Red, White, and Blue, but Not Green

Energy and environment issues lacking in mid-term election coverage

Remember the 2008 presidential campaign, when candidates and voters alike couldn’t seem to get enough of energy and climate issues during the good ol’ days of $4 per gallon gasoline?

Politically and at the pump, those days are long gone. This election cycle has seen very little talk of energy and climate, and very little media coverage thereof, despite plenty of fodder.

“We had an oil spill; we had a coal mine explosion. We had a gas facility in Pennsylvania blow up. We had a gas transmission line in California explode. We’ve got people fighting wind turbines all over the country. Look, if energy isn’t a big issue now, with all that’s gone on, it’s not going to be a big issue,” said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for several major energy interests, who works for the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

“But what I would add is, the reason it’s not a big issue is because we’re struggling economically, and when that overshadows everything else, the environment will always be a backseat issue.”

Maisano was speaking on a panel about environmental issues’ relation to the mid-term election at a meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Missoula, Montana last Friday. Next to him was Tony Massaro, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president for political affairs and public education, who had a slightly different take.

“I think that voters vote on things that affect their daily lives, and all of the things that were ticked off—even the Gulf oil spill and the mine explosion in West Virginia (I mean, horrible calamity) didn’t affect most Americans daily lives,” he said. “Four-dollar a gallon gasoline affected every American’s daily life, and I think that’s the difference. Right now, with so many people out of work, it’s jobs that are affecting people’s daily lives.”

If there is an exception to the political apathy toward energy and climate issues it is most certainly California. Defeating Proposition 23, which would suspend the state’s 2006 global warming law requiring deep cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, is the League of Conservation Voters’ first priority this November, Massaro said. The ballot measure has received ample media coverage in the Golden State, with innumerable articles, reports, editorial, op-eds, and analyses (collections of these can, as usual, be found at popular “No on 23” and “Yes on 23” websites) weighting in on the matter. It is no mystery, for instance, that out-of-state oil interests support the measure or that, more recently, its opponents have outraised supporters.

Editorially, it seems to be that the majority of California papers, and the largest ones, oppose Prop 23, including the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, The San Diego Union-Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, the Fresno Bee, the Los Angeles Daily News, and The Bakersfield Californian. The only big papers supporting the measure seem to be The Orange Country Register and The Press-Enterprise in Riverside.

Despite being the most conspicuous environmental ballot measure nationwide, which many consider a bellwether for national legislation, Prop 23 has received very little attention from the country’s largest newspapers. The New York Times is a bit of an exception. The paper first mentioned the measure in print in a fascinating, localized piece (contributed by The Bay Citizen, a local news outlet) in early September on the importance of environmental issues in the mayor’s race in Richmond, a blue-collar city in the East Bay. On September 17, the Times tackled Prop 23 head on in an article headlined “California Braces for Showdown on Emissions,” but buried the story on page A16. A few weeks later, the paper touched tangentially on Prop 23 again in a story comparing GOP hopefuls Meg Whitman and Carly Fiornia, and then went for more direct treatment in another interesting, localized piece (again from The Bay Citizen) about the city of Benicia, where the measure “is personal.”

The Times also ran at least eight blog posts related to Prop 23 on its website, but unfortunately didn’t take an editorial position on the matter (although it did recently chastise the unanimous climate skepticism among Republican candidates). The only national paper that did seems to be The Wall Street Journal, whose board favors the measure, believing the California’s global warming law will only hurt the state’s economy (although a recent Reuters poll found that Californians think their climate law will be a jobs creator by a margin of 47 to 38 percent). The Washington Post doesn’t appear to have written anything at all about Prop 23—a shameful display of neglect. USA Today, meanwhile, published its first (and only) article about the measure on Wednesday. The piece was short, but not too deeply buried (landing on page three), and earned points for mentioning a few less prominent environmental ballot measures:

*In Arizona, Proposition 301 would transfer money from a land- conservation fund to a general one to help plug a deficit in the state budget.

*In Maine, Question 3 would create a $10 million bond for state parks and land conservation.

*In California, Proposition 21 would increase vehicle registration fees, which vary by car, $18 annually to help fund state parks and provide free day access to the parks.

