The elections dimmed prospects for sweeping climate initiatives as Republicans held off Democratic takeovers of statehouses. The best hope for bold moves lies with legislatures already controlled by Democrats.
By Alex Brown
Amid predictions of a November Democratic election sweep, climate leaders in states including North Carolina, Arizona and Pennsylvania were hopeful they could finally pass legislation to bolster clean energy, cut emissions and limit fossil fuel development.
But while President-elect Joe Biden found success at the top of the ticket, Democrats down ballot were unable to flip a single legislative chamber held by Republicans. Meanwhile, the GOP seized power in New Hampshire’s legislature and expanded majorities in other states.
After Democratic gains failed to materialize, the prospects of sweeping climate action – at least at the state level – have dimmed. The only exceptions are states where Democrats won more seats in already blue legislatures, including California, Connecticut, New Mexico and Washington.
“I know what I’d love to do on climate,” said North Carolina state Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat who serves as vice chair of the House Environment Committee. “But because I’m still in the minority, there’s very little I can do besides playing defense. We won’t be able to make progress on our zero-carbon [electricity goals] now.”
Republicans in North Carolina maintained control of the state’s General Assembly, and Harrison said she doesn’t expect to see GOP leaders make climate a priority.
For environmental advocates, the election represents a missed opportunity to address the worsening climate crisis – and reflects the growing partisan split on climate policy.
“We didn’t win everything we were hoping to,” said Nick Abraham, state communications director at the League of Conservation Voters, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group. “This issue has continued to be a wider and wider divide over the last few years between the parties.”
Groups that have opposed much of Democrats’ climate agenda say the election shows that lawmakers need to compromise.
“Where there could be common ground and momentum is when we stop talking about bans and mandates and work together on solutions that make sense,” said Kevin Slagle, vice president of communications for the Western States Petroleum Association. “Putting a date on a calendar and saying, ‘We gotta hit this mark’ is really not how we’ve made progress. It’s been driven by innovation and market forces.”
In Pennsylvania, Democrats hoped to expand energy efficiency standards and require electricity providers to obtain more of their power from renewable sources. But after failing to overcome GOP majorities in the legislature, they’ll be left trying to salvage existing programs.
Republicans are hoping to block Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to bring Pennsylvania into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state coalition that caps emissions from power plants and auctions allowances to energy companies. GOP lawmakers also could target state regulations to limit methane emissions.
Some Republicans have said that lawmakers should decide whether to join the coalition, not the governor. Others have argued it would harm the economy and Pennsylvania’s coal industry.
“We’re trying to stop bad things instead of actively doing good things,” said state Rep. Greg Vitali, Democratic chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. While not all races are called, Vitali expects the political climate in Harrisburg to be “essentially the same,” with Republicans holding modest advantages in both chambers.
“Can we sustain a governor’s veto? That’s the key thing, and that’s in question,” he said. “It’s going to be very close in both chambers, and we did not help ourselves in this election.”
In Pennsylvania, which has a large natural gas industry, calls to ban hydraulic fracturing – also known as fracking – have divided even Democratic leaders. After the state went for Biden but left Republicans in charge of the legislature, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a natural gas advocacy group, claimed victory.
“It’s clear Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly support the clean, affordable, reliable energy that natural gas delivers,” the group said in a statement. “We look forward to working with all elected officials on bipartisan energy solutions that Pennsylvania voters support to move us all forward.”
Arizona state Sen.-elect Kirsten Engel, a Democrat, had hoped to push a Green New Deal-style workforce climate program if her party gained power in the legislature. But after Republicans held onto narrow majorities in both chambers, any climate legislation that passes next year likely will be much more limited in scope.
Engel, who currently serves on the Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, said there may be opportunities to work together on water conservation and wildfire issues.
“There’s more potential to work on the impacts of climate change than mitigating the causes of it,” she said. “We’ll be spending a lot of time addressing the symptoms and not trying to cure the problem. It won’t happen as quickly as we need to move on this issue, but it’s not possible without political support.”
