Climate policy in the West survives the election

Congress wasn't likely to do much anyway. On the West Coast, California voters rejected an attempt to suspend climate laws, and Pacific Northwest voters mostly kept key climate-action leaders.

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Congress wasn't likely to do much anyway. On the West Coast, California voters rejected an attempt to suspend climate laws, and Pacific Northwest voters mostly kept key climate-action leaders.

It's conventional wisdom that the heavier GOP configuration in Congress spells bad news for climate policy in the Pacific Northwest. There's some truth in that, but there's a more positive story for advocates to tell, too. Here's how I see the events of this week through the lens of climate policy.

The most significant news by far was from south of the region, in California, where the oil industry-backed Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state's climate laws, went down in a ball of flames. In fact, Golden State voters were more decisive about rejecting Prop 23 than they were about any of the eight other initiatives on the ballot. Add to that the easy re-election of Senator Boxer, a serious climate champion, and a handy gubernatorial victory for Jerry Brown, who has pledged to advance climate policy, and you have excellent news from the biggest state in the West.

California's climate laws have now been vetted — and overwhelmingly approved — by the people. That paves the way for reinvigorated state and regional climate programs, including the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), the sprawling 7-state, 4-province program to cap and reduce carbon emissions. So it's no surprise that exactly one day after the election, leaders in New Mexico, a major energy-producing state, announced that they would move forward with a comprehensive policy, including a cap-and-trade program. All of which means that New Mexico and California are both poised to join hands with at least the Canadian provinces of the WCI — British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Ontario — in meaningful regional climate action.

In B.C., however, there's a new question mark north of the border. Yesterday, Premier Gordon Campbell announced he would step down. For climate advocates that's somewhat worrisome news because Campbell has been a staunch supporter of participation in WCI, and he implemented the province's best-in-the-world carbon tax. (In fairness, however, Campbell's other environmental policies have been more checkered.) It's unclear who will replace Campbell as premier and head of the right-of-center Liberal party. But since Campbell was a bit more climate friendly than the BC's Liberal party as a whole, there's reason for concern.

This week also brought changes that will bear on Oregon and Washington's participation in regional climate policy through WCI. Oregon voters elected (or re-elected in some sense) John Kitzhaber as governor. Kitzhaber is expected to maintain Oregon's leadership position on clean energy and climate. Oregon's legislature is expected to be evenly split between the parties, or nearly so, in both houses. It's unclear what the new balance of power will mean for climate policy, though it's worth noting that the Democratic majorities of the last few years did not come close to authorizing Oregon's participation in a serious carbon reduction program.

It's much the same story in Washington, where Republicans put dents into the big margins that Democrats formerly held in both houses of the legislature. As in Oregon, Washington's Democrat-dominatednlegislature had not been favorably inclined to full participation in WCI, so it's not clear if the more even distribution of power will make any difference. One race to watch, however, is Snohomish County's 44th district where Rep. Hans Dunshee currently maintains a thin lead over his opponent. Dunshee is arguably the single most effective climate champion in the Washington legislature.

Voters rejected Referendum 52, an energy efficiency ballot measure that Dunshee advocated strongly. Some are calling the rejection a setback for climate policy, but that's a skewed analysis. The R-52 campaign scarcely mentioned energy or climate, as these were said to poll poorly, but rather focused almost entirely on school buildings, children's health, and construction jobs. Additionally, the measure struggled against opposition on the grounds that it would have exceeded the state's debt limit and also extended a tax on bottled water, both tough sells in a strongly anti-tax year. In the end, R-52 stumbled because it was simply too opaque.

At the federal level, where most punditry has been concentrated, the Northwest's contribution to climate politics are likely to remain static. Idaho Democrat Walt Minnick, an opponent of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, was defeated soundly by a Republican opponent, who is also not likely to champion carbon-reducing legislation. The Northwest's only other Democratic congressman to oppose the bill, Oregon's Peter DeFazio, was re-elected easily. By contrast, Washington's Dave Reichert, one of only eight Republicans nationally to cross the aisle to support Waxman-Markey, cruised to re-election, partly on the strength of the environmental endorsements he earned for his climate leadership.

So far, the only apparent loss for Northwest climate leadership is in Washington's 3rd Congressional District, where retiring Democrat Brian Baird will be replaced by Republican Jaime Herrera. The other potential loss is also in Washington, where 2nd District Democrat Rick Larsen is clinging to a 1,400-vote lead over his opponent, John Koster. Herrera and Koster, if he were to win, would be expected to be less inclined toward climate action than their predecessors. In brighter news, however, Washington's Jay Inslee, one of the nation's leading lights on climate policy, romped to re-election.

The Northwest's Senate delegation looks like it will remain even more static, with every incumbent returning to office. Idaho Republican Mike Crapo crushed his opponent. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden sailed to victory. And Washington Democrat Patty Murray eked out a win. On climate policy, Crapo, Wyden, and Murray all fall out along party lines. The only possible question is in Alaska, where Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a bitter opponent of carbon regulation, may win a surprising upset victory as a write-in candidate.

So what's the final score? It's bucking the received view, but for Northwest climate policy things on balance look much like they did before the election. The prospects for strong federal action are diminished (though they were already dim). But on the heels of Prop 23's defeat in California, the prospects for the Western Climate Initiative look brighter than ever. As before, full WCI participation by Oregon and Washington will hinge on making the case to the state's more conservative legislators. And B.C.'s leadership remains obscured for the moment.

This article originally appeared on the Sightline Institute's Daily Score blog.



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