The overlooked elections this year with big climate stakes

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Some of the most consequential elections for climate change next month aren’t in the Senate. They’re for an Arizona regulatory body, a Texas city council, and the Ohio Supreme Court.

These offices play a key role in climate policy. Even the most optimistic economic modeling on the impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act estimates the law won’t get the country close to slashing climate emissions in half by 2030 (the bare minimum the US needs to do to keep global warming to under a disastrous 2 degrees Celsius) without a big boost from state and local governments. A recent paper by Energy Innovation, a climate modeling group, notes that states will be “central actors” in implementing the Inflation Reduction Act and determining how much emissions will fall.

There’s no level of government that is untouched by climate change. Local officials have to grapple with the consequences of raging wildfires, floods, and grid failures. And down-ballot races for city councils or states are “often nail-biters” that “literally come down to dozens or hundreds of votes,” said Whit Jones, an organizer of the climate campaign group Lead Locally.

A view of President Joe Biden aboard Marine One during an aerial tour, inspecting Louisiana communities impacted by Hurricane Ida, on September 3, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst/AFP via Getty Images

Here are some of the races that could end up mattering most for climate change.

State legislatures

State legislatures can push forward climate policy, or they can obstruct it. Multiple legislatures could change party control, but contests in North Carolina and Minnesota are notable.

North Carolina General Assembly

In North Carolina, Republicans are just a handful of seats away from a supermajority in both houses, giving them the two-thirds margin they need to overturn any vetoes from the governor. Even with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper in office until at least 2024, a supermajority GOP state legislature could deliver some serious setbacks to clean car and clean energy goals.

North Carolina is unique among Southeastern states because it has a plan to tackle climate change and advance clean energy. But implementing it will require the governor to appoint climate officials to statewide positions like the utility regulatory commission. A supermajority of Republicans in control makes it much more difficult to get any appointees through.

If Republicans gain just five seats, then the state would also be the next to join the 20 others that have preemption laws blocking climate action by cities. Last year, Cooper vetoed the preemption bill passed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Preemption bills, aligned with the American Gas Association’s priorities, forbid cities and municipalities from passing rules that transition buildings off of gas appliances. While there aren’t any North Carolina cities with rules on the books blocking gas yet — gas overall is less common to heat homes in the Southeast than cities like New York — residential demand has been growing over the past decade, and preemption would limit cities’ options in the future.

Minnesota state Senate

Democrats control one chamber in Minnesota but are vying to gain control of the state Senate this cycle. If they do, they’ll have a Democratic governor and a Democratic legislature with potentially enough votes to finally pass climate legislation. Democrats need to pick off just two seats from the Republican majority to flip the state Senate.

Minnesota’s governor has unrolled a climate plan to accelerate pollution cuts faster than the law the state already has on the books. Many of the priorities will require legislation to enact, including new spending on public transit; boosting the number of electric vehicles on the road from under 1 percent to 20 percent by 2030; restoring forests, grasslands, and wetlands; and requiring all new commercial and multifamily buildings to hit a net-zero carbon target by 2036.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz rolls out his initiatives to combat climate change in Eagan on September 16.
Steve Karnowski/AP Photo

Utilities are well aware of the climate stakes of the state Senate, too. According to tracking from Energy and Policy, in one race, utility interests from inside and outside the state, including Xcel Energy, the Edison Electric Institute, Florida-based NextEra Energy, and Florida Power and Light, have lined up to support Republican candidate Kathleen Fowke, the wife of a former Xcel chair, against Democrat Kelly Morrison. (NextEra Energy is based in Florida but has wind projects in Minnesota; it’s the parent company of Florida Power and Light, which has been swept up in scandals for opposing expanded rooftop solar policies.)

Local officials with a say over what gets built, and how, in Texas

Cities are major laboratories for climate policy and adaptation, especially when it comes to what gets built, or not, in major hotspots for fossil fuel drilling. Cities can make progress on climate change even in a red state like Texas.

Harris County, Texas, judge

The Harris County judge is more like a CEO with broad jurisdictional power over the nation’s largest county in the Houston area, home to sprawling oil and petrochemical industrial operations.

