State-level elections Tuesday could determine how much — and how quickly — some of the largest energy-producing states pivot from fossil fuels.
Among the issues at stake are whether Virginia ultimately exits a regional carbon trading program and the degree that New Jersey supports natural gas in coming years. Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act also placed much of the fate of President Joe Biden’s goal of a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035 in the hands of states receiving funds.
Voters in two states could flip control of the governor’s mansion Tuesday, including the coal-rich state of Kentucky where Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear faces Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron. In Mississippi, Republican Tate Reeves is running for reelection against Democrat Brandon Presley, a Public Service Commission member who has voted for more renewable energy incentives.
A third gubernatorial seat in Louisiana has already changed hands after Republican Jeff Landry won the seat outright in an October primary, with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards ineligible for a third term.
State legislatures are up for grabs in four states, including races that could tip the partisan balance in New Jersey and Virginia. In Maine, voters also will decide whether to overhaul the structure of electric utilities, with implications for cutting energy emissions.
Here are four state elections to watch that could shape the U.S. energy sector:
In seeking reelection, Beshear is walking a political tightrope in the nation’s fifth-largest coal-producing state: embracing the beleaguered fossil fuel while also touting technology that could replace it.
Beshear, who was elected to his first term in 2019, has helped to attract $8 billion in private investments for two electric vehicle battery plants, although Ford recently announced a delay of one of them. According to the environmental nonprofit E2, Kentucky created nearly 5,000 clean energy jobs between 2020 and 2022 — a 12.8 percent jump.
At the same time, Beshear said in a statement released by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce in October that the state needs an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” that supports coal. A 2021 state energy strategy announced under Beshear makes just one mention of climate change risks and touts carbon capture and other technologies to keep fossil fuel plants running. The governor also allowed a bill to become law this year without his signature that makes it more difficult for utilities to shutter aging coal and gas plants.
Cameron said he’d do even more to protect coal. He has used his perch as the attorney general to launch attacks against the Biden administration and protect fossil fuels, including suing over fuel economy rules, the cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and proposed EPA emission restrictions on power plants.
“Make no mistake, this plan will be the death knell for Kentucky coal miners and coal plants,” Cameron said in an August statement about the power plant proposal. “I will continue using every possible tool to prevent these extreme environmentalists from harming Kentucky.”
The close gubernatorial race could dictate not only how long the deep-red state keeps coal online, but what replaces it. Andy McDonald, director of the climate and energy transition consulting firm Apogee, said that with Republicans holding a supermajority in both legislative chambers, the governor’s office plays a significant role in influencing the energy mix.
“Beshear has served as a bit of a brake, so if the legislators get the idea to pass some regressive pro-fossil bills that are not in the public interest, we have a greater chance of a veto,” said McDonald. “Having Republicans control the full government would facilitate their tendency to try to prop up the coal industry.”
Kentucky Coal Association President Tucker Davis said the group does not endorse candidates in elections, but noted the importance of energy policy in the race.
“The next governor has their work cut out to address the growing energy crisis and rising energy costs that are harming Kentuckians, and the Kentucky Coal Association stands ready to help,” Davis said in an emailed statement.
Beshear has not outlined specific renewable energy deployment targets. Neither campaign responded to requests for comment about how their candidate would change the energy sector.
Kentucky is in the bottom 10 states for installed solar, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But McDonald, who previously led the Kentucky Solar Energy Society, said that growing federal funding opportunities and the dropping price of solar energy mean that the next governor has an opportunity to build on growing momentum for clean energy. This summer, the state announced the planned conversion of the Starfire coal mine into a solar energy center.
“There’s been a lot of development, the state is really opening up much more to renewable energy,” McDonald said. “This is a new economic development opportunity, especially in those coal communities.”
Reeves is vying for a second term against Presley, a longtime state utility regulator on the Public Service Commission, in a close gubernatorial battle in Mississippi.
“This is the first time in a long time that energy issues have been as front and center as they are in this political race,” Brandon Jones, political campaigns director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told E&E News.
The state’s next governor could influence the pace the state adopts renewable energy, according to Jones. Also at stake is how much Mississippi turns to carbon capture technologies, said Patrick Sullivan, president of the Southeast Oil and Gas Association, in an interview.
Both Reeves and Presley have supported traditional fossil fuel generation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas in 2021 accounted for 72 percent of in-state net electricity generation and powered nine of the state’s 10 largest power plants.
Because of the industry’s dominance in the state, opposing oil and gas development as a political candidate “would just be a deal killer,” Sullivan said.
