A Referendum on Energy Issues?

Not so fast

There is something ironic about the post-election surge of articles about the environmental consequences of various outcomes at the polls - from the gloom and doom in Washington to brighter skies in California.

Before the ballots were cast, journalists paid hardly any attention to issues like energy and climate. Now that (most) election results have been signed, sealed, and delivered, however, the press couldn’t be more curious about what the future has in store for various environmental policies and regulatory agencies. Oh, well. Better late than never, they say.

A Referendum on Cap-and-Trade?

One of the big questions on many reporters’ minds was, of course, whether or not the GOP “wave” represents a referendum on the House of Representatives’ 2009 American Clean energy and Security Act. In a New York Times article headlined, “Obama to Face New Foes in Global Warming Fight,” John Broder noted toward the end of the piece that:

Tuesday’s voting offered a brutal verdict for many of those members of the House who had voted for the cap-and-trade approach that Mr. Obama has now abandoned. Some three dozen House Democrats who supported the 2009 climate bill were turned out of office.

Supporters of the measure, sponsored by Democratic Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, noted that more than half of the 43 Democrats who voted against the measure also lost their seats, meaning that for most voters the election was not simply a referendum on the climate bill.

The hedge in the second paragraph against the outcome of the election being a “brutal verdict” is important. Elsewhere, the debate over this point produced whole articles and heated argument.

On Wedesday, the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson complained that Politico had “ignored the evidence” and “spun the climate vote as an electoral lose.” An article by Darren Samuelsohn and Robin Bravender headlined, “Democrats’ day of reckoning comes for climate vote,” which reported that, “House Democrats who voted for the 2009 bill to cap greenhouse gas emission - dubbed cap-and-tax by GOP opponents - had a terrible night.” In fact, Johnson pointed out, “Democrats who voted against clean energy were more than three times as likely to lose their seats than those who voted for it:

— Out of the 211 Democrats who voted for ACES, only 41 either lost or retired and saw their seats go Republican. Thus 81 percent of Democrats voting for the climate bill won their races.

- Of the 44 Democrats who voted against ACES, 28 lost, retired and lost the seat to Republicans, or in the case of Parker Griffith, flipped parties and lost the Republican primary. That means 64 percent of Democrats voting against the climate bill lost their seat.

- Of the eight Republicans who voted for the bill, only one was punished by the voters — Rep. Mike Castle (DE-AL), who lost his U.S. Senate primary to eventual loser Christine O’Donnell…

Samuelsohn and Bravender fired back on Thursday with a second article titled, “Greens Desperate to Avoid Blame.” Despite the provocative headline, the piece presented some of the same evidence that Johnson did, but then quoted a couple of sources offering rebuttals. For instance, Jim Connaughton, George W. Bush top environmental adviser, “said greens are missing an important lesson by shining the spotlight on the Democrats who won another term. Many of those were safe seats compared with the seats of losers, who had always been nervous about how their climate vote would sell back home.”

The article makes a solid case that candidates’ support for climate legislation cannot, and should not, be ignored as a factor in the outcome of certain races. Ultimately, though, it reinforces the argument that that was not, in fact, to “blame” for the GOP takeover of the House.

True, in a couple races it might have been a primary factor. In Samuelsohn and Bravender’s Wednesday article, the former chief of staff for Rick Boucher—who was instrumental getting Blue Dog Democrats to support the House climate bill—said he was sure that the cap-and-trade vote had cost Boucher the election. But overall (as CJR argued in pre-election stories about the dearth of attention being paid to environmental issues on the campaign trail) candidates’ positions on climate legislation were generally treated as secondary or tertiary evidence of their degree of alignment with the Obama administration.

The most on-point quote in Samuelsohn and Bravender’s Thursday article came from Ryan Cunningham of the Glover Park Group, a communications firm that published a useful tally of the electoral fate of members of Congress that supported the climate bill. “Most if not all of the losing Dems, of course, also voted for health care, financial reform, the stimulus and dozens of other ‘Nancy Pelosi’ policies targeted by Republican campaigns,” he said. Regardless, though, as Johnson pointed out at the Wonk room, Congress is now full of “climate zombies” - those who deny the science behind anthropogenic climate change.

