A Climate Activist’s Guide To Election Day 2013

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Many Americans go to the polls on Tuesday, and though a stable climate is not directly on the ballot anywhere, there are a few races and ballot initiatives that are worth keeping an eye on to find out what’s next for America’s odd relationship with carbon pollution.

Virginia Governor

Climate change is a major point of contention between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli

This race has offered perhaps the most direct conflict between a public figure that overtly talks about addressing climate change, and one that publicly doubts that the mainstream science is even correct. Ken Cuccinelli is the current Attorney General of Virginia, and he has become famous for waging a witch hunt against Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist formerly of the University of Virginia. His campaign for governor has been fueled by fossil fuel money, but his strange history with coal and gas could even backfire in conservative southwest Virginia.

Terry McAuliffe is a national political figure in the Democratic party and successful businessman, but he has publicly embraced action on climate change. Last month, he said he supported President Obama’s proposed guidelines on carbon pollution from new power plants. On Cuccinelli’s fight against climate scientist Mann, McAuliffe said that “the fact that UVA was forced to spend $600,000 to defend itself from its own Attorney General is outrageous.” McAuliffe also has not been shy about discussing the impact climate change will have, and is having, on his state: “While the most devastating impacts will be coming in the future, we’re already starting to see it today.”

McAuliffe appears to be ahead in the final polls. Climate was not the only issue in the gubernatorial campaign. But their differences are emblematic of a larger schism between mainstream views shared by Democrats and Republicans, and extreme views espoused by, as Vice President Joe Biden said Monday, “a tea party whose social recidivism is only outgunned by its hostility to science and technology and innovation and scholarship.”

Election results for this race — and the State Senate races that will seriously impact what the next governor can and cannot do in the next term, can be found here.

New Jersey Governor

Chris Christie’s climate conundrum

Chris Christie is expected to cruise to a resounding win over Democratic nominee Barbara Buono on Tuesday. Christie has a complicated relationship with climate change. Early in his gubernatorial career, he told a town hall that he needed to see “more science” to be convinced humans helped cause climate change. But he soon changed his tune: in June 2011 he said that “climate change is occurring and that humans play a contributing role it’s time to defer to the experts.” Unfortunately, these remarks came right as Christie vetoed a bill that would have required New Jersey to stay in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which Christie had pulled the state out of the previous month. RGGI (pronounced “Reggie”) is a compact among several northeastern states that has reduced carbon pollution and created jobs.

Earlier this year, Christie doubted that climate change had anything to do with Superstorm Sandy, even though it probably did. Prior to the storm, New Jersey did not account for climate projections, and it lost a quarter of its public transit fleet. New York consulted climate scientists to plan for the protection of its system, and just lost 19 of 8,000 rail cars.

During their last debate, Buono and Christie did talk climate change, and Christie confirmed that he still believed climate change was happening and human activity played a role. When asked what he thought about Republicans who do not accept mainstream climate science, he said, “It is not my job to respond to every difference on every issue that I have with members of my party or members of the opposite party.”

Christie does not represent the same kind of Republicanism that Cuccinelli does, and his mainstream statements on the link between human activity and climate change present voters with a different, more moderate persona. How that persona evolves over the next few years as Christie looks at a possible presidential run will be the more telling question.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s newest senator, Cory Booker, joined the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee last week after he was sworn in, where the Democrat said he looked forward to addressing clean air and water issues.

The New Jersey Division of Elections website is here.

Portland, Maine Ballot Initiative

Tar sands could be coming to Maine

South Portland, Maine residents will vote on whether their town will start to export tar sands oil from a Canadian oil pipeline. If the Waterfront Protection Ordinance passes, the city code would be amended to prevent the construction of a tar sands export facility. Why would Maine be constructing a tar sand export facility? Portland is actually the second-largest oil port on the eastern seaboard because of the 70-year-old Portland-Montreal pipeline, which has pumped oil to Montreal since World War II.

The pipeline’s owners are looking at reversing that flow, however, and taking advantage of the tar sands oil being extracted in central Canada. Almost 4,000 residents decided that shipping tar sands through Maine for export wasn’t a good idea, and signed a petition to get the Waterfront Protection Ordinance on the ballot.

The pipeline company has said there are no plans to pump tar sands through to South Portland if the flow is reversed and the export facility is constructed. Yet Larry Wilson, the CEO, said that they are “aggressively looking for every opportunity — and that could involve a reversal” to pump tar sands to South Portland.

Opponents of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance have outspent supporters by an almost 6-to-1 margin, thanks in part to larger corporate donations from entities like the American Petroleum Institute.

Here are the City of South Portland’s elections page and the Maine Secretary of State’s elections page.

County Council Race in Washington

Coal exports come to a head in Whatcom County

The county council race in Whatcom County, Washington will help determine the fate of coal exports in the United States. It will help determine whether Pacific International Terminals can proceed in its bid to build a proposed coal export terminal, shipping 48 million tons of coal to Asia, from Montana and Wyoming. The Gateway Pacific terminal would be constructed on the Pacific outside Bellingham, in the far northwestern corner of the state. This would mean the area would be dealing with 30 new coal trains rolling through, every day, releasing coal dust and diesel fumes into the surrounding area.

Four out of the seven county council members are up for election on Tuesday, and a majority of them will decide whether or not to approve the coal export terminal. Two siting permits will come before the council, and if those permits are rejected, the project essentially stops. If they are approved, the coal export terminal passes a major hurdle, though it would still need a marine permit from the public lands commission and a clean water permit from Gov. Jay Inslee.