According to Factiva and web searches, none of these propositions have received any attention outside of their respective states, nor do they seem to have generated much in-state media coverage, either. They are not the only environmental measures on which voters must decide this November. On October 13, the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Tipsheet pointed reporters to The Trust for Public Land, which is tracking ballot measures that in some way deal with land conservation in at least twenty-two states. The Tipsheet includes a number of other useful resources for finding the green threads in the election, including the League of Conservation Voters’ endorsements, as well as its “Dirty Dozen” list of candidates it opposes.

Where candidates’ stances on environmental issues are concerned, again, there is only limited evidence of national or local media attention. As usual, the undisputed champion, in terms of quantity of coverage along this front, is Environment & Energy Publishing (home of Greenwire and Climatewire), which has published over 150 articles under its “Campaign 2010” heading since early 2009. There are numerous fascinating articles to be found examining races in Colorado, Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and elsewhere where candidates’ green credentials have become either assets or a liabilities.

At the Society of Environmental Journalists’ meeting last week, the League of Conservation Voters’ Massaro said that while his group has endorsed over two dozen candidates, the league has “staked out” eight races for seats in the House where incumbents who voted for the American Clean Energy and Security Act are facing serious challenges. But even in those contests, energy and environment are not the salient issues, Bracewell & Giuliani’s Maisano countered.

“The people that Tony listed are not in trouble because of the vote on the climate bill, although that was one of a handful of votes that they took,” he said. “They’re in trouble because they’re working with Obama and the Obama agenda, and that’s become the flashpoint for a lot of voters.”

Maisano argued that environmental issues “don’t really matter in politics” or are, at best, secondary issues. If one drills down into the local campaign coverage, he seems to be right. Database searches for terms like “EPA and election” yield very few focused articles like those produced by E&E Publishing. Rather, there are numerous instances—from outlets like The Journal Record in Oklahoma, the Toledo Blade in Ohio, The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia, the Houston Chronicle in Texas, and the The Portland Press Herald in Maine—where environmental issues get only a passing mention. Often, as Maisano pointed out, a candidate’s opinion about the Environmental Protection Agency is placed in the context of his or her relation to the Obama administration or stance on “big government.” Conversely, local articles focused on EPA regulations in Texas or dairy farming in Illinois mention the election only in passing.

It’s too bad that more aren’t focusing on environmental issues role in this campaign cycle, given that there are so many ways into the story. As a long article in Greenwire recently pointed out, “It’s Red States vs. Blue in Legal War Over EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules,” making congressional and gubernatorial races across great fodder for focused environmental reporting.

[Update, 10/22: Grist has an interesting interactive feature called “The Gubernatorial Tutorial—What’s at Stake in Your Governor’s Race?” featuring a hyperlinked map of the 50 states. Not all states have an accompanying article or information, but those that don’t solicit readers’ opinions about what’s at at stake, and there are a few comments. In some ways, it’s easier to just peruse the posts under Grist’s “election 2010” tag. There’s a lot good reporting there from people like Jonathan Hiskes and Kate Galbraith, but also a number of features like, “Stupid goes viral: The Climate Zombies of the new GOP,” which are a bit too flippant.]

Spending is also a great point of entry. On Monday, ClimateWire carried a piece about the National Republican Congressional committee “unleashing” a wave of ads around the country, arguing that the economic stimulus package is creating renewable energy jobs in China (The Hill took a shorter look at funding from environmental groups). Likewise, The New Yorker drew a lot of attention for a long exposé in August of the Koch brothers (oil and gas magnates) and their widespread and “covert” electoral funding operations. Last week, The New York Times had a similar article about an ethanol magnate’s anonymous funding schemes. The Times has also exerted itself this week, fronting two pieces about conservative Kansans embracing energy efficiency and climate skepticism being an “article of faith” for the Tea Party.

Granted, as both Massaro and Maisano seemed to agree, energy and environmental issues will not be a decisive factor in this election. But that does not mean powerful interests in that sector aren’t throwing their weight around in this campaign, or that these issues don’t matter to the security and prosperity of this country. The fact that candidates and voters aren’t talking about energy or the environment doesn’t mean there’s no story there—it just means that journalists need to make these topics part of the agenda.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.