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Down the ballot, U.S. voters grappled with fracking, GMOs, sulfide mining

Questions went before voters in the form of policy referendums, bond issues and other initiatives; the result was a rich mix of progress and retreat.

Fracking bans appeared on ballots throughout the country, to mixed results.
REUTERS/Max Whittaker

A wide range of environmentally progressive programs and policies are likely to suffer as a consequence of last week’s elections, whether the issue is approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, or the regulatory reach of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or the future of coal-fired electricity.

As in most years, however, an array of other, highly specific environmental and conservation questions went before American voters in the form of policy referendums, bond issues and other down-ballot initiatives, and there the news was a much richer mix of progress and retreat.

Herewith my biennial look at some of the more interesting ways the voters spoke out on parts of the planet they care passionately about — starting with efforts to restrict or ban hydraulic fracking for oil and gas, on which some of the year’s highest-profile campaigns were centered.

Mixed outcomes on fracking

The results were mixed, but fracking opponents won a huge symbolic victory, at least, deep in the heart of the Texas hydrocarbon country.  

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That’s where the voters of Denton, already home to more than 270 natural gas wells, voted by about 59 percent to 41 to ban further fracking within the city limits; no other Lone Star municipality of any size had ever done so, and no others even tried this year.

(Those results and all the others herein are preliminary — the counts having been completed but not certified — and most are drawn from the excellent databases at, an impartial outfit whose page on local measures can be found here.)

A similar fracking ban passed by a nearly 4 to 1 margin in Athens, Ohio, but voters in three other Buckeye cities went the other way: Bans failed by 58 percent to 41 in Youngstown, by 54 percent to 46 in Kent, and by 69 percent to 31 in the village of Gates Mills.

The Kent measure, by the way, was cast more broadly as an environmental “Bill of Rights,” asserting that citizens were entitled to clean air, clean water, habitat protection and freedom from toxic waste, as well as from fracking within the city limits.

In California, fracking bans were approved in Mendocino County (67 percent to 33, on another “Bill of Rights”) and San Benito County (57 percent to 43), but defeated in Santa Barbara County (63 percent to 37).

Some of these ballot measures occasioned the high-dollar marketing campaigns we’ve come to expect in proposition-rich California — whose voters considered about two dozen ballot initiatives on various issues this year— but so did an ordinary municipal election in Richmond, a blue-collar community north of Berkeley.

Community activists there have been in a food fight with Chevron Corp. over fires at one of its refineries, its plans to expand its Richmond operations and, most recently, its effort to bankroll a slate of candidates for mayor and three city council seats.

Despite outlays estimated at $3 million — 20 times the spending by the Richmond Progressive Alliance — all four of the oil giant’s candidates went down, um, in flames.

Banning or labeling GMOs

Another big-money campaign of note was waged in Maui County, Hawaii, which voted by about 51 percent to 49 to place a moratorium on cultivation and development of genetically modified crops — and to halt any such activity already under way — unless scientific studies of GMOs’ impacts on environmental and public health prove them to be benign.

Opponents of the moratorium, with Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences in the lead, raised nearly $10 million to fight the measure.

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A similar measure was approved by a much wider margin (59 percent to 41) in California’s Humboldt County, where I suppose the preference is for creating superweed through traditional practices of hybridization and selective cultivation, rather than chromosomal tinkering and gene drift.

Measures to require labeling of food products made with GMO ingredients were defeated narrowly in Oregon — less than 1 percentage point separated the winning and losing sides — and not so narrowly in Colorado, where Proposition 105’s requirement that the label say “produced with genetic engineering” went down by nearly 2 to 1.

Pebble Mine takes another hit

In Alaska, continuing opposition to the Pebble Mine in the watershed of Bristol Bay inspired a referendum to lay one more roadblock in front of the project, a huge open-pit operation devoted to producing gold, copper and other precious metals that could become the largest such mining endeavor in the world.

The ballot measure, approved by nearly 2 to 1, would require approval of the state legislature for the project to go forward. The Pebble Mine already faces potentially crippling restrictions from the EPA, and has powerful enemies as well as friends in Alaska’s state government and congressional delegation, so this vote may amount to another nail in a coffin that for all practical purposes is already sealed.

(Alaska’s ballot counting for governor and U.S. senator continue at this writing, with Pebble Mine foes Bill Walker — the former mayor of Valdez — leading in the race for governor and Sen. Mark Begich apparently trailing in his bid to retain his seat.)

In Michigan, where citizens were actually allowed to vote on whether to permit sport hunting of gray wolves — instead of being invited to participate in a ridiculous online survey — public sentiment was clearly in favor of continuing to protect the species. The margin was 55 percent to 45 in support of a measure repealing the law that authorized wolf hunting, but because that law had been superseded with another, the vote was only symbolic.

In a separate referendum on the newer and broader law, which shifted important authority to designate game species from the state legislature to the Natural Resources Commission, the pro-wolf vote was even stronger — 64 percent to 36. But another legislative maneuver to nullify this vote before it even took place may have rendered this result symbolic as well; the issue is headed to court.

Indians and oil-boom impact

It’s hard to judge the pragmatic import of the tribal chairmanship election on the Fort Berthold Reservation, but the campaign by Mark Fox, newly elected chair of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations, stressed the need to address environmental harm and political corruption attributed to the oil and gas boom in the Bakken patch.

The tribes have benefited from the boom, through employment and production taxes, but there is also concern about environmental downsides. According to the Bismarck Tribune report on the Fort Berthold results,  

Native Americans consider the earth sacred and concern about the environment is visibly higher than in other areas of North Dakota’s oil patch. Fox said he will not shy away from slowing down development if environmental concerns cannot be guaranteed. North Dakota’s top oil regulator, Lynn Helms, has said that the oil industry was “deeply concerned” about the outcome of the tribal elections as both Fox and [opponent Damon Williams] were “less friendly” to oil than [three-term incumbent Tex] Hall.

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Taxing and spending

And in a handful of noteworthy votes, citizens elected to approve new spending, new taxes or both in support of conservation and environmental protection programs:

  • Floridians voted, by a 3 to 1 margin, to dedicate serious money — $648 million next year,  rising to $1.27 billion a year by 2035 — from a state documents tax to acquire public land for conservation, parks and recreation.
  • Mainers voted nearly 2 to 1 for a $10 million bond issue to finance wetlands restoration and other clean-water conservation programs.
  • New Jerseyites voted roughtly 2 to 1 to increase by 50 percent the portion of the state’s corporate-business-tax revenue earmarked for preservation of open space, farm land and historic properties.

Alas, oil-rich North Dakotans overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to devote 5 percent of the extraction revenue gushing into the vaults in Bismarck to a Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks fund — 79 percent opposed, 21 percent in favor. Can’t win ’em all.