Science Policy & Funding News

Three Statewide Environmental Ballot Questions to Watch

Voters today will decide the fate of measures to increase renewable energy use, require larger buffer zones between people and oil and gas development, and establish a statewide carbon emissions fee.

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Across the nation, climate change and other environmental issues are on the ballot in the midterm election today.

Nationally, if the Democrats regain a majority in the House of Representatives, they could help to blunt many of the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken environmental protection measures. Meanwhile, voters will also decide on some important state ballot initiatives, including a renewable energy proposition in Arizona; a measure in Colorado to keep new oil and gas drilling away from houses, parks, and water bodies; and a carbon emissions fee in Washington State.

“President Trump and this Congress have been the most antienvironmental in decades, rolling back dozens of protections for clean air and water and our public lands and our communities’ health,” Alyssa Roberts, a spokesperson for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), told Eos. The Washington, D. C.–based group supports environmental issues, elected officials, and candidates through the electoral process.

“This election, we can flip the House to a pro-environment majority, and elect people who believe in climate science and will be a check on the Trump administration’s toxic agenda,” Roberts said.

The potential for environmental progress at the state level “is exciting,” too, she said. “At the national level, Washington isn’t acting on climate. They’re rolling back the progress that we have made. But voters want climate action, and at the state level states are making steps to invest in clean energy and to put a price on carbon,” Roberts added.

She cautioned, however, that fossil fuel companies are spending millions of dollars to defeat some of these initiatives. She said that’s why LCV and its partners in the environmental community “are coming out and investing more than ever before to counter that and show that people want to choose pollution-free renewable energy.”

Here is a look at three key state initiatives that voters will be deciding today, including a big fight in Arizona.

Upping Arizona’s Renewable Energy Standard

In Arizona, advocates are campaigning to approve an amendment to the state constitution (Proposition 127) that would require electric utilities to acquire 50% of their electricity from solar and other renewable resources by 2030. The state’s existing renewable portfolio standards currently require 15% renewables by 2025.

Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, the coalition leading the effort to approve Proposition 127, says that the amendment would help spur the creation of renewable energy jobs, cut down on air pollution, and save Arizonans billions of dollars.

The group has received substantial funding from NextGen Climate Action, an organization founded by deep-pocketed investor and activist Tom Steyer that is also backing a similar initiative in Nevada. However, NextGen has been outspent by contributions that Arizona Public Service (APS), the state’s largest private utility, is pouring into the opposition group, Arizonans for Affordable Electricity.

Arizona, the sunniest state in the country, receives only about 6% of its energy from solar power, according to Clean Energy spokesperson D. J. Quinlan. The reason for that is that “APS has pretty effectively launched a war on solar,” he told Eos, adding that the utility is fighting the ballot initiative “tooth and nail.”

A Thumb on the Scale?

Pinnacle West, a Phoenix-based holding company that owns APS, claims that the initiative would cause severe energy disruptions and cost significantly more for electricity. In addition, APS quotes the ballot language’s summary as stating that the amendment would be “irrespective of cost to consumers.”

Supporters of an Arizona ballot measure to increase renewable energy standards rally at the state attorney general’s office.
Supporters of an Arizona ballot measure to increase the state’s renewable energy standard rally with staff from the Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona campaign in front of Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich’s office on 25 October. The group gathered in opposition to Brnovich’s ties to Arizona Public Service and wording that he inserted into the plain-language ballot summary. Credit: Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona campaign

But Clean Energy says that’s unfair and inaccurate. They say that quoted wording is not actually in the amendment itself and that it appears only in the plain-language summary that’s provided on the ballot as a resource to voters. That summary was written by Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich, who is reported to have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from APS in the past.

Documents released in response to a public records request from Clean Energy’s attorney include a 29 August email from Arizona state election director Eric Spencer noting, “The Prop 127 [summary] language is certainly eyebrow-raising because it cites information exogenous to the ballot measure itself.”

