How The Midterms Delivered State Climate Policies A Lot Of New Problems And One Big Win

CREDIT: AP Photos / Karen E. Segrave

Arkansas Governor-elect Asa Hutchinson (R), whose victory in Tuesday's midterms gave Republicans full control of Arkansas' government.

The Republicans’ conquest of the Senate last night may well give them some leverage to try to change national environmental and climate policy, especially the new federal rule attempting to cut carbon emissions from the country’s power plants. But the midterms also delivered more state-level governance to the GOP, in the form of governors’ offices and legislative majorities. That could put state policies like renewable portfolio standards, public lands, and tax incentives in the cross-hairs as well.

Interestingly, however, possibly the most momentous state race — at least as far as green energy policy is concerned — broke in the climate’s favor.

In Pennsylvania, Democrat Tom Wolf ousted the incumbent Republican governor Tom Corbett, bringing an end to what had been total GOP control of both the state’s executive branch and its two legislative chambers. The difference between the two candidates was stark. Corbett has lambasted the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) effort to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power plants, while Wolf supports it. Corbett and his fellow Republicans in the legislature have tried to blow holes in Pennsylvania’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS), while Wolf has supported expanding its modest target of 18 percent renewable energy by 2021. Perhaps most importantly, Corbett has dismissed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — a coalition of northeastern states with a joint cap-and-trade program to reduce their GHG emissions — as a “coal-killing liberal” program, while Wolf has promised to bring Pennsylvania into the effort. On top of all that, Corbett’s administration has overseen a raft of scandals and regulatory failures when it comes to documenting and protecting Pennsylvania from the possible health risks of hydraulic fracturing.

Wolf will still face opposition from the Republican lawmakers who still control both chambers of the state’s legislature. But Pennsylvania is also the third-largest carbon emitting state in the country, and if Wolf can bring it into RGGI, it would substantially boost the coalition’s credibility as a way for states to comply with EPA’s carbon emissions mandate. “I want to be part of any compact that’s trying to make our air cleaner, and I think RGGI tries to do that,” Wolf said in October.

The remainder of the news from the midterms, as far as climate and environmental policy is concerned, was less encouraging. In particular, the elections flipped the state governments in both Arkansas and Nevada into total GOP control, clearing a path for major policy changes if the Republicans want them.

In Arkansas, former Rep. Asa Hutchinson, the Republican candidate, beat out Democratic opponent Mike Ross for the governorship, flipping the office into GOP hands for the first time in eight years. Republicans also solidified their grip on both chambers of the state’s legislature.

Arkansas’ clean energy policy features a tax credit for wind energy manufacturing, various local loan and rebate programs for energy efficiency, net-metering, various building codes, and some modest efficiency targets. There’s no record of Hutchinson or Arkansas state lawmakers seeking to overturn any of them. Hutchinson’s also at least made some friendly gestures toward calls for improvement of the grid, more wind and solar, more electric vehicles, and so forth.

But Hutchinson has made it clear he opposes EPA’s power plant regulation, and has signaled he’d push for Arkansas to join a lawsuit by a group of other states that’s looking to overturn the rule. That said, Ross was equally harsh on EPA’s rule during the campaign, though it’s unclear if he would also have supported the lawsuit specifically.

Nevada, on the other hand, has a respectable RPS, which requires the state to get 25 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2025. The state also has a range of tax incentives, rebates, and other programs to subsidize green energy and energy efficiency, along with building standards and net metering policies and so forth. Factions within the state have battled over the RPS in the last few years, but the policy has so far come out on top — part of the general failure of conservative organizations like the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to convince states to abandon their green energy policies.

Republican lawmakers in Nevada have also dabbled with the idea of turning federal public lands over to state control and thus over to quicker-and-easier resource extraction by fossil fuel producers — another ALEC-inspired push. Last night’s election flipped both chambers of the state’s legislature into GOP hands, while giving Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) another term. Sandoval himself has actually shown some positive inclinations on green policies, but if state Republicans are looking to re-open the public lands question or to undo Nevada’s RPS, they just gained a clear path to do so.

Republicans also advanced in New Hampshire, New Mexico and Maine — all states with an RPS and rafts of other clean energy policies — though they still lack control of either the governor’s office or one chamber of the legislature. Finally Republicans also increased their numbers and re-entrenched their strength in a host of other state governments — such as Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin — where they already enjoyed full control of the executive and legislative branches, and where green policies like an RPS are vulnerable to attack.

So while the shift in the balance of power brought by the midterms was not enormous, it certainly favored the opponents and skeptics of climate- and environment-friendly lawmaking. With the one bright exception of Pennsylvania, it looks to be a rough two years in the states.