One of the biggest energy fights between the two candidates has been over solar power. During the campaign, Reeves singled out donations to Presley from a Tennessee-based solar company, Silicon Ranch, in political attack ads.
“Not only do I think he sold his soul for it, I think he broke Mississippi law,” Reeves said in a televised debate with Presley last week. Reeves has pointed to Mississippi campaign finance law, which prohibits public service commissioners or candidates from accepting campaign donations from utilities they regulate.
In the same debate, Presley said: “Tate Reeves knows that ad is a complete bald-faced lie, and I’ll tell you why he knows it’s a lie. The minute that the company involved threatened his campaign with a lawsuit for defamation, guess what he did? He changed the ad because he knew it was a lie from the beginning. The solar companies are not public utilities.”
Jones said donations to Presley’s campaign “would pass the smell test from a legal standpoint,” because Silicon Ranch is not a public utility, meaning any contributions from it wouldn’t violate state law.
“From an optics standpoint, Brandon has gone out of his way to make sure that he wasn’t being improperly influenced,” Jones added.
When asked about the issue, Presley campaign spokesperson Michael Beyer told E&E News that “they’re just trying to muddy the waters because there’s a $77 million public corruption scandal” involving welfare fraud that Reeves is entangled in.
The Reeves campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Presley, in his time on the Public Service Commission, has been an advocate of incentives for rooftop solar owners. He last year voted to expand rebates for low-income Mississippians who adopted panels, which can send excess electricity back to the grid.
Those benefits were passed in “a state that has been one of the most resistant to things like renewable energy at every turn,” Jones said.
Reeves at the time opposed the policy, calling it a “bad deal” on X that would increase costs for consumers.
The Solar Energy Industries Association ranks the Magnolia State in 36th place for its solar installations.
Sullivan of the oil and gas association said he thinks Presley, among other Mississippi Democrats, should call out the Biden administration’s climate law, which includes robust benefits for solar installations.
“With very far-reaching, aggressive and I’d say radical policies coming out of the Biden administration, you’re not seeing Democrats in states like Mississippi speak up or denounce these policies,” Sullivan said.
Mississippi is also home to swaths of the Denbury carbon dioxide pipeline network, the country’s largest of its kind, spanning more than 1,300 miles. While the position of Reeves and Presley on the network is unclear, the next governor could influence the number of regulations affecting it in the state.
In Virginia, polls show there’s a chance that Republicans could win a trifecta for the first time in a decade, a development that could upend the state’s energy and environment agenda.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are up for grabs Tuesday. With Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin at the helm, the GOP needs to flip a few Senate seats and keep its narrow edge in the House of Delegates for full control of the state government.
In 2022, Youngkin released an energy plan pushing for adding small nuclear reactors, hydrogen and other alternative technologies to the state’s energy system.
Key to that plan and Republicans’ goals is rolling back energy policies backed by Democrats that green groups say have propped up Virginia as a clean power leader in the South.
“The stakes can’t really be much higher,” said Tim Cywinski, Virginia Chapter communications lead for the Sierra Club. “Governor Youngkin is the leader of the Republican Party, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that if Republicans get elected, they’re going to follow his agenda — and that’s concerning when it comes to climate.”
The groups say they are most concerned about future rollbacks of three measures enacted under former Gov. Ralph Northam (D): an electric vehicle mandate in the 2021 “Clean Cars” law, a commitment in the state’s Clean Economy Act to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045 and Virginia’s participation in a regional cap-and-trade program. The Clean Economy Act, which was signed in 2020, also included energy efficiency measures.
Since the 2021 elections — when Republicans swept the gubernatorial, attorney general and lieutenant governor’s races and won back the lower chamber — Senate Democrats have branded themselves as a blue “brick wall” thwarting legislation backed by Youngkin and the GOP. The impasse would likely continue if Democrats keep their edge in either chamber.
“We hold the line,” said U.S. Rep. Jennifer McClellan (D-Va.), who led passage of the Clean Economy Act while in the state Legislature. “We held the line this January — the Democratic Senate blocked all Republican efforts to undermine our climate action progress.”
Last year, state Senate Democrats killed a proposal to roll back the Clean Economy Act after every Republican in the House voted for the plan.
Republicans have also attempted multiple times to repeal the cars law, which ties Virginia to California’s standards banning the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles after 2035. Del. Tony Wilt (R) ushered the latest charge to revert to more relaxed federal auto emission rules in January, but Senate Democrats defeated it in February in committee.