While Democrats failed to win back any GOP-led statehouses, they did manage to hold onto their own majorities outside of New Hampshire. And the changing makeup of some deep-blue legislatures could allow them to press their climate goals further.
In Washington, Democrats made moderate gains in the legislature while also welcoming several new progressive lawmakers. That boost in numbers may allow the state Senate to pass a clean fuel standard, a priority of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee that stalled in the upper chamber this year.
“Climate is one of those issues where [a] small change in margin in the Senate can make a significant difference,” said state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, who led campaign efforts for his Democratic caucus this year. “The House has been strongly advocating a clean fuel standard. We have not had the votes to advance that priority, but now we’re fresh through an election cycle and have had another summer of terrible wildfires.”
In past years, Oregon Democrats have prioritized cap-and-trade legislation, which limits greenhouse gas emissions and creates a marketplace for companies to buy and sell carbon allowances. But Republican senators have stymied those efforts in past sessions by walking out of the Capitol to block votes. Democrats failed to earn the two-thirds majority they needed to break the walkout strategy, and it appears they’ve given up on cap-and-trade for now.
“I have heard nothing seriously about cap-and-trade,” said Derek Sangston, the legislative director for Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat. “Mostly it’s a 100 percent clean energy standard. I expect that’s where the conversation’s going to be in the 2021 session.”
Sangston said climate leaders are hopeful that a clean energy mandate could earn the support of utilities and draw some Republican votes. Both parties also are eager to address wildfires, after a devastating season that destroyed 4,000 homes in the state.
In California, Democrats look likely to expand their legislative majority. Lawmakers might pass a bill banning future sales of gas-powered cars, mirroring an executive order issued earlier this year by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, which will end such sales in 2035.
“Generally, the environmental community much prefers a law over an executive order,” said Chris Busch, research director at Energy Innovation, a San Francisco-based firm that has pushed California legislators to act on climate.
However, lawmakers have empowered the California Air Resources Board to take on much of the work of reducing emissions in the state, and with steep budget cuts needed to address a $54 billion deficit, climate priorities are also at risk of losing funding. With pressing issues like the pandemic, economic hardship and racial injustice, it’s unclear if climate will be at the top of the agenda in Sacramento.
“When I’ve reached out over recent months to people in the legislature, it seems like there’s other urgent issues that are taking up their minds,” Busch said.
Many mail-in votes are still uncounted in New York, but Democrats will remain in power. Legislative priorities could include supporting offshore wind power, reducing wasteful packaging and boosting electric vehicle sales, said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat who chairs the Environmental Conservation Committee.
By far the biggest win for climate advocates was Biden’s ascension to the White House. In addition to leading federal policy on climate, he’s expected to roll back many of the Trump administration’s roadblocks to state action.
For example, President Donald Trump’s White House has been embroiled in a legal battle with California over the state’s auto emission rules, which are followed by more than a dozen other states. Biden’s administration is expected to reinstate California’s waiver allowing the rules.
Biden also has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, taking steps to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. He has also committed to stop new leasing and permitting for fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
“What you’re going to see now with a new Biden administration is instead of being a barrier to action, you’re going to see the federal agencies giving states a really big opportunity to make gains,” said Abraham, of the League of Conservation Voters.
“Reentering the Paris climate accords, immediately going after public lands and not having new federal leasing [for fossil fuel extraction] on those lands, not having subsidies for the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “Those things are going to break down a lot of those barriers states have been bumping into for the last four years.”
Kaminsky said New York will look to a Biden White House for support on public transit projects and other priorities.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how we interact with a federal government that doesn’t deny climate change,” he said. “It means opening up more areas for leasing for offshore wind. Having a federal partner with us is very important.”
Abraham also noted that Biden campaigned on the most aggressive climate plan in history and earned more votes than any previous candidate. That outcome, he said, should inspire more candidates to take bold stances on climate.
Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Stateline, which is editorially independent, provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.