“We think [Brnovich] was purely trying to put his thumb on the scale against Prop 127, really as payback for help he has received from APS,” Quinlan told Eos, referring to the added “exogenous” information and to APS contributions to Brnovich’s reelection campaign.

“Our ultimate goal is to move the dialog further for renewable energy in Arizona and to take on APS. We knew from the beginning that APS was the major obstacle to renewable energy in Arizona. If it was just market forces, we’d actually be there,” he added.

Fighting for Fracking Limits in Colorado

An initiative on the ballot in Colorado called Proposition 112 would mandate that new fracking and other oil and gas developments must be at least 2,500 feet (762 meters) away from occupied buildings and other areas such as parks and water bodies designated as vulnerable.

Protect Colorado, a group opposed to Proposition 112,  calls the measure “economically destructive” and “devoid of any scientific facts showing it improves health and public safety.”

However, Colorado Rising, a group leading the campaign for the passage of Proposition 112, says that these buffer zones are needed to protect the public from fracking and other oil and gas development.

“Communities are being devastated by an out-of-control oil and gas industry that thinks it can develop anywhere and everywhere that it wants to, including putting massive toxic industrial activity 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from playgrounds,” Colorado Rising spokesperson Anne Lee Foster told Eos. She said that air quality in some communities along Colorado’s Front Range have received an F for air quality rating from the American Lung Association and that several studies show that oil and gas development is a key contributor to poor air quality. Foster also pointed to numerous oil and gas development fires and explosions, including a fire 2 weeks ago in Weld County, Colo.

She rebutted the argument that opponents have made about the initiative being too costly. “What’s more costly: entire generations that have been negatively impacted by benzine poisoning, by high ground level ozone, by explosions happening next to their school or a common-sense setback that simply pushes oil and gas a little further away from our homes, schools, playgrounds, and waterways?”

The Push for a Carbon Fee in Washington State

Voters in Washington State could approve the nation’s first statewide fee on carbon emissions if Initiative 1631 passes on Tuesday. That prospect has brought out big spending by fossil fuel companies to defeat the measure, which would initiate a carbon emissions fee of $15 per metric ton of carbon beginning in 2020 to meet the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. BP America has contributed nearly $13 million to the No on 1631 coalition, and Phillips 66 has given more than $7 million, among other funders.

The group says that the initiative would be costly to Washington families, unfair by exempting some companies from the fee, and ineffective in reducing greenhouse gases.

Individuals rally in support of Initiative 1631 in Washington State.
Supporters of an initiative to establish a statewide carbon fee in Washington State turned in more than 355,000 signatures to the secretary of state’s office on 1 July to qualify the measure on the ballot. Credit: Hannah Letinich/Yes on 1631

“One thing we can all agree upon is that climate change is a serious issue and that it deserves a serious response, but 1631 is anything but a serious response,” No on 1631 spokesperson Dana Bieber told Eos.

Bieber said that an independent study shows that if the initiative passes, net costs for the average Washington household would be $440 in 2020 and increase each year. “It begs the question: What do you get for that? That’s the troubling aspect of it. Initiative 1631 would leave 93% of Washington’s greenhouse gases untouched.”

However, Nick Abraham, communication director for the Yes on 1631 group, told Eos that the “independent study” was prepared for the No on 1631 coalition and “is the house of cards that their whole argument is built upon.”

He pointed to analyses by Columbia University and the Union of Concerned Scientists that dispute the No on 1631 claims. In addition, he said that the initiative is supported by several hundred climate and physical scientists in Washington State. Others supporting the measure include The Nature Conservancy, LCV, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates.

Abraham said that if the fee passes, “this will be the first time anywhere in the country that by a vote of the people we’ve put a price on pollution and we’ve finally held the largest polluters accountable.”

Fossil fuel companies, he said, “are afraid” that if the carbon fee measure is approved in Washington, “then we are able to show other places that we can move finally toward cleaner [energy] solutions.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Three statewide environmental ballot questions to watch, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO109341. Published on 06 November 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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