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‘Green Wave’ of Policy Fails to Crest on Election Day

Nov. 7, 2018, 4:31 PM

Voters sank a handful of environmental ballot initiatives on election night, despite efforts from green groups to stimulate support in the electorate.

The failure to pass a slate of renewable energy, carbon-reducing, and anti-mining measures exemplifies how energy and environmental issues rank low on voters’ minds, even in a year where many left-leaning voters were energized to show up to the polls.

“These are complicated issues that are low on the totem pole for voters,” Frank V. Maisano, a principal at Bracewell LLP in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg Environment.

The League of Conservation Voters and its affiliated state organizations spent a record $8 million to support environmental initiatives and try to defeat an ultimately successful Colorado measure to compensate land owners for property setbacks that could affect oil and gas productions. LCV also supported a measure to allow former felons to vote in Florida, and regarding voting districts in Michigan.

Celebrities like actor Mark Ruffalo and members of the rock band Pearl Jam lent some star power to some of the efforts.

‘Abstract’ Problems

California billionaire Tom Steyer also spent big to back a set of renewable energy initiatives in Arizona and Nevada that would have mandated the states to produce 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Steyer’s efforts were successful in Nevada, but didn’t prevail in Arizona. Floridians also supported a measure to ban offshore drilling in state coastal waters.

But green dollars weren’t enough to counter tens of millions from utilities and petroleum companies to defeat the ballot items, including a renewed effort to pass a carbon tax in Washington state and a move to strengthen salmon habitat protections in Alaska. A push to shield Montana’s water from mining runoff was losing by 18 percentage points as of late morning Nov. 7.

“Unless it’s really close to home and really concrete, environmental issues seem abstract,” Peter Cannavo, an associate professor of government at Hamilton College told Bloomberg Environment. Climate change has yet to materialize as a personal issue for voters, despite a gloomy outlook in a recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

“The opponents were able to present any effort to address these problems as too expensive,” Cannavo said.

Renewables, Carbon Tax

Arizona’s Proposition 127, which requires utilities to produce half of electricity from renewable sources, failed with nearly 70 percent of the vote against. The measure became one of the most expensive ballot initiatives of the 2018 election cycle.

Arizona Public Service, the state’s largest private monopoly utility, spent about $30 million to oppose it. Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, an alliance backed by Steyer, spent more than $25 million to help pass it.

Although passing their own renewable measure, Nevada voters shot down the more controversial Question 3, a measure to approve opening a competitive retail energy market. Its approval would have ended the monopoly held by Berkshire-Hathaway Energy Co.-owned NV Energy Inc., which spent close to $63 million to defeat the ballot initiative. Sixty-seven percent disapproved of the measure.

Washington state won’t immediately become the first state to levy a fee on carbon emissions, after voters appeared poised to reject Initiative 1631, which would have allowed the state to charge utilities, refineries, and other greenhouse gas emitters at least $15 per ton of carbon dioxide after 2020. The race hasn’t been officially called.

The oil industry spent at whopping $31 million to defeat the initiative, and famous Washingtonians Bill Gates and members of Pearl Jam spoke in support of the measure.

Hardrock Mining, Salmon Protections

Montanans are poised to turn down Initiative 186, which mandates that the state’s environmental agency deny a permit for any new hardrock mines in Montana that will create “perpetual” pollution.

The definition of “perpetual” must be decided by the Montana Legislature or through agency rulemaking. The Montana Mining Association spent nearly $5.3 million to defeat the measure, and wildlife conservation groups gave close to $1 million to pass it.

Alaska’s Ballot Measure 1, which had 64 percent of the vote against with 98 percent of precincts reporting, would have required developers to consider a broader range of impacts on water quality, temperature, fish passage, and stream flow.

Interest groups broke state records for campaign spending, with a coalition of construction trade associations, labor organizations, and the cruise industry giving more than $12 million to defeat the measure.

Oil and Gas, Fracking

Colorado’s petroleum industry succeeded in sinking Proposition 112, to create a buffer between oil and gas development and schools and homes.

Colorado’s Amendment 74, which also didn’t pass, was on the ballot in response to Prop 112. It would have strengthened property rights by requiring the state to pay private land owners for the potential loss in market value of their land due to a law or regulation. The measures failed with 57 percent and 54 percent of voters opposed, respectively, with more than 80 percent of precincts reporting.

An offshore drilling ban will be added to Florida’s constitution following the success of Amendment 9. Although the measure to prohibit “drilling for exploration or extraction of oil or natural gas” off the state’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts has little practical impact—offshore exploration has been banned in the state since 1988—it reinforces Floridians’ opposition to the Trump administration’s intention to open up the Atlantic to oil exploration.

The amendment also bans the use of electronic cigarettes indoors. It passed with 69 percent of the vote.

The central California county of San Luis Obispo didn’t support Measure G to bar hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in unincorporated areas. The measure, intended to protect water resources, farm crops, and tourism, is expected to spur litigation over private property rights, according to the county’s assessment. Actor Mark Ruffalo lent some star power to the effort to pass Measure G in the last week before the election.

Gas Taxes

A California ballot measure, Proposition 6, to reverse a gas tax to fund transportation repairs, failed.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) approved a bill in 2017 to raise taxes by 25.75 cents-per-gallon on diesel and 12 cents-per-gallon on gasoline.

The proposition would have made future increases more difficult by requiring voter approval for taxes imposed after Jan. 1, 2017.

Missouri and Utah residents, though, voted against gas tax measures in their state. Proposition D in Missouri would have raised the gas tax in annual 2.5-cents-per-gallon increments over four years to pay for transportation projects, and Utah’s Advisory Question 1 asked voters if state motor and special fuel tax rates should be increased by an equivalent of 10 cents per gallon to fund education and roads.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at; Andrew Childers at; Renee Schoof at

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