By Brady Dennis and Dino Grandoni, The Washington Post
Efforts to nudge the nation away from burning fossil fuels and toward harnessing renewable source of energy were rejected by voters Tuesday across a swath of resource-rich states in the western United States.
Voters in Arizona, one of the nation’s most sun-soaked states, shot down a measure that would have accelerated its shift toward generating electricity from sunlight. Residents in oil- and gas-rich Colorado defeated a measure to sharply limit drilling on state-owned land.
Even in the solidly blue state of Washington, initial results were poor for perhaps the most consequential climate-related ballot measure in the country this fall: A statewide initiative that would have imposed a first-in-the-nation fee on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.
The failure of the ballot measures underscores the difficulty of tackling a global problem like climate change policy at the local level, even as environmental advocates and lawmakers have turned to state governments to counter the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era efforts to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and as scientists warn the world has only a bit more than a decade to keep global warming to moderate levels.
Since President Donald Trump took office, a handful for Democrat-controlled states – notably California – have vowed to be a counter weight on energy and environmental policy to the president, who frequently dismisses the consensus among climate scientists that the way we use energy is warming the globe. In September, California codified into law a commitment to produce 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free courses by 2045.
But Tuesday’s ballot-question results demonstrate the limits to which other states are willing to follow California’s lead – particularly when campaigners against the proposals emphasize the supposed impact on pocketbooks.
“What we learned from this election, in states like Colorado, Arizona, and Washington, is that voters reject policies that would make energy more expensive and less reliable,” Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a free-market advocacy group, said in a statement.
Supporters and proponents poured an eye-popping amount of money into the fight over the future of energy in Arizona. At more than $54 million, only two Senate races in the country – in Florida and Texas – saw more spending this year.
The influx of cash underscores how much both sides believed was at stake. The ballot initiative would have amended the Arizona constitution to require electric utilities to use renewable energy for 50 percent of their power generation by 2035. That might seem easily within reach in sunny Arizona. But the state currently gets only about 6 percent of its energy from the sun.
The state’s biggest utility, Arizona Public Service, or APS, emerged as the most fervent opponent of the proposal, pouring more than $30 million into a political action committee called Arizonans for Affordable Electricity. In an aggressive ad campaign, the group argued that the measure would cost households an additional $1,000 a year.
“We’ve said throughout this campaign there is a better way to create a clean-energy future for Arizona that is also affordable and reliable,” APS chief executive Don Brandt said in a statement Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, an alliance of dozens of organizations called Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, argued that the shift toward cleaner energy will improve public health and create good jobs in the state. The group got a huge assist from California billionaire investor and political activist Tom Steyer, who donated the lion’s share of the nearly $23.6 million raised through the end of September.
Neighboring Nevada had a similar proposal on its ballot, though the outcome there is unclear as of Tuesday evening.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have programs, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards, or RPS, that require utilities to ensure that certain amount of the electricity they sell comes from renewable resources. But only a fraction of those have targets as ambitious as the ones proposed this year in Arizona and Nevada. For instance, New York and New Jersey also have targets of 50 percent renewable energy by 2050. Hawaii would require 100 percent of its energy to be from renewable sources by 2045.