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It’s hard to find much of a ‘green wave’ in this year’s voting on ballot initiatives

People tend to vote for more parks, if the cost isn’t too high. Progress on mining, energy or climate is harder.

Floridians voted by a wide margin (68.7 percent to 31.3) to ban offshore oil and gas drilling from state waters.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

How did the environment fare in Tuesday’s voting?

If you ask Gene Karpinksi, who heads the League of Conservation Voters, the good-news return on his group’s $80 million midterms investment includes “new leadership and a pro-environment majority in the House” and maintaining “the green firewall in the Senate.” Also:

As we’ve said, if we’re going to make progress in the short term, it’s going to come from the states. And we have many, many new governors and statehouses that are committed to fighting for clean energy and action on climate.

If you ask me, though — well, I wish I could share Karpinksi’s optimism, and maybe whatever he’s vaping.

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I’ve no gift for assessing what the changes in the House and the statehouses are likely to deliver. Instead, as I’ve done over the years of increasing Washington gridlock, I thought I’d take a look at ballot initiatives for evidence of policy advances and public opinion shifts on matters of resource protection, pollution control, cleaner energy and such.

This year, people, the results are pretty bleak, perhaps especially so, and even in places where progressive thinking usually holds unusual sway.

Washington state, for example, made a third run at its first-in-the-nation carbon tax, which was also on the ballot in 2016 and 2017. This year proponents decided to call it an emissions “fee,” made other adjustments to increase its appeal, and managed to run their record to 0 for 3.

Tuesday’s defeat wasn’t even close, 56.3 percent to 43.7 at this writing (the margin may shift a bit when the last vote-by-mail ballots are tallied). Led by BP America, the anti-fee coalition of business and industrial interests spent twice as much as supporting groups. Combined outlays exceeded $45 million and also, according to Benjamin Storrow of E&E News, the tabs for all but three of the U.S. Senate races this cycle.

(Unless otherwise attributed, these and the other vote/spending figures herein are from Ballotpedia; I’ve rounded them to a single decimal place.)

On a brighter note, Floridians voted by a wide margin (68.7 percent to 31.3) to ban offshore oil and gas drilling from state waters, approving a constitutional amendment that also banned vaping in most indoor workplaces.

This odd pairing is a consequence of the Sunshine State’s singular approach to constitutional change: Measures get to the ballot only by approval of an appointed commission (which is almost entirely Republican, for what that’s worth), which groups them as it pleases in deliberations that take place once every 20 years.

Amendment 9 drew fire from the Florida Petroleum Council as well as the state Chamber of Commerce, Libertarian Party and a group that promotes “smoke-free alternatives.” But their efforts couldn’t compete with support generated by a wide range of conservation, tourism, public health and clean energy groups, as well as the League of Women Voters (which prefers an uncluttered Constitution but felt protecting coastal waters belonged in the document, while vaping did not).

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Elsewhere around the country, though, energy companies and other industrial interests had little difficulty beating back a variety of green initiatives.

Mining on the ballot

Addressing a question of considerable interest to Minnesotans, Montana voters rejected a measure to deny permits for hardrock mines that lack features “sufficient to prevent the pollution of water without the need for perpetual treatment.”

Recent polling had shown supporters comfortably outnumbering opponents, but also a high percentage of undecided voters — all to be expected, perhaps, given The Treasure State’s long and double-edged tradition of mining as both economic driver and source of permanently poisoned water resources. In the end, the measure went down by 57.2 percent to 42.8.

The disparity in financing for this contest was even sharper: The measure’s supporters put up $1.3 million, with Trout Unlimited the largest donor; the Montana Mining Association had the leadership role on the other side, providing the entire $5.2 million spent to ensure that mining’s long-term costs remain a public burden.

Mining interests in Alaska, meanwhile, helped to beat back a protective measure for salmon streams by a nearly 2-1 margin.

The Stand for Salmon initiative was launched by conservation groups and small commercial fishing operations, partly in response to the Trump administration’s turnabout on the Pebble Mine at Bristol Bay. It sought to tighten requirements for permits and impact analysis for mines, oil and gas drilling, and other major construction in riparian zones that could threaten spawning habitat for salmon, trout and other anadromous fish.

Opposition came from a variety of industrial interests; the largest single funder was Conoco Phillips,  which put up $1.4 million of the $12.1 million in cash and in-kind services gathered by the Stand for Alaska opposition. (Stand for Salmon had about $2 million in the fight.)

Thanks to Tom Steyer’s NextGen America, which financed nearly all of the proponents’ $23.7 million effort, an Arizona renewable energy measure became the most expensive battle over a ballot initiative in state history. And, as usual, an industry-funded opposition campaign spent even more — some $31.2 million, mostly from utilities.

Proposition 127 would have committed Arizona to getting half its juice from renewables by midcentury (the current goal is 15 percent by 2025). It failed by 69.6 percent to 30.4, with Steyer attributing the loss in part to a rewrite of the ballot language by the state’s attorney general in an effort to make it unattractive to voters.

A win in Nevada, maybe

A similar NextGen effort paid off, however, in Nevada, where voters approved the same renewables standard and timetable with a slightly different mix of qualified sources, and at a more modest pace (the current program aims at 25 percent by 2025). NextGen put up nearly all of the $10.4 million spent to promote Question 6; the opposition was organized as a nonprofit and didn’t have to report financials. The winning margin: 58.8 percent to 41.2.

However, under Nevada’s system, the same measure will have to succeed with voters in 2020 to take effect, and that’s not necessarily a slam-dunk. Two years ago, the state voted to replace the current monopoly on electric power held by NV Energy with a competitive retail market; this year, the vote went the other way, 67.6 percent to 32.4 in a fight between business interests, whose combined outlays approached $100 million.

In Colorado, the oil and gas sector spent $30.3 million — more than 15 times as much as the other side — to defeat Proposition 112, which would have required a minimum distance of 2,500 feet between new drilling and homes, schools, hospitals and other occupied buildings deemed “vulnerable” to harm from the activity. The same buffer would have been required around “playgrounds, permanent sports fields, amphitheaters, public parks, public open space, public and community drinking water sources, irrigation canals, reservoirs, lakes, rivers, perennial or intermittent streams, and creeks, and any additional vulnerable areas designated by the state or a local government.”

With some mail-in ballots remaining to be counted, the vote stood at 56.8 percent against and 43.2 percent in favor.

Californians rejected a nearly $9 billion bond measure to finance groundwater protection and improvement through a range of infrastructure programs — dam repair, watershed protection and restoration, drinking-water treatment — with about half the amount either set aside or prioritized for disadvantaged communities. Opponents prevailed, 52.4 percent to 47.6; supporters spent $4.9 million to promote Proposition 3, with hunting and conservation groups in the lead (no opposition group put its name or spending on the record).

By a slightly larger margin, California did approve $4 billion in bonding for parks, environmental restoration, water infrastructure and flood protection via Proposition 68, with The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land among the key sponsors.

Georgia also voted, 82.6 percent to 17.4, to put more money into parks and such, amending its  constitution to allow earmarking of up to 80 percent of the sales tax collected on “outdoor sporting goods” to be dedicated to land conservation.

Specifically, it would pay for park and trail projects, land purchases for resource protection and recreation (including hunting and fishing), and “stewardship of conservation land.” It will be up to the legislature to decide how much to actually spend for those purposes;  calculations in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution suggest the maximum would be $20 million a year for 10 years.


One lesson here, I guess, is that even in bad years for green ballot initiatives it’s not hard to get people to vote for more parks, so long as the cost isn’t too high. Surely a good thing — but a new direction for America?