The Environment Is on the November Ballot — Here’s Where and What’s at Stake
By Tara Lohan
Environmental issues such as polluted drinking water in Michigan and harmful algal blooms in Florida could influence which candidates voters will support in this November's midterm election, said Holly Burke, communications coordinator of the League of Conservation Voters.
"Water issues really resonate with voters in states where clean water has been a dramatic problem," said Burke.
These issues may affect certain political candidates, but in some states ballot measures will be a more direct way for residents to weigh in on environmental issues. For those hoping that statewide initiatives will help to combat environmental rollbacks at the federal level by the Trump administration, this election will be a crucial test.
The statewide ballot initiative with the greatest environmental significance will be decided by voters in Washington state, which could signal a shift in climate change strategy.
Two other western states will take on clean energy standards, and water issues will appear on the ballots in three states, including a confusing measure in Florida that pairs offshore drilling with an unrelated measure on vaping.
"We're seeing a lot of support for states to take the lead in the light of federal attacks on clean energy and climate," said Bill Holland, state policy director for the League of Conservation Voters.
A Fee on Polluters
The biggest test will be nearly 3,000 miles from Washington, DC, in Washington state. If voters approve Initiative 1631, Washington could significantly move the needle on climate action by being the first state to enact a fee on carbon emissions.
Carbon pricing bills have been proposed by a number of state legislatures, including Washington's, but none have yet to pass in the U.S. Now Washington voters will decide for themselves on the issue and if Initiative 1631 wins, it could trigger efforts in other states.
"We're super excited and see it as a potential model nationwide," said Holland.
The measure would put a fee of $15 per metric ton on carbon emissions, beginning in 2020. This fee would increase $2 every year until the state hits its 2035 greenhouse gas reduction goals and is on track to meet its 2050 goals.
There's a lot at stake, not just for Washington, but the whole country.
"If it passes, Washington will take its place as a part of a growing West Coast climate vanguard, alongside California and Oregon, representing close to 20 percent of the U.S. economy," wrote David Roberts at Vox. "If it fails, it will not only be a crushing blow to an already battered state climate community, but it will cast doubt on the larger states-will-save-us narrative, which is just about the only narrative U.S. climate hawks have left."
Just two years ago Washington voters rejected a similar measure, Initiative 732, which would have created a carbon tax. The measures, however, aren't identical. A carbon tax would have directed revenue generated by the program to the state's general fund. This year's Initiative 1631 instead uses a fee, which directs the money to specific purposes.
Money raised by Initiative 1631 would be divvied up, with 70 percent directed toward supporting clean air and clean energy investments; 25 percent invested in clean water and healthy forests; and the remaining 5 percent targeted for helping communities deal with the impacts of climate change.
The initiative was put the ballot by a coalition of community, environment, labor and climate-justice groups.
The opposition, led by Western States Petroleum Association, has raised $21 million to defeat the measure, but Holland says he still likes the initiative's chances of success. "Climate change is on the ballot and we think there is broad public support for holding polluters accountable," he say.
Montana and Alaska voters will weigh in on water protections, but of two very different sorts.
In Montana Initiative 186 seeks to protect the state's waters from pollution from new hardrock mines. It would give the state's Department of Environment Quality the ability to deny permits for a new mine if the project's plan doesn't prove that it will prevent water pollution "without the need for perpetual treatment."
The biggest financial supporter of the initiative is the fish-friendly nonprofit Trout Unlimited. Anglers have good reason for hoping to keep the state's rivers clean and its fish populations healthy. The measure is opposed by mining interests led by the Montana Mining Association, which is concerned it would result in job losses and other economic damages.
The state is still dealing with the toxic legacy of earlier hardrock mines that have resulted in one of the country's largest Superfund sites. And mining issues are still front and center. Montana's Smith River was highlighted earlier in the year by the nonprofit American Rivers in its annual survey of the country's "most endangered rivers" due to a proposed copper mine currently vying for permits.
Further north, Alaska's Measure 1 would set up stricter permitting regulations and new requirements for projects that could impact aquatic habitat for salmon, steelhead and other anadromous fish, which migrate between rivers and the ocean.
"It enhances the public process and public participation in decisions around large-scale development that would impact salmon habitat, which is a core part of Alaska's identity," said Holland. The fish have not just environmental, but economic and cultural importance in the state.
