Did Fossil Fuel Firms Completely Dominate Climate Change Issues on the 2018 Ballot?

Lambert here: No! Although they tried.

By Eve Andrews, who writes Ask Umbra, Grist’s civic advice vertical. Originally published at Grist.

Midterm elections are overwhelming and filled with wild questions: Who made these districts? Are people really going to vote for candidates who have been indicted for federal crimes? What is Delaware???

At Grist, we ask questions like this every election cycle while keeping tabs on the performance of environmental and climate issues — and those likely to advocate for them. With the midterms now more or less over, it’s clear that it wasn’t a banner evening for climate action.

Unprecedented spending by the fossil-fuel industry proved effective in defeating climate-friendly ballot initiatives in several western states. But there were a couple pro-climate statewide propositions that passed — including one in Florida!!!! — and several fresh candidates took out longstanding climate deniers in tight House races.

Here’s a quick guide to how the climate did on Election Day 2018.

Renewable Energy, the Hot New Ballot Initiative

Arizona and Nevada each dipped a toe into the rapidly warming pool of reality and put renewable energy measures on their state ballots. Two of the nation’s top net exporters of sunshine and people fleeing bad decisions, each proposed a measure to ratchet up their renewable portfolio standards year by year, with the goal of having their state utilities get 50 percent of their power from renewables by 2030.

Roughly 60 percent of Nevadans thought the idea sounded swell, but in Arizona, the measure went down in combustion flames. (I’m almost certain we’ll soon learn this was somehow Jeff Flake’s fault.)

Drilling Bans, Carbon Fees, and Gas Taxes

Imagine fossil fuel companies and vapelords bonding together to achieve a common goal. Terrifying! Well, this happened in Florida, and it proved a most ineffective union. By a pretty huge margin offshore drilling and indoor juul-huffing somehow ended up simultaneously banned via one proposal. Lesson learned: Tie anything you don’t like to vaping, and it will get banned, because vaping is disgusting.

Washingtonians, bless their damp and seasonally depressed hearts, have been trying to make a carbon tax happen for what seems like forever. A moderate proposal didn’t win enough support in 2016, so a coalition of groups representing the environment, labor, and vulnerable communities went back and tried to get a revamped version to pass in 2018. That redo included a plan to direct revenue to marginalized communities and rebranding the price as a “fee.” This time … it also didn’t pass. Look forward to Grist’s coverage of version 3.0 in 2020!

In 2017, California achieved the impossible and passed a 67-percent gas-tax hike to help fund ambitious public transit projects. Proposition 6, this year’s ballot initiative, proposed both reversing that increase and making it really damn hard to pass future ones. But Californians love (or desperately need) transportation infrastructure more than cheap gas, I guess. They rejected the initiative.

A Colorado initiative to more than double the distance of oil and gas developments from buildings and protected lands would have put a significant damper on the growth of fracking in the state. But big oil pumped in roughly $40 million to block the measure, and it didn’t pass.

Climate-Controlled Congressional Races

Grist did a fantastic — thank you — analysis of which tight House races were most likely to be swayed by anxiety over climate change. Every district we highlighted in that piece appears to have flipped from Republican to Democrat.

The incumbent in Florida’s 26th district, Carlos Curbelo, is a 2017 Grist 50 member and the co-founder of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. He lost his seat, conceding to the clean energy-supporting Democrat Debbie Murcasel-Powell by 10 pm ET on Tuesday night.

In the Houston metro area, incumbent John Culberson, who’s neglected to take any significant position on anthropogenic climate change, lost to Democratic challenger Lizzie Pannill Fletcher in Texas’ 7th district.

Republican Pete Sessions, a noted anti-environment legislator, has reigned over Texas’ 32nd Congressional district (that’s northeast Dallas) for 19 years. Colin Allred, a voting rights prosecutor with a pro-climate platform, was his first challenger in a long time. And he won.