California’s Prop 23: Renegade or Bellwether?

The other place the media went looking for a referendum on energy policy was California. Voters in the Golden state soundly defeated Proposition 23, a ballot initiative that would have gutted California’s groundbreaking 2006 climate law by prohibiting implementation until unemployment sunk to 5.5 percent, and elected a Democrat governor and senator who support a strong environment/clean energy agenda.

Journalists, pundits, and activists on both sides had a field day trying to figure out whether California was an outlier, going in the opposite direction from the rest of the country, or a trendsetter of what was to come. As a catchy Grist headline asked,
“California exceptionalism or a rising green tide?” In his pithy lede, Todd Woody, a veteran environment writer based in California, wrote, “when you mix red and blue in a state like California, you get green.” His article argued that the landslide defeat of Prop 23 “marked the emergence of a bipartisan, enviro-business coalition that spanned the demographic divide.” He noted that many in the No on 23 coalition see the defeat of the measure as a start to a “much larger campaign” that could spread to other states, even if the congressional environment in Washington is hostile.

“California has always been the leader in environmental regulation. It’s always first out of the box,” said Los Angeles Times environment reporter Margot Roosevelt in an interview. “But it may take a while for the rest of the country to follow suit. People in California feel the future of the economy eventually lies in clean energy.” Deriding the “inside the Beltway mentality that Washington is the center of the universe,” she contended that it was a mistake to marginalize what happens in California: “California is not just another state. It’s not an outlier. One out of nine Americans live here, and it has the eighth biggest economy in the world. So a huge chunk of the U.S. had a big referendum on climate change.”

At final count yesterday, 61 percent of California voters said no to Proposition 23, compared to 39 percent in favor. The biggest surprise, Roosevelt said in an interview, was the size of the victory, “a 22 point margin, the biggest margin of any ballot initiative in California. The surprise to everybody was that it was that big.”

An article by Roosevelt in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday declared in its headline, “Prop. 23 battle marks new era in environmental politics.” The “stunning” size of the victory, she wrote, was “giving heart to national environmental leaders and signaling the advent of new players in eco-politics: high-tech entrepreneurs, mainly based in Silicon Valley, who see clean energy as a economic investment.” But key Republicans opposed the measure as well.

“You had Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger stumping around the state calling them dirty, greedy oil companies,” said Roosevelt in the interview, and George Shultz, the respected Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, who cochaired the “No on 23” campaign, reached out to business to stop it rather than support it and made the case that dependence on oil is a national security issue.

Roosevelt said that making the bipartisan climate and environment case nationally to Republicans in Congress and elsewhere is made harder by strong ties to the oil and gas industries fighting greenhouse-gas regulation, while the clean energy, high-industries are more powerful in California. Roosevelt’s story quoted Shultz at Wednesday’s victory press conference: “What do we need to do with this victory? We need to wake up our fellow Republicans.” But Prop 23 advocate Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, predictably warned that implementing the climate law “will result in the relocation of jobs and businesses from California to other states and other countries,” moving carbon emissions from one location to another but not reducing them.

While an exhausted Roosevelt planned a post-election Thursday morning hike in Dixie Canyon near her home, she was already thinking about the next big story on the horizon: the first steps in implementing the California climate law. A draft has just come out of proposed state cap-and-trade regulations that are due to be finalized early in 2011. “They are immensely complex. We’re now getting into the nitty-gritty of implementing this law,” she said. We’re also getting into the nitty-gritty of the extent to which California’s support of its climate law will, or will not, have national repercussions.

On Wednesday, a New York Times editorial argued that, “California has been far ahead of the rest of the country on environmental issues. And it long ago cast its economic future with high-tech industries. But politicians in Washington — who have made no progress on climate change and clean energy — should take a lesson from the pro-AB 32 [California’s 2006 climate law] campaign.” Whether or not they will is an open question.

What the Future Holds

Despite the fairly robust conclusion that the GOP’s electoral gains were not, overall, a referendum against the 2009 House climate bill, the Obama administration seem to have taken them as such. On Wednesday, Obama told a press conference that, “Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way. I’m going to be looking for other means to address this problem.”

