POLITICS

GOP advance in governorships could change climate policies

Echoing the GOP wave in the U.S. Senate, Republicans picked up or held several key governor's seats that could influence emissions trends and climate policies in some of the largest greenhouse gas-emitting states.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott held off a challenge from Democrat Charlie Crist, dealing a significant blow to environmental billionaire Tom Steyer, whose NextGen Climate Action political action committee poured money into the contest and conducted an "ark tour" to highlight coastal threats.

Incumbent Republican governors swept tight races in Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan and Maine, which also was targeted by Steyer. Governor's mansions flipped from Democrats to the GOP in Maryland, Arkansas and Massachusetts, which has not had a Republican governor since Mitt Romney in 2007.

"Tomorrow marks a new day. ... Florida is on a mission," said Scott in his victory speech.

While climate change came up in few races or debates, the outcomes could determine how states react to U.S. EPA's proposed emissions rule on existing power plants, as well as influence key land-use and appropriations decisions on everything from levee construction to electric vehicle stations. They also could play a role in 2016's presidential election, as popular governors can bring in votes at the national level.

Governor's races "may actually have more influence on the outcome" of the proposed EPA rule than Congress, even though much of the speculation around the rule's fate has focused on the midterm outcome in the Senate, said Bobby McKinstry, chairman of the Climate Change and Sustainability Initiative at law firm Ballard-Spahr.

EPA climate rule gives states wide latitude

Although emissions rate targets would be set forth by EPA under the Clean Power Plan, states have wide latitude in designing plans to meet those targets, he said. As chief executives with authority over state environmental departments, governors will play an important role in determining whether states act pre-emptively to accommodate the rule or oppose it, either by court challenge or by failure to create a state implementation plan.

J.R. Tolbert, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, said his concern is that multiple governors might balk at complying with EPA, forcing the federal government to step in and essentially write state rules. If Congress were, in turn, to cut back on EPA's purse strings, that could slow down implementation of the entire process of curbing emissions on power plants, he said. "We think it's better if a state submits a plan," said Tolbert.

Several of the governors elected last night have vowed to fight the EPA rule.

For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) -- who won re-election last night -- has been a fierce critic of EPA and was signatory to a letter in September criticizing the proposed rule as a broad -- and possibly illegal -- federal overreach. The state's new attorney general, Republican Brad Schimel, campaigned in part on a promise to sue EPA over its proposed rule.

Had both elections gone differently, Wisconsin would likely have joined a coalition of states willing to work with EPA on its new standards, said Michael Kraft, professor emeritus of political science and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. As it stands, the pairing of governor and attorney general mean that EPA can expect a strong degree of resistance from the state, he said.

In Arkansas, which flipped from Democratic to Republican, Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson vowed in a debate this year to also fight EPA partly for its burden on the state's coal-fired power plants, "because you don't even have the technology in place right now that can meet the EPA regulations."

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The positions of other governors-elect are murkier. When asked about climate change and the EPA rule in a debate, new Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) called for more diversification of energy resources, including more development of wind and solar. "But I also believe we can be prudent in our energy development from more traditional resources," he said.

In Massachusetts, The Boston Globe reported this fall that Gov.-elect Charlie Baker privately expressed doubts about climate science several years ago to environmentalists. However, Baker told the paper he had a different recollection of that meeting. His campaign materials also emphasize renewables and efficiency, saying green investment is needed to "reduce our carbon footprint."

One analyst said that despite the New England GOP shift, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) -- a regional carbon-trading program in the Northeast -- likely would not be affected, as many state governments are reliant on money from carbon auctions. These candidates "are not Chris Christie," the analyst said, referring to the Republican New Jersey governor's removal of his state from the cap-and-trade program.

In other high-profile races last night, Gov. Paul LePage (R) won re-election in Maine, and Republican Larry Hogan scored a surprise victory in Maryland in the contest for a seat vacated by Democrat Martin O'Malley because of term limits. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) also won re-election in Kansas. As of press time, races in Alaska, Connecticut and Colorado were too close to call.

Was 'I am not a scientist' a winning ploy?

The focal point for climate change in state races this year was Florida, where Gov. Scott faced repeated open letters from climate scientists about his prior statements of "I'm not a scientist" when pressed about climate change. On the EPA rule, Scott has been "coy" about his intentions but might also refuse to work with the federal agency, said Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director of the Sierra Club.

Scott won praise from conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity for his emphasis on economic growth and low electricity costs. Crist "promoted mandating more expensive energy [in an] effort to appease the solar industry," said Abbie MacIver, deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity, yesterday.

But Scott has been sharply criticized by greens for funding and regulatory decisions.

For example, he cut approximately $700 million from the state's water management districts, which play a key role in flood control in areas like Miami. He also required more economic considerations with state rulemaking -- a move praised by some businesses but criticized by others for slowing down plans for measures such as improving water conditions in Biscayne Bay.

Scott "will try to launch a new wave of residential growth in the state of Florida" that will worsen pollution, said Jackalone, referring to Scott's plan to build a massive transportation and urban network on existing farmland. There also will be little movement to remove restrictions on financing of solar, because of the influence of utilities with the governor, he said.

One bright spot for many environmentalists and Steyer came in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Tom Wolf won an early victory over Gov. Tom Corbett (R). While the race largely hinged on education and a gas severance tax, Wolf is on record as wanting to bring Pennsylvania into RGGI.

Because of Pennsylvania's status as the third-largest greenhouse gas-emitting state, such a move -- along with any shift in renewable or coal policy -- could have regional repercussions (ClimateWire, July 11). In September, the state Legislature passed a bill allowing either chamber to nix state plans to comply with EPA's Clean Power Plan.

However, the legislation that ultimately passed contained provisions allowing the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to still submit an EPA plan after any delay created by a vote, said Jackson Morris, an energy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. That means Wolf may be unaffected by the bill, he said.

The bill was "political theater," he said.

Reporter Elizabeth Harball contributed.

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