Candidates are not allowed to talk about their positions before the election because the council is a quasi-judicial body. A city council member in Bellingham, Michael Lilliquist, said this makes things complicated. “We have to listen to how they convey their value system, their political and philosophical touchstones,” he told National Journal. “You have to kind of decode it. Do they talk about prosperity … and jobs? Do they talk about sustainability and climate change?… You have to intuit.”

Two incumbents are believed to support the terminal and two oppose it. Washington Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club endorsed challengers Barry Buchanan and Rud Browne, as well as incumbents Ken Mann and Carl Weimer.

Climate activists are actually outspending the fossil fuel interests, despite the support of coal umbrella groups like the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports.

Whatcom County’s election results can be found here.

New York City Mayoral Election

What will the next Mayor of New York do about carbon emissions?

Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio is well ahead of Republican nominee Joe Lhota. While neither candidate denies that humans have something to do with climate change, de Blasio has articulated marginally more of what he would do about it. InsideClimate News said that “talk of climate is practically nowhere to be heard” in the race. The New York Times cited de Blasio’s likely willingness to continue Mayor Bloomberg’s more proactive stance on climate mitigation and adaptation as a reason they endorsed him for mayor. Lhota’s spokesperson also told InsideClimate News that the candidate supported the Bloomberg resiliency plan.

While Bloomberg’s focus has been more on climate resiliency — adaptation — than on lowering emissions, he did decide to frame his last-minute endorsement of President Obama around Obama’s relative proactiveness on climate, especially compared to former Governor Romney.

New York City’s election results page.

Ballot Initiative in the Adirondacks

New Yorkers consider selling old-growth forest preserve land in upstate New York to a mining company

A statewide ballot measure would allow the government to sell a 200-acre piece of forest preserve land in exchange for a parcel owned by mining company NYCO Minerals of equal value. After NYCO is done testing for and mining wollastonite (used for manufacturing goods) with the forest preserve land it would be returned to the forest preserve once the mine closed.

Proponents like Governor Cuomo, the New York Times Editorial Board, and many other politicians argue that the measure would resolve longstanding and expensive legal disputes while adding to forest preserve land in the end.

Opponents like Protect the Adirondacks, the Times Union editorial page, and the Newsday editorial page point out that the tract of land in question is full of old-growth forest. Across the globe, old-growth forests are carbon sinks. NYCO testing the ground could disrupt forests, and more disruption will come if the company decides to move forward to develop the wollastonite. Environmental groups are concerned that passing this measure sets a dangerous precedent where a mining company could more easily just buy forest preserve land.

New York State’s Board of Elections site is here.

Colorado Ballot Initiatives on Fracking

Will four towns in Colorado stop fracking?

The Niobara Shale formation is the fourth-largest oil and gas formation in the country, leading Colorado to produce increasing amounts of shale oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing. On Tuesday, voters in Boulder, Broomfield, and Fort Collins will decide whether to place a five-year moratorium on fracking within their borders. The residents of Lafayette, also near the Niobara Shale formation, will consider an outright ban on fracking.

Governor John Hickenlooper opposes the referenda, saying that fracking “lets us have a cleaner, less expensive fuel” even though fracking yields oil as well as gas. Environmental groups as well as outfitter Patagonia have spent money supporting the bans, while the Colorado Oil & Gas Association spent more than half a million dollars opposing the fracking referenda.

What happens if these cities ban fracking or agree to a 5-year moratorium? The town of Longmont, Colorado passed one in 2012, but industry sued the town, arguing that cities cannot supersede state regulation. Colorado’s state government agreed, and joined the lawsuit with industry. It is unclear what the addition of four more jurisdictions refusing fracking would do to the overall legal battle.

Check Boulder and Lafayette’s results here. Lafeyette’s results are here, and Broomfield’s are here.

Boulder, Colorado Municipalization Ballot Initiative

Boulder could take control of its own electric grid

Two measures are on the ballot on Tuesday in Boulder, Colorado. One would make it difficult for Boulder to incur debt if it wanted to buy Xcel Energy’s infrastructure. Another would keep the city on the path to municipalization — or creating its own utility with the goal of powering itself with more renewable energy.

Of course, Xcel Energy supports the first measure and opposes the second — it wants to keep Boulder’s business. But in 2011, the city’s residents approved two measures that directed the city to move forward with creating its own utility, in spite of an almost a million-dollar campaign that Xcel waged against them.

Creating a utility from scratch is not cheap, and therefore the fight is over how the city will fund the process of buying all of Xcel’s infrastructure — from the meters to the wires to the substations. Only after that process is moving along can the city truly begin to seriously increase the energy it gets from renewable sources.

Here is Boulder’s elections page.

Texas Water Ballot Initiative

Texas looks to plan for a different kind of water future

Governor Rick Perry supports amending the Texas constitution to invest $2 billion from the state’s rainy day fund into a water bank to finance water planning projects. So does a large proportion of the population of Texas. It’s not really a surprise — the state has been hit by droughts and floods, and as the climate changes, smart water management becomes a matter of life and death for the Lone Star State. Nearly all of Texas has been in drought for far too long, and even intense downpours like the ones that caused flooding in central Texas do not help if the water can’t soak into the ground.

So Perry signed three bills that set in motion the process to amend the state’s constitution, and Tuesday is when his constituents vote to approve or reject the creation of a new water bank to be administered by the Texas Water Development Board. Even if the measure passes, and localities have an easier time investing in pipelines, desalination plants and underground reservoirs, the fund won’t help much with the current drought. Projects take time to develop and implement and so even if the plan works perfectly, Texas will be dealing with this drought for a while. And as the climate changes, plans to