Lina Hidalgo is fighting to stay in her seat as county judge for Harris County, after her surprise win in 2018.

Her opponent Alexandra del Moral Mealer has focused primarily on crime and law enforcement in her campaign, in contrast to Hidalgo’s emphasis on her environmental priorities — including incorporating climate flood maps into city planning and hiring environmental prosecutors. Hidalgo’s expansion of the county’s pollution budget and air monitors has earned her a strong reputation among climate advocates, including the endorsement of the down-ballot-focused PAC Climate Slate. Mealer, for her part, told the Houston Chronicle (which ultimately endorsed her) that climate change isn’t her priority. Mealer’s website says: “County is not the appropriate entity to solve Climate Change – let’s fix potholes first.” The race has been in a dead heat.

Corpus Christi, Texas, City Council

Another Texas race has huge stakes because of its geographic location. Close to the Permian Basin, the most active oilfield in the US, the Port of Corpus Christi has become the US’s No. 1 exporter of crude oil. The city council has a big say over what gets built and what oversight is in place in a state that’s otherwise overrun by oil industry interests. The climate group Lead Locally lists four endorsed candidates running for city council, as part of a slate pledging to oppose a local desalination plant, put more attention on preparing for climate change, and increase focus on clean energy.

Signs outside a polling location during primary elections in Corpus Christi, Texas, on March 1.
Callaghan O’Hare/Bloomberg via Getty Images

State treasurers can fight or encourage clean energy investments

A growing number of state treasurers have moved to pull any state investments from banks that “boycott fossil fuels,” haphazardly identifying certain companies that have made public commitments on climate change and ESG (a framework for incorporating environmental, social, and corporate governance values into company strategy).

Even some fossil fuel companies have considered aligning with ESG standards, but the growing anti-ESG movement has cherry-picked which companies they will divest from, and the investment fund BlackRock has become a poster child for the backlash. Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and West Virginia have all pulled or pledged to pull state pensions from BlackRock.

ESG has factored in the Arizona state treasurer race, where incumbent Kimberly Yee (R) is up against Martin Quezada (D). Yee has vowed to ignore ESG standards going forward, saying it’s “inappropriate for the investment room.” Quezada takes a different view that ESG isn’t about politics, but about sensible investment decisions. “I think it’s really irresponsible of any manager or investor of public money to oppose any type of risk analysis for your investment strategy,” he’s said.

An October 17 poll by the research firm OH Predictive Insights showed Yee holding a comfortable lead, 46-35, over Quezada.

Contests that matter for legal cases

Attorneys general and the courts have played an increasingly high-profile role in climate fights throughout the country. At least seven attorneys general are in lawsuits against the oil industry for its role in creating climate pollution and spreading disinformation, and are also locked in battles over the fate of fossil fuel infrastructure. More of these cases are going to hit state Supreme Courts, several of which are elected directly by the people.

Ohio Supreme Court

The Ohio Supreme Court has been controlled by Republicans for decades, but there are three seats open this cycle. The candidates who win will play an important role deciding the future of energy accountability and climate lawsuits in the state. The court has played a particularly pivotal part in the ongoing FirstEnergy bribery scandal, where the company has paid $230 million in fines over bribing state politicians to protect the utility’s nuclear and coal investments.

The court will eventually decide a number of issues, including whether ratepayers will recover up to $1.4 billion for the scandal. Another important issue the court will decide is who has the right to sue and block renewable energy permitting in the state. The nonprofit outlet Energy News Network has a more detailed rundown of the race, which polling from late September by Spectrum News/Siena College showed to be about even.

Michigan attorney general

The fate of a 1950s-era liquid gas and crude oil pipeline may be up to who wins the attorney general seat in Michigan. Michigan’s incumbent AG Dana Nessel, a Democrat, has an ongoing complaint against the pipeline company Enbridge Energy over Line 5, which transports 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas liquids through Wisconsin and Michigan. Her lawsuit is trying to shut down the Michigan portion of the pipeline because of its role in dozens of spills and potential to wreak havoc on natural areas and tribal lands.