Democrat Tom Malinowski flipped New Jersey’s 7th district away from incumbent Leonard Lance. Lance is also a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus, but has a fraught history with the fossil fuel industry — and by fraught, we mean intimate. Malinowski will enter office with a record of strong support for the human right to clean air and water.

Incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher, who represents California’s O.C., has been mired in scandal that wouldn’t be believable on The O.C. That’s what made his seat vulnerable to ex-Republican Harley Rouda, who appears to be pulling ahead as of Wednesday morning. Rouda opposes offshore drilling, which Rohrabacher supports (in addition to Vladimir Putin).

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. ocop

    Fossil fuel money may fund the opposition, but in some cases stupid policy choices are a more direct culprit. On that subject, there is some thoughtful commentary on the Washington carbon tax proposal over at AngryBear.

    The gist I’ve gotten from that discussion and other news stories is that the unsuccessful 2018 proposal was ineffectual virtue signaling well deserving of opposition, versus a potentially more serious but still flawed 2016 proposal that was killed by liberal infighting over revenue distribution concerns (with a not-so-subtle streak of identity politics thrown in).

    1. Dave Chapman

      Sounds right to me. I am an actual voter in Washington state, so maybe I know something?

      The 2016 proposal was good policy, but politically tone-deaf. It was pretty much cooked up by economists and academic consultants, and the fact that none of the street-level politicians had helped write it was extremely counter-productive. (And yes, we had certain SJW types who objected to the proposal on the grounds that the people who wrote it were all white, or something. As if climate-induced wildfire cares what color you are. . .)

      The 2018 proposal had the opposite problem. It would have raised taxes on carbon, and then used the proceeds to fund a whole bunch of new social programs, and would have created several thousand jobs for left-wing political types. In other words, it was a left-wing wet dream. Since Washington State is pretty much full of Rednecks once you get more than 50 miles from Seattle, this proposal was doomed.

      For the record, I think that it is possible to pass a carbon tax, as long as the whole thing fits on a bumper sticker. Really.

      The 2016 plan made my eyes glaze over. I can’t imagine an ordinary voter reading the whole thing, much less understanding it.

      Full disclosure: I did media work for a proposition about 20 years ago. We won.

  2. Alex Cox

    “Two of the nation’s top net exporters of sunshine and people fleeing bad decisions” — surely the author means that Arizona and Nevada (like California) are importers of sunshine and people fleeing bad decisions.

    Sunshine is not an export!

    By the way, I read the Mother Jones article about Rohrabacher and couldn’t see a scandal anywhere. Just a bunch of wild accusations and assertions along the lines of “Trump’s a Russian agent.”

    It’s too bad that MJ has fallen the the level of the NYT and Bezos Post, but it’s worth remembering that Rohrabacher is the only US politician (to my knowledge) who has visited and supported Julian Assange.

  3. Pat K California

    For me, this became very personal last Tuesday. My little town of Benicia, CA, is located on the Carquinez Straits, about 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. The city is lovely … until you get over to the far east side where the Valero Refinery is.

    Our City Council is comprised of 4 councilpersons plus the mayor. The mayor and one of the councilpersons are very progressive people who don’t let the refinery run completely roughshod over us. When we tried to add a third progressive candidate this year, the refinery hit back, in spades:

    Valero-Backed Candidates Win Benicia City Council Election

    Progressive candidate Kari Birdseye raised about $20,000 for her entire campaign. Valero and its workers unions spent over $200,000 to defeat her. That $200,000 bought enough inuendo, smears, and outright lies, all plastered over glossy mailers and internet ads, not to mention sleazy push-polls, to convince enough people to vote for Valero’s preferred candidates. Kari came in third. Without Valero’s meddling, Kari would have won overwhelmingly.

    Yup. This is personal now Valero. And I won’t be forgetting it.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Union workers for an oil field or an oil refinery or a coal mine or etc. are job-hostages in a ” no job = no money = you die” society.

