Tuesday’s midterm elections may not have brought the seismic changes to Washington, D.C., that some pundits were expecting, but they resulted in surprising outcomes at the state level, with major implications for energy policy.
Voters in four states — Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan and Minnesota — gave Democrats trifectas in both legislative chambers and the gubernatorial seat. Democrats also held on to close gubernatorial races in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York.
At the same time, Republican incumbents strengthened their position in some of the largest energy-producing states, including continuing a sweep of state-level races in Texas that stretches back nearly three decades (Energywire, Nov. 9).
With energy policy playing out at the state level, the results could influence how the country works towards President Joe Biden’s goal of achieving a net-zero-carbon energy sector by 2035 and halving greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.
“Policies that were already in place before the election will continue to drive reductions — and those include not only the recent transformational investments from [the Inflation Reduction Act] but also state, city, and federal regulatory actions from recent years,” Nathan Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, said in an email. “In addition, certain election outcomes have placed leadership in state legislatures, governors’ offices, cities and elsewhere that will support expanded subnational climate actions.”
Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said on a call with reporters Wednesday that the Democratic gains could see more states enact or strengthen renewable portfolio standards that set goals of 100 percent clean energy, follow California’s goal to phase out gas-powered vehicles or work on industrial decarbonization.
“As we get more climate champions on the state level, pushing some of these policies at the state level [is] critically important to getting the type of future we want to see,” Bapna said.
Further down the ballot, voters in nine states also elected utility regulators, setting the stage for who will be key movers in driving the electricity mix over the next five years.
Here are three key takeaways from Tuesday’s state races:
Trifectas and statehouses
Close to two-thirds of state legislative chambers nationwide were controlled by Republicans prior to this week’s elections. While the majority of chambers haven’t flipped, Democrats gained, maintained or deepened control of statehouses in several key states, opening up the door for new state policies to promote clean energy in power grids, buildings and cars.
Two notable victories for Democrats were in the Midwest. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was reelected and the Legislature flipped blue for the first time in a decade, while Democrats in Minnesota won a trifecta. That could accelerate adoption of clean energy policies already proposed by the governors (see related story).
Meanwhile, Republicans gained a new veto-proof supermajority in Florida. But they weren’t able to pick up similar supermajorities in the battleground states of Wisconsin and North Carolina.
In North Carolina’s case, the election results will ensure that reelected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper can continue to veto “bad climate bills” from the state legislature, said Caroline Spears, executive director at Climate Cabinet, a group that campaigns for candidates in favor of climate action. In particular, it may allow Cooper to continue his plans to bring North Carolina into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate carbon trading program, Spears said.
“We’ve protected Gov. Cooper’s veto power for the next few years,” Spears said during a webinar discussion Wednesday.
The GOP could still gain or maintain control of legislatures in the battleground states of Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire. And as of Wednesday, not only was the Oregon governorship too close to call, but Republicans were also hoping to gain seats in the Oregon state Senate.
Overall, neither political party seemed poised for a blowout nationwide at the state level, said Benjamin Williams, a policy specialist in the elections and redistricting program of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It’s becoming apparent that if either side gains seats, it’s going to be a narrow margin relative to history,” Williams said during a virtual briefing Wednesday.
In Pennsylvania, one of the biggest energy-producing states, Republicans will maintain control of the state Senate. But in addition to holding control of the governorship, Democratic leaders said Wednesday that they were expecting to take control of Pennsylvania House of Representatives, even though the results of several House races still had not been called.
Some observers saw the initial Democratic gains in the Pennsylvania House as a victory for climate policy, since Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano and other conservatives in the state had campaigned on killing Pennsylvania’s participation in RGGI. Mastriano lost his bid for governor to Democrat Josh Shapiro.
“[Republicans] all put the greenhouse gas initiative on the ballot with this election,” said Jossie Steinberg, a senior adviser at NRDC’s action fund. “Josh Shapiro and many people who were elected demonstrated that proven solutions on clean energy have broad support in the Commonwealth and have motivated voters.”
Over the past several years, Republicans have had a tight grip in the Pennsylvania House and Senate and were often at odds with outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on energy policy and RGGI. On a few occasions, Republicans came close to overriding Wolf’s veto of bills aimed at preventing the state from joining the program, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector.