In the event of a trifecta, “the top priority has to be detaching ourselves from the California Emissions mandate,” Wilt said in an email. “Whether it’s fully repealed or significantly reformed, I’m confident you will also see changes to the Clean Economy Act to repeal the rigid mandates.”
Youngkin also has been pushing to pull Virginia out of a multistate carbon emissions trading program, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, by the end of this year.
“RGGI describes itself as a regional market for carbon, but it is really a carbon tax that is fully passed on to ratepayers,” he said in a 2021 speech.
Youngkin proposed repealing the regulations allowing the state’s participation in RGGI, but that sparked a legal battle with environmentalists over whether the governor can exit the program without legislative approval. RGGI supporters say it has reduced carbon emissions while also channeling hundreds of millions of dollars into communities for energy efficiency and flood preparedness projects.
A GOP sweep of the Legislature could let Youngkin sidestep the court challenge and go through the General Assembly instead.
“We’re confident that he would try to push through legislation that would repeal RGGI,” the Sierra Club’s Cywinski said of Youngkin.
Virginia’s balance of power may hinge on voter turnout. Though climate change can drive younger voters to the polls, the issue has been overshadowed by concerns about abortion access and the economy during this year’s campaign. The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed a slate of Democratic lawmakers this year, has adjusted by bundling its messaging on environmental items with other issues.
“We talk about the economy in terms of climate action, job creation, saving you money on your electric bills,” explained Michael Town, the group’s executive director.
Every seat is also up for election in the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Legislature, making Tuesday a potential turning point for statewide energy policy. The state is led by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, and some polls suggest there’s a possibility both chambers of the Legislature could flip Republican.
“If Republicans do [flip control], there simply won’t be funding to do any of the things the governor wants to do with wind power,” said Benjamin Dworkin, director at the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship.
In February, Murphy issued several executive orders to boost low-emissions energy, including a target of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and a plan to install zero-carbon heating and cooling systems in 400,000 homes and 20,000 businesses.
“Combined with our federal partnerships reinforced through the Inflation Reduction Act, these comprehensive initiatives will better protect and prepare every New Jersey community,” Murphy said in a statement at the time.
Since then, an increased partisan divide over offshore wind development has been the biggest development for New Jersey energy, said Dworkin. The issue has been used to generate enthusiasm among Republican voters in a year where low voter turnout is expected, he added.
Yet this still might not be enough to totally flip party control, he said, guessing that Republicans will only pick up a few seats. Democrats hold a 10-seat edge in the state Senate and a 12-seat advantage in the General Assembly.
“The fact that a Republican Legislature is unlikely to fund or agree to certain policies promoted by the governor is somewhat mitigated by the fact the private sector partner that the state had has just left. I think they’re on hold anyways.”
That private sector partner — energy company Ørsted — canceled a massive offshore wind project planned off the state’s coast. The company cited high inflation, rising interest rates and supply chain bottlenecks for the decision, avoiding any mention of politics.
The two-phased project’s cancellation came as a surprise for many groups that both advocated for and opposed the wind farm.
That included New Jersey environmental group Clean Ocean Action, which advocated against Ørsted’s Ocean Wind development and joined a lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to overturn federal approval of the project.
“We are not opposed to offshore wind, we are opposed to the extremely reckless way it’s being approached, with massive projects without diligence,” Clean Ocean Action Executive Director Cindy Zipf said.
But Anjuli Ramos-Busot, director of New Jersey’s Sierra Club chapter, said the cancellation was disappointing, “because that means our timeline to achieve all of the benefits from wind — cleaner air, cleaner water, less pollution, transitioning away from fossil fuels, better unionized jobs — all of that gets pushed even further in the timeline.”
Ramos-Busot said some messaging during the campaign has focused on opposition to clean energy development, mostly financed by the fossil fuel industry. Yet, she doesn’t think voters are paying much attention to it.
“New Jersey voters are very smart, and we’re a state that has always prioritized environmental protections,” Ramos-Busot said.
Meanwhile, Republicans like former President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey celebrated Ørsted’s decision, saying offshore wind can hinder local tourism and harm marine life.
Republicans in the state Legislature have also latched onto issues like electric vehicles and gas stoves in their campaign rhetoric, Dworkin said. They have criticized the plan backed by Murphy to facilitate electrifying homes in New Jersey.
In July, Murphy’s administration issued a proposal to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, following California’s lead.
“One of the real concerns with adopting that standard, which is just a proposal right now, is building out an electric grid that can handle it,” Dworkin said. “If Republicans take control of that, I think you’ll see pursuit of legislation to slow that down.”
This story also appears in Climatewire.