.

And second, voters (and donors) may have been distracted by the giant billionaire-versus-billionaire battle being waged over Question 3, which would have implemented competitive retail energy markets throughout the state. Basically, Sheldon Adelson, who owns a bunch of casinos, wanted to bail from NV Energy, the state’s big utility, and get cheaper power elsewhere. The state legislature said he’d have to pay a $24 million fee. So he sponsored this initiative. Warren Buffet, who owns the owner of NV Energy, doesn’t want to lose a bunch of casino demand, so he fought it.

Mike Pence Addresses Republican Jewish Coalition Meeting In Las Vegas
Sheldon Adelson would like cheaper casino energy.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

So far, about $14 million in billionaire money has been spent, “about $4.55 for every man, woman and child in the state,” as the Reno Gazette notes.

Question 3 is a complicated issue — many environmentalists opposed it — but ultimately, it was decisively defeated.

Anyway, Question 6 will have to be passed again in 2020 (don’t ask), but given Nevada’s solid Democratic pickups this round, that likely won’t be a problem.

After much hue and cry, Colorado leaves fracking basically the same

Two important oil and gas initiatives were up in Colorado — both would have had radical and long-lasting effects in the state if they had passed.

Neither passed.

Proposition 112 would have increased the minimum setback for oil and gas wells to 2,500 feet from any occupied building (it is currently 1,000 feet for schools, 500 feet for residences), which would have set enormous new swaths of state land off limits to drillers. Oil and gas companies said it would destroy the industry in the state; proponents said they were exaggerating, and that the public health benefits would offset the costs.

It would have set an explosive precedent for other states, so big oil went nuts and spent $41 million killing it. (Proponents never quite raised their first million.)

A gas well, in the upper left, covered by tan fencing is less than 200 feet from a home that suffered a fatal house explosion on April 27, 2017 in Firestone, Colorado.
In Colorado, gas wells are located near homes.
RJ Sangosti/Denver Post/Getty Images

Meanwhile, big oil tried its own shady maneuver with Amendment 74, which would have amended the state Constitution to require compensation for any value lost to oil and gas companies due to state legislation or initiatives. It sounds anodyne, but it would have negated 112 and tied up state policymakers in litigation in perpetuity. It was a nasty piece of work.

But apparently, voters wanted none of any of it, so for now, fracking will proceed as planned in Colorado.

California will keep its recent gas tax hike

One of the dumber initiatives up for a vote this year was Proposition 6, an initiative that would have repealed the recent boost in California gas taxes, which raised revenue for transportation infrastructure maintenance and repair.

The repeal effort drew a ton of attention from Republicans, including several congressional Republicans. They thought it was the key to reenergizing the state’s dwindling population of conservatives.

But California voters rejected the effort. Republicans really can’t get a break in California.

Other notable measures

In Florida, Amendment 9, which would ban offshore drilling under state waters (and, uh, ban indoor vaping in workplaces), won easily, 69-31.

In Alaska, Ballot Measure 1 would have implemented specific restrictions on activities — notably oil and gas wells — around sensitive salmon habitats. It drew intense opposition from the industry, which outspent proponents 12 to 1. It cruised to a big loss.

In Montana, I-186 would have put new restrictions on hardrock mines that promised to produce perpetual water pollution. It is losing badly.

And finally, voters in scrappy Portland, Oregon, passed Measure 26-201, which would put a 1 percent tax on the gross receipts of all large retailers in the city to pay into a Clean Energy Fund, which would help the city hit its targets.

portland, or
The one place in the country where they can raise taxes to pay for clean energy.

The lessons of this year’s initiatives

To me, the lesson of this year’s energy initiatives is pretty clear: When big oil wants to, it can spend unlimited amounts of money and crush efforts at direct democracy.

And it wants to. Where it chose to spend — notably, on 1631 in Washington and 112 in Colorado — it won.

As I said in this piece, this rather puts the lie to the notion that oil and gas companies plan to be productive partners in the climate fight. They can and will fight it at the grassroots level.

More broadly, ballot initiatives, like US politics generally, are becoming a battle of billionaires. Big money flows in virtually unrestricted. And it is effective.

Decamping from the federal level to the states is not going to allow clean energy proponents to escape that dynamic.

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