Matthew DePerno, Republican candidate for Michigan attorney general, speaks during the state GOP nominating convention in Lansing on August 27.
Nic Antaya/Bloomberg via Getty Images

She’s up against Republican challenger Matthew DePerno, who has promised that one of his first priorities will be to dismiss a legal fight with Enbridge over the Line 5 pipeline. DePerno rose to national prominence for claiming Donald Trump’s election loss in 2020 was fraudulent, and is under state investigation himself for allegedly plotting to tamper with voting machines. Polling by WDIV/Detroit News in October has Nessel with a 12-point lead over DePerno.

State regulators can make sure utilities are hitting clean energy targets

Utility commissions can make or break a state’s climate goals. “They can approve or block the stuff that needs to get built to deliver a clean, electrified future, from renewable plants and batteries to transmission lines to electric-vehicle charging infrastructure,” explained Julian Spector of Canary Media.

Governors appoint commissioners in 37 states, and the state legislature appoints them in two. In the last 11 states, commissioners have to run for election, setting up a situation where the utility regulators can be surprisingly pro-climate in unexpectedly red territory.

Arizona Corporate Commission

This five-seat commission has two openings up for grabs. There are two Democrats, Sandra Kennedy and Lauren Kuby, running against two Republicans, Nick Myers and Kevin Thompson. Most of Arizona’s statewide races have looked like toss-ups, per polling.

If Democrats win, they could flip the commission’s majority, 3-2, creating a solid bloc of more ardent clean energy advocates to advance reforms. While the Republican candidates have argued for an all-of-the-above energy mix that maintains reliance on fossil (natural) gas, the Democratic candidates argue the state’s overdependence on natural gas is a problem. “We replaced one dirty fossil fuel with another by switching from coal to natural gas, and the recent spike in natural gas prices has hit Arizona ratepayers hard as a result,” Kennedy told the Arizona Republic.

Louisiana Public Service Commission

Louisiana, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2020, doesn’t seem the likeliest climate battleground. But as the third-ranked state in gas production and home to a growing number of liquid natural gas terminals, Louisiana has outsize influence beyond its borders. The state’s position on clean energy is especially important because it is part of the mid-continent system operator, the biggest interstate grid operator by land that encompasses 15 states.

Traffic moves along a stretch of roads near the Royal Dutch Shell and Valero Energy’s Norco refineries in LaPlace, Louisiana.
Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, could become less deferential to the utility Entergy and more open to regional transmission projects for renewables, depending on who wins the commission’s two open seats. “If one or both of these seats flips to someone — regardless of party — who is active on clean energy and climate, you’re going to see a lot of movement from Louisiana,” said Daniel Tait, who has tracked these races for the utility watchdog Energy and Policy. Two of those utility-friendly incumbents, Lambert Boissiere (D) and Mike Francis (R), are in reelection campaigns against challengers, progressive favorite Gregory Manning and Republican Keith Bodin, respectively.

Boissiere has had a comfortable lead, but an Environmental Defense Fund-affiliated PAC has just entered the race with $500,000, a huge sum for a down-ballot race, to spend on ads against him.

Texas Railroad Commission

Climate activists also spent last cycle making a failed bid to gain control of the Texas Railroad Commission, which is technically not a utility commission but an important environmental regulatory body in the state. Though he is still considered an underdog, Democratic candidate Luke Warford has made a bid for a seat on the commission by focusing on clean energy and climate issues. He’s focused on Texas’s overreliance on gas to power its grid, which was one factor that led to massive blackouts in winter 2021.

“Texas is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the country, and Texas’ oil and gas industry is the largest contributor to those emissions,” Warford wrote in a column for Data for Progress. “Put differently, the Texas Railroad Commission regulates the industry that produces the most greenhouse gasses in the highest greenhouse-gas-emitting state in the country. And every year, millions of tons of greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere because the Texas Railroad Commission fails to enforce existing regulations.”

The limited polling on the race, conducted by KHOU/Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation in September, found Warford trailing Republican incumbent Wayne Christian by at least 7 points.




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