That prompted The Associated Press to dispatch an article headlined, “Obama Drops Plan to Limit Global Warming Gases,” which got widespread pickup. Obama had, in fact, already signaled a significant shift in energy policy before the election when he told National Journal that he would be handling it in “bite-sized pieces,” or “chunks,” as phrased it an interview with Rolling Stone. The chunks that he highlighted on Wednesday - nuclear power, natural gas, and electric cars - are places where the administration sees potential for bipartisan agreement and represent, as an editorial in The Christian Science Monitor put it, “need to focus more on energy and less on climate.”

Indeed, the Houston Chronicle reported, “Republicans have made clear they will emphasize traditional energy sources during the next two years,” and a second editorial in the Monitor argued that energy policy could end up being a “happy medium between Obama and Republicans.”

“Happy” might not be the best word to describe any potential deals, however. Nor might “compromise.” Few reporters, unfortunately, have noted that Obama did not even mention renewable energy on Wednesday. The Monitor’s editorial reflected this, bringing up solar and wind energy at the very end and only briefly.

On one hand, The Hill reported Thursday, “White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said a renewable-electricity standard could be an area of bipartisan energy cooperation now that President Obama has backed away from politically moribund bills to cap greenhouse-gas emissions.” On the other, The Wall Street Journal reported a day earlier, “President Obama’s top advisers recommended cutting off funding for a federal loan-guarantee program meant to spur the construction of wind and solar farms and other alternative energy projects, saying taxpayer dollars might be better spent elsewhere.”

On EnergyNow, a new weekly news show funded by the American Clean Skies Foundation (which is, in turn, partly supported by the Chesapeake Energy Corporation, a natural gas producer), Grist’s David Robert’s argued that, “The bipartisan energy options now being discussed aren’t a different way of accomplishing the same goals as comprehensive climate/energy legislation - ‘other ways to skin the cat,’ as Obama called them — but an abandonment of those goals.”

That perspective might be a little extreme, but one indication that the White House’s new energy agenda might be more capitulation than the compromise is the fact that “Obama’s enthusiasm for gas drilling [has raised] eyebrows.” The president’s “newfound interest in expanded natural gas drilling [on Wednesday] surprised many on all sides of the drilling debate, from environmentalists to drillers and even the coal industry,” Greenwire reported. Drilling groups were pleasantly surprised by Obama’s change of tack, of course, but that doesn’t mean Republicans will be prepared to make any concessions in the other direction.

Another Greenwire article pointed out that the country could just as easily see more confrontation as compromise. Indeed, stories from The Washington Post to the San Antonio Express have reminded readers that the GOP is poised to launch major investigations into climate science and thwart the Environmental Protection Agency’s Supreme Court-mandated ability to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants. For that reason, perhaps, by Friday morning many news roundups (from the likes of Politico and the Society of Environmental Journalists) had started to focus on who will lead important House committees with jurisdiction over energy policy. But the future of climate legislation is neither the public nor the media’s only concern.

Elsewhere in Environmental Policy News

Thankfully, reporters have not focused exclusively on energy. Other interesting pieces since have explored the election’s likely impacts on basic scientific research (including financing for R&D), on transportation policy (including the future of high-speed rail), on agricultural policy, and on West Virginia’s coal industry.

Indeed, the days after the election have seen a surge of media interest in policies and regulations related to the environment. As always, E&E Publishing (producer of Greenwire and ClimateWire) has been the most prolific, churning out article after article under its “Campaign 2010” tag. Grist has also been producing a lot of copy, if you don’t mind a little bit of advocacy journalism. The Hill’s energy and environment blog, E2 Wire, is another great source of analysis on the environmental ramifications of the elction, as is Politico, if one searches for stories by either Darren Samuelsohn or Robin Bravender. The news department of the journal Science has been turning out great work under it’s “Election 2010” tag. And the Society of Environmental Journalists has been rounding up articles under its “Environmental Politics” tag.

Exploring these links, it doesn’t take long to see that where energy and environmental policies and regulations are concerned, the next two years are likely to exhibit a stark tension between a hesitant, restricted federal government and assertive states that vary widely in terms of their aspirations. One can only hope that the press does not fall prey to indifference, as it did in the months leading up to Election Day, and continues to remain as engaged on energy and the environment as it has been in the days since.

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Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter. Tags: , , ,