Overall, the political dynamics are unlikely to change significantly in Pennsylvania or other states that will continue to have a divided government, said Thomas Pyle, president of Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank. But states that gained a Democratic trifecta may take more steps to advance carbon-free electricity, which Pyle said could increase costs for consumers.
“The biggest energy battles in the states are related to the types of electricity that they’re allowed to use,” he said.
Aside from Pennsylvania, state races in Nevada and Arizona were seen as key for advancing low-carbon energy. In addition to the outstanding questions around which party would control state legislative bodies in Arizona and Nevada, the outcome of each state’s highly competitive governor’s race was still up in the air as of Wednesday.
Both states have significant solar energy resources and extensive opportunities for clean energy jobs, said Jack Pratt, senior political director at EDF Action, which is affiliated with the Environmental Defense Fund. In Nevada’s case, the state has enacted policies in recent years to expand renewable energy and promote electric vehicles under its Democratic trifecta, which is now in jeopardy.
“Everything is really close so far,” Pratt said. “With the down-ballot races, there are such tight margins — all [about] 600 or 1,000 votes.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Maryland and Massachusetts were easily elected, establishing a blue trifecta in those states for the first time in eight years. In Maryland’s case, Gov.-elect Wes Moore has backed passing a new law to require 80 percent clean power by 2030, on the way to 100 percent clean power by 2035.
Carter Elliott, a spokesperson for Moore, did not directly answer questions from E&E News about whether carbon capture would figure as a solution in the state, although he described nuclear power — the source of about 40 percent of electricity in Maryland — as “a major component of our energy portfolio.”
It also remains unclear whether Moore would advocate for the state to join California’s clean-car rules or to ban fossil fuels in new buildings.
“Wes wants to put the hard work in to ensure that we’re protecting the environment for generations to come,” said Elliott. “Under Wes Moore’s leadership, Maryland will once again become a national leader on fighting climate change.”
Blue dreams in Texas fade
In Texas, Republicans held onto every statewide elected position, despite Beto O’Rourke’s high-visibility campaign for governor at the top of the Democratic ticket.
The results will be felt on both state and national energy policy, as Republicans reelected a slate of statewide officials who are full-throated defenders of fossil fuel production and opponents of the Biden administration’s clean energy policies.
“There won’t be any moderation of those views because it doesn’t seem like, electorally, anyone can stop them,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who follows Texas politics.
O’Rourke brought fundraising prowess to the election, closing the GOP’s financial advantage, but it didn’t translate to votes. Incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won his third term with 54.8 percent of the vote, only about 1 percentage point lower than his margin in 2018.
Voter enthusiasm dwindled, too. Texas added about 1.9 million new registered voters from 2018 to 2022, but the number of people who cast ballots actually fell from 8.3 million to 8.1 million during the same period. Turnout was a desultory 45 percent.
Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Texas since 1994.
The decades of Republican dominance have left Democrats demoralized and the state GOP in the hands of the far-right voters who control the Republican primary elections, Rottinghaus said.
In another state race that could shape energy policy, Ken Paxton won a third term as Texas attorney general over Democrat Rochelle Garza with 53.5 percent of the vote.
Paxton has been an outspoken opponent of the Biden and Obama administrations, and his office has filed 21 lawsuits against the Biden administration. Those included challenges over the social cost of carbon and rules at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission intended to promote renewable electricity (Greenwire, Oct. 27).
Glenn Hegar, the state comptroller, was reelected 56.5 percent of the vote over Democrat Janet Dudding. Hegar has emerged as an opponent of sustainable investing, which is often referred to as environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. A state law prohibits Texas’s pension funds from doing business with financial firms that “boycott” conventional energy, and Hegar published a list of 10 firms this year that could be barred from state business (Climatewire, Sept. 6).
At the state Railroad Commission, conservative Republican Wayne Christian beat first-time Democratic candidate Luke Warford by 55.4 percent to 40.5 percent, returning the Biden opponent to statewide office for a second term. The commission, despite its name, has an outsized impact on national energy policy because it regulates oil and gas production, mining and pipelines in the biggest energy-producing state.
Christian has been a supporter of traditional oil and gas and has falsely claimed that wind generation was responsible for the statewide power blackout that left hundreds of people dead last year.
Under Christian and other Republicans, the Railroad Commission has largely avoided cracking down on gas flaring in Texas’s oil fields, which is a source of methane and other greenhouse gas pollution (Energywire, Feb. 11, 2021).
