Energy was a crucial topic in the 2014 midterm elections, even if it wasn’t always at the forefront of the conversations leading up to the vote. Here’s a look at the Inside Energy team’s breakdown of America’s changing energy landscape and a recap of what happened in Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming.
114th United States Congress: 2015-2017
With a new Republican majority in the Senate, we’re expecting plenty of opposition to President Obama’s climate change agenda, including the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, a proposed rule aimed at cutting carbon emissions from power plants.
Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is positioned to become chairman of the Environment and Public Works committee. Inhofe speaks openly about his doubts regarding the human role in causing climate change, having published a book titled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Climate change science and its place in the classroom was a widely debated issue this election season and, according to InsideClimate News, Inhofe is one of many “climate deniers” who will be taking their seats in the Senate next year, along with Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
Now, the Senate will likely have the votes necessary to push forward decisions like the Keystone XL pipeline, which the House has voted in favor of several times in the past. Keystone will, however, still be subject to presidential approval, unless the Senate can garner a veto-proof 67-count thumbs-up vote. The construction of the controversial Keystone pipeline requires permitting from the State Department because it is an international project. However, its proposed span (1,660 miles) would be a fraction of the other new and planned oil and gas pipeline construction happening across the country. Learn more about U.S. pipeline infrastructure from Inside Energy’s Pipeline Network series.
Both re-elected Governor John Hickenlooper and his Republican challenger Bob Beauprez are considered friendly to the oil and gas industry. But Beauprez was critical of what he described as Hickenlooper’s goals to further regulate the industry in the state, saying it would harm job growth. The race was close—almost close enough to require a recount—but Hickenlooper declared his victory this morning. The Hickenlooper victory will probably have the most direct short-term impact on the Governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force, which was formed as part of a compromise to avoid a handful of ballot measures concerning drilling. The Denver Post reported that Beauprez accused Hickenlooper of caving to “radical” environmentalists when he appointed La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt to co-chair the task force.
As Newsweek reported, both Senator Mark Udall and Republican Representative Cory Gardner touted an “all of the above” energy strategy, with Gardner even appearing in campaign ads calling for an expansion of renewable energy. Gardner also advocates for expanding development of the state’s coal resources, while Udall took a more strident pro-environment stance. As mentioned earlier, Gardner winning the Senate seat brings another lawmaker into the Senate who is skeptical that climate change is caused by humans.
At the local level, the Boulder versus Xcel Energy saga continues. Boulder voters approved a measure that will allow the City Council to meet in private to discuss legal issues, in particular those related to their attempt to form their own utility. While this does not mean that Boulder can or will go forward with their plan of municipalization, it does make it easier for them to do so.
The energy industry won big in North Dakota this midterm. Energy money helped re-elect Republican Doug Goehring as the state’s Agriculture Commissioner, one of three positions charged with regulating the state’s oil and gas industry. Democratic challenger Ryan Taylor had proposed greater protections for landowners living alongside oil and gas development, and therefore was painted as an enemy of the industry.
It is not hard to be portrayed this way in North Dakota: it even happened to the chairman of the state’s Republican party earlier this year, when he suggested to a reporter that a “moderated” approach was needed to prevent fiery train derailments like the one in Casselton, North Dakota last December.
In another victory for the oil and gas industry, Measure 5, or the North Dakota Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment, was rejected by voters by a humiliating margin—nearly 80 percent voted against it. The measure would have created a constitutional amendment to set aside five percent of oil extraction tax for use in conservation projects. Even though the measure would not have created new taxes or raised existing ones, the industry strongly opposed it because they want to see as much money as possible reinvested in infrastructure in western North Dakota, to help retain workforce and keep roads open for industry trucks.
The only race in North Dakota where the oil and gas industry did not get its way took place on the Fort Berthold Reservation, where one-third of the state’s oil is produced. On Tuesday, voters elected Mark Fox as their tribal chairman. Fox is a vocal critic of the oil and gas industry and has called for a slowdown in development (although it isn’t exactly clear how he intends to affect the pace, given that most leasing has already happened). Voters ousted Chairman Tex Hall, who was friendly to the oil and gas industry and tried to speed up development. For more on why politicians on the reservation are more critical than those in the rest of North Dakota, check out Emily Guerin’s recent story.
In Wyoming, election results were largely as predicted. Incumbent U.S. Senator Mike Enzi (R) won re-election, and will start his fourth term as part of the new Senate majority. Incumbent U.S. Representative Cynthia Lummis (R) was also re-elected—she serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, which considers legislation that deals with energy production and other matters. Both are staunch advocates for domestic energy development.
The race for superintendent of public education was expected to be a close one, but it was not. Jillian Balow (R) defeated challenger Mike Ceballos (D) with more than 60 percent of the vote. The outcome of this race could influence the fate of the controversial Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which include the idea that climate change is largely due to burning fossil fuels. In an email to Inside Energy, Balow was non-committal about the issue of climate change science in the classroom:
“The NGSS represent more rigorous standards in science than we currently have in Wyoming. However, we need more stakeholder input before I would be comfortable recommending them for adoption by our state board of education. I would like to continue the discussion and find the best of the best standards for Wyoming. This can only be achieved with a transparent and inclusive process that includes parents, the business/industry sector, education agencies and others.”
The Superintendent of Public Instruction serves on the Board of Education, which is the body that would ultimately vote to adopt, or not adopt, the NGSS.
Energy’s evolving role in national politics
Energy has an odd role in electoral politics. According to a poll by the University of Texas at Austin, the public prioritizes issues like job creation, health care, and education over energy, which ranks near the bottom of the list favored for government spending.
Contrast that apathy with how much money the energy industry spends on elections. Open Secrets, which tracks campaign contributions, reported that the energy and natural resources sector spent $96 million on elections in 2014, and more than half of that came from the oil and gas industry. For comparison, pharmaceuticals spent only $28 million, and educational institutions and commercial banks each spent $24 million.
As Katie Kuntz and Dan Boyce reported, energy companies have been spending money on advertisements that may mention energy tangentially, or not at all. If the energy industry continues to spend money going into the 2016 presidential election, will energy become a major issue in the next round of elections, or will it continue to be only marginally important to voters?