Local elections, especially in non-presidential years, rarely draw the kind of national attention and money seen in statewide or nationwide races. But for the past few months, two local races in Washington State have captivated the fossil fuel industry, which funneled historic amounts of money to candidates friendly to their agenda.
On Tuesday night, however, as Democratic candidates swept races from New Hampshire to Virginia, Big Oil found itself starkly rebuked in Washington state, as two candidates running on pro-environmental platforms proved that the fossil fuel industry, though powerful, is not infallible.
Voters in East King County — just outside of Seattle — elected Democrat Manka Dhingra to the state senate, a decisive victory that tips the scale of the state legislature in favor of Democrats. With a Democratic majority, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) could find enough allies to advance his environmental and climate agenda, which for years has included trying to pass a carbon tax. In 2015, a Republican-controlled legislature refused to take action on a cap-and-trade bill backed by Inslee; in the meantime, Inslee has directed the state Department of Ecology to craft a plan for carbon emission reductions, but has suggested that he would prefer passing a carbon tax through the legislature.
The climate implications prompted fossil fuel interests to pour money into the local election: according to the Seattle Times, oil companies like Tesoro and Phillips 66 gave six-figure donations to the Republican candidate, Jinyoung Lee Englund, while climate activists like Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg funneled similar donations to Dhingra. All told, the campaign for Washington’s 45th District was the most expensive legislative race in the history of the state.
Washington now joins Oregon and California as states with both a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in the state legislature. Even before Tuesday’s election, governors from the three states had indicated their intent to work together on climate action — all three states are part of the United States Climate Alliance, which pledges to uphold the United States’ climate commitments under the Paris agreement despite the federal government’s desire to withdraw from the pact, and all have governors that have spoken out against the Trump administration’s anti-environmental agenda.
With a carbon tax now a distinct possibility in Washington — and with Oregon considering a similar policy — the three states could potentially link their carbon markets to create a regional emissions trading scheme, similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), currently adopted by nine northeastern states.
“This is a historic win,” Joan Crooks, CEO of Washington Conservation Voters, said of Dhingra’s win on Tuesday. “It proves once again, when given the choice, voters in East King County and across the state will elect environmental champions. This puts environmental protection back on offense in the legislature.”
Just over 160 miles south of Seattle, a second local election also revealed cracks in the fossil fuel industry’s strategy in Washington, as a man named Don Orange defeated his opponent, Kris Greene, to claim the third seat on the Port of Vancouver’s Board of Commissioners.
Like the 45th District race, fossil fuel interests and climate activists targeted the Vancouver election because of its potential national and international climate implications: the Port of Vancouver has, for years, been the site of a battle over the largest proposed oil-by-rail terminal in the United States, known as the Tesoro-Savage terminal proposal. If built, the terminal would handle some 360,000 barrels of crude oil every day, brought by oil trains through the Columbia River Gorge that divides Oregon and Washington. The terminal would greatly increase oil train traffic, adding an additional 155 trains per week to the state’s railroads.
Environmental and climate groups — as well as local health organizations — have long been opposed to the project, arguing that the influx of oil trains endangers public health and the environment. They point to derailments, like one that took place in Mosier, Oregon, in June of 2016, or disasters like the Lac-Mégantic oil train derailment in Quebec that killed 47 people in 2013. And they argue that building the terminal would only incentivize the extraction, shipment, and burning of crude oil, which would release greenhouse gas emissions and hasten climate change.
Tesoro, the company behind the proposal, spent at least $370,000 on Greene’s candidacy, who previously voiced support for the terminal (though he moderated his stance during the campaign, saying that he would defer to the state’s environmental impact study). Orange, on the other hand, ran on a decidedly anti-terminal campaign, arguing that the project would create only a small number of permanent jobs while jeopardizing the community’s health and natural resources. Orange advocated for terminating the project’s lease at the port — which was extended by the Vancouver Port Commission by a vote of two to one in March — and for bringing renewable energy jobs to the area.
“Big oil is trying to buy the race. We’re trying to protect the river and we’re trying to protect clean 21st-century jobs,” Orange told the Associated Press in October. “My intent is to do everything legally possible to stop Vancouver from becoming an oil town.”
With Orange on the Port Commission, the three-person board now has two outspoken critics of the terminal — an edge that environmental, climate, and public health advocates hope will spell the end of the project. The Port Commission decides whether to award Tesoro-Savage a lease for the property where the terminal would be located (the state of Washington has ultimate say over whether the project moves forward, however).
But as the Trump administration works to roll back national climate policies — while hastening the extraction of fossil fuels — environmental groups also hope that the elections in Washington send a message to local candidates looking to stand up to the fossil fuel industry.
“Tonight, Clark County residents said loud and clear that they do not want to become just another polluted oil town,” Shannon Murphy, president of Washington Conservation Voters, said in response to Orange’s victory. “This win shows communities across the country that when we stand together we are stronger than big oil’s money.”