Shortly after he won his race, he vowed to back similar policies during his six-year term.
“We cannot allow Biden’s radical agenda, based on unproven, politicized science, to take root in Texas,” Christian said on Twitter. “We need more domestic oil and gas production to drive down the cost of gasoline and groceries and ensure the reliability of our grid.”
Another conservative, former state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, won the election for an open seat for state land commissioner. The job puts her in charge of energy policy on 13 million acres of state property, much of which is leased for oil and gas production. Buckingham beat first-time Democrat Jay Kleberg by 56.2 percent to 42.1 percent.
In another oil and gas giant, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was reelected in New Mexico over Republican Mark Ronchetti by 52 percent to 46 percent. She will be able to continue her quest to cut the state’s power sector emissions. New Mexico is the second-biggest oil-producing state, and Lujan Grisham’s administration has also implemented tough methane regulations on energy producers (Energywire, Nov 8).
At the other end of the political spectrum, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt was reelected in Oklahoma and will likely continue the state’s conservative path on energy issues. Stitt has chastised the Biden administration for encouraging foreign oil producers to ramp up their output instead of working directly with American producers. Stitt won 55.5 percent of the vote over Democrat Joy Hofmeister, who got 41.8 percent.
Utility commission shuffle
Many elections for state utility commissions played out as expected, with GOP incumbents keeping their seats on Republican-led panels.
Republican commissioners were reelected in Alabama and Montana, leaving both as all-GOP panels. Regulators in those states frequently rail against Biden’s climate agenda, arguing that transitioning to renewable energy from fossil fuels is driving up electric utility bills.
But while many of the faces may stay the same, it will not be business as usual going into 2023, one utility analyst said.
“The next five years could be one of the most critical stretches in utility regulation in many decades,” said Travis Miller, an energy and utilities strategist for Morningstar Research Services LLC.
Commissioners should expect to be busy over the next few years, Miller said. To be clear, the nation’s major regulated electric companies have announced multibillion-dollar capital-spending plans as they remake their power grids to adapt to renewable energy and be more resilient and reliable in the face of extreme weather and as demand is expected to rise in the coming decades.
That means utility executives and their lobbyists will be before the panels more frequently, asking for them to review their clean energy plans and recoup those costs from customers.
Significant challenges are ahead, however. Electric companies are implementing their spending plans at a time when inflation and supply chain challenges are driving up commodity prices, and rising natural gas prices are sending utilities back to regulators asking them to fill unrecovered fuel balances.
As a result, customers, many of whom are already stretched thin, could be facing significantly increased power bills in the coming years.
“There aren’t going to be many places to hide for utilities or regulators in the next five years,” Miller said. “Utilities and regulators are going to have to work hard at implementing the growth plans, transitioning to clean energy, keeping customer bills in check, all the while maintaining safety on the system.”
In Arizona, Democratic hopes to reverse a Republican majority on the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission fell short.
Although ballots in the state are still being counted, it appears that a pair of Republicans — Kevin Thompson and Nick Myers — ousted Democratic incumbent Sandra Kennedy and took an open seat. In the race, voters could choose any two of four candidates to fill the seats.
The new 4-1 Republican majority on the commission likely means the end of a long-debated rules package that could have required the state’s regulated utilities to achieve 100 percent clean energy in the coming decades.
Thompson and Myers both warned against clean energy mandates, warning that they could hurt the state’s reliability and could raise costs for customers.
In Louisiana, one of two Public Service Commission races are headed to a runoff. Incumbent Democrat Lambert Boissiere III fell short of receiving 50 percent of the vote in his race against four Democratic challengers in what is known as a jungle primary.
He will face off against Louisiana Budget Project public affairs director Davante Lewis.
In the second race, incumbent Republican Mike Francis won against fellow Republican Shalon Latour and independent Keith Bodin.
Clean energy advocates said the outcome of the races are important because the PSC’s work intersects with affordability and the state’s energy trajectory.
“There’s a reason both incumbents in Louisiana had serious challenges for usually sleepy races: people are paying attention,” said Logan Atkinson Burke, executive director for Alliance for Affordable Energy.
In a statement, Burke said “people across the country are paying more attention to races that impact both their monthly bills and the climate.”
“Races like this are more visible than they’ve ever been because voters are now asking questions about who is calling the shots,” Burke said.
Reporter David Iaconangelo contributed.