Groups like the Alaska Center, Wild Salmon Center and Alaska Conservation Foundation are supporting the measure. It's opposed by numerous oil drilling and mining companies, including BP Exploration Inc. Alaska, ConocoPhillips and Hecla Mining Company.
Drilling off Florida
One of the most confounding ballot initiatives will appear before Florida voters.
When voters get to Amendment 9 on this year's ballot, they will decide whether to ban offshore oil and gas drilling in state waters. At the same time, they will vote on whether to allow vaping (the use of "vapor-generating electronic devices") in indoor workplaces.
This odd confluence stems from the state's strange initiative process. Florida's Constitution Revision Commission only convenes every 20 years to decide which constitutional amendments to place on the ballot. In some cases they are grouped together.
The dual measure makes for odd bedfellows (and potentially voter confusion). A yes vote means a voter is in favor of banning both offshore drilling and indoor vaping. A no vote would be in support of drilling and vaping. If you're in favor of one, but not the other, you're out of luck.
Supporters of the measure are largely environmental groups opposed to drilling, while opponents are a mix of petroleum companies and the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association.
Vaping aside, offshore drilling is gearing up to be a key issue. The Trump administration has worked to reverse offshore drilling moratoriums and safety regulations issued by Obama administration, and has sought to open most of the country's waters to drilling.
Clean Energy Standards
Washington won't be the only state voting on issues related to energy and climate.
Nevada's Question 6 and Arizona's Proposition 127 are both measures that would increase the state's renewable portfolio standards, which is the minimum amount of electric power that utilities need to get from renewable sources. Both would bump the standards to 50 percent by 2030.
Nevada's current renewable portfolio standard is 25 percent by 2025, but the state is already almost there. In 2016 it had 21.6 percent of electricity generation coming from geothermal, solar, wind, biomass and hydroelectric power sources. Of that mix of renewables, 44 percent came from geothermal. But solar could be huge for the state. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said Nevada has the "nation's best solar power potential."
Question 6 could force Nevada to realize some of that potential. If it passes, the renewable portfolio standard would gradually step up each year to 50 percent by 2030.
Last year the Nevada legislature passed a bill (Assembly Bill 206) that would have upped the renewable portfolio standard to 40 percent by 2030, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval.
In Arizona the current renewable portfolio standard is a more modest 15 percent by 2025. In 2016 renewables provided 12 percent of net generation in the state, about half of which came from hydroelectric power at Glen Canyon and Hoover dams on the Colorado River. Solar made up only 5 percent.
"Arizonans are going to actually vote on having the ability to tap a resource that they have an abundance of, which is the sun," says Art Terrazas, who leads Vote Solar Action Fund's efforts in Arizona.
The state is second only to Nevada in solar potential.
Both ballot initiatives are being bankrolled by billionaire and climate activist Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action. The group has raised $2 million for the effort in Nevada, where opposition has been slim. However, in Arizona, NextGen has raised $8 million and its opposition, Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, which owns the state's largest utility, has raised $11 million.
"There has been a history of utilities in the state wanting to maintain the status quo," says Terrazas.
Among other western states, California and Hawaii currently lead clean energy efforts. Both have committed to get 100 percent of electricity generation from renewables by 2045. Oregon's standard is 50 percent by 2040 for larger utilities, and Washington's is 15 percent by 2020. Neither Utah nor Idaho has renewable portfolio standards.
Solar energy is an issue that draws big public support and is beginning to bridge the divide between red and blue voters, says Holland.
"Voters over and over are seeing that clean energy is increasingly cheaper than sources of energy like coal and want to make sure that their states aren't left behind," he said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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By Katy Neusteter
The Biden-Harris transition team identified COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change as its top priorities. Rivers are the through-line linking all of them. The fact is, healthy rivers can no longer be separated into the "nice-to-have" column of environmental progress. Rivers and streams provide more than 60 percent of our drinking water — and a clear path toward public health, a strong economy, a more just society and greater resilience to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Public Health<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUyNDY3MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkxMTkwNn0.pyP14Bg1WvcUvF_xUGgYVu8PS7Lu49Huzc3PXGvATi4/img.jpg?width=980" id="8e577" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1efb3445f5c445e47d5937a72343c012" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="3000" data-height="2302" />
Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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