      Ideally, a National Greenist Party ( ” Greenism in One Country”) would craft specific plans for new make-a-decent-living jobs for decarbonization-jobicide-targeted industries to transition right into. If there is no National Greenist Party or Movement to pre-emptively force such a plan and such jump-into jobs into existence beFORE the shutdown of the fossil carbon industries, their union workers will of course fight to protect the fossil carbon industries in order to protect their own jobs.

      And if there is no such “first make the new jobs, then kill the old jobs” movement in command of law/society/etc., then we will have to fall back on the second-best approach of massive citizen culture-based extermicotts against the fossil carbon companies designed to degrade and attrit them into a defeatable size. And in that scenario, fossil carbon union jobs simply get executed.

      I have read that Valero specializes in certain kinds of heavy sour oils. If it sells its products to certain downstream re-sellers, perhaps those particular re-sellers can be targeted for strangle-cotts to be lifted if those downstream re-sellers can be courtroom-quality PROVEN to have stopped buying product from Valero. The goal would be to created a water-tight roving stranglecott moving from target to target to target until Valero is unable to sell its product from this refinery ANYwhere and is forced to shut it, liquidate it , and dismantle the remains.

    2. knowbuddhau

      My heartfelt sympathy. Good luck, more power to you.

      This is a big part of the mystery surrounding voters voting against their interests: Weaponized ad campaigns psyoping the populace. More subtle than the Borg, but just as effective. The lies only have to alter the outcome. They don’t have to make sense.

      Anyone care to go to Benicia, now, and tell them what “sheeple” they are? Buehler?

  4. Annieb

    In Colorado the current setback limits for oil and gas operations is only 500 ft for residential and 1,000 for all other occupied buildings. Prop 112 would have increased the setback to 2500 for all occupied buildings. Very frustrating that voters didn’t pass it, as more and more evidence comes out that these operations are harmful to human health.

  5. Medium Rare

    1631, Washington’s failed carbon tax initiative, was a blatant power and money grab by the state’s dominant political factions. Buckets of money left to the discretion of an unelected board of 15 people, free to distribute walking around money to favored interest groups with no clear plan or objective for expenditures. I’m glad people saw though the disguise, and the blatant lies of the yes crowd.

  6. michael savoca

    Sadly, a prominent atmospheric science, weather-climate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, Clifford Mass, opposed initiative 1631 which sought to place a tax on carbon emissions in Washington State. Professor Clifford Mass joined people, aligned with the interests of the fossil fuel industry to help write the “against” argument in the state wide voters information pamphlet. He complained that a board with mostly appointed, rather than elected officials, would be charged with disbursing the proceeds of the carbon tax…all be it under strict guidelines. He complained the tax wasn’t fair. The dithering, and perfectionistic facade presented by those opposed to fighting climate change, will ultimately cost lives. In order to stampede the masses against doing anything that taxes carbon and vote no, all one has to do it tell people its going to cost them some money and they head for the exists. But in the end these short sighted and instant gratification people…will pay…through the nose, when it is too late to avoid cataclysm. Our huge forests in the pacific-northwest are going to burn big time, and thats just the start. Oh, by the way the fossil fuel industry spent over 30 million dollars…out of state money , in their campaign to defeat the citizens initiative.

  7. Scott1

    Fossil Fuels are where Putin gets a good deal of his wealth and power. Trump’s America, and Putin’s Russia are on the same page when it comes to continuing status quo energy policy regardless of Climate Change.
    Transformational energy sourcing is necessary. It is for the world a tragedy that they have allowed the US to be the Unitary Power when is you see the hijacking of energy policy by 2 rich politicians.
    Building up the UN would start with taxes for an International Cyberwar Defense Force that are paid to the UN Treasury instead of a UN dependent on donations. & then what of a Fiat Currency for the UN?
    Anyway the necessity is for the UN to demonstrate real hard power to be respected enough to enforce Transformational Energy sourcing.

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