Elections are about choices. In American politics, imagery and rhetoric often trump factual and substantive analysis of legislative achievements. The historic electoral coup by Republicans in the House is clearly rooted in real unrest by American voters – insecurity fueled by profound economic hardship, and a lack of comprehension by voters of what benefits record government spending and new regulations have for working families. American campaigns rarely reflect the tenor of the Lincoln-Douglas debates but rather are defined by bite-sized rhetorical tricks promoting false choices between too much- or too-little government involvement in society and the economy.
Thanks to Citizens United, a record amount of corporate and special interest money flooded our airwaves, eagerly exploiting voters’ legitimate fears and thereby helping to define the 2010 election on terms that benefit the narrow interests of these corporations – often at the expense of benefits for working families and environmental and climate protection.
As a result, the big winners in last night’s election are the nuclear, coal and oil industries, who will see a far more advantageous financial and regulatory climate for their shareholders and investors in the next Congress. Losers are support for renewables, and those Americans who understand that the science of climate change requires us to aggressively combat global warming. The one outlier is the successful campaign in California to preserve that state’s first-in-the-nation climate change law (61% of Golden Staters voted “no” to repeal the climate law) – because voters were presented with a clear choice: protect the environment vs. support the agenda of a handful of out-of-state oil companies. The California success story of electoral support for climate change, I believe, serves as a model for obtaining national support for clean energy, energy efficiency and action on climate chance: present voters with clear, stark choices (corporate interests vs the people’s interests) and we just might have a chance. Continue on the muddled path of Waxman-Markey/Kerry-Lieberman of energy/climate policy via corporate accommodation, and enviros will continue to lose in the marketplace of ideas and elections (another bright spot for electricity consumers is the election of Richard Blumenthal to the open Connecticut Senate seat. As the state’s Attorney General, Blumenthal regularly sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission over that agency’s failure to protect consumers from power company price-gouging. He’s one of the few who understands FERC and will be a welcome consumer advocate in the Senate).
Incoming Speaker John Boehner will promote more domestic oil & gas drilling (including keeping hydraulic fracturing free from federal government oversight), fight efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, expand federal financing for new nuclear and coal power plants, revive support for a high-level radioactive waste dump, and challenge tax incentives and stimulus-plan funding of renewable energy initiatives. The GOP’s “Pledge to America” promises that the party “will fight to increase access to domestic energy sources and oppose attempts to impose a national ‘cap and trade’ energy tax.” The likely new Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Cmte, Fred Upton of Michigan (he will be chair if the caucus rejects Joe Barton’s efforts to repeal party rules forbidding lawmakers from serving more than 3 terms as the party’s leader on a committee), penned a recent op-ed pledging to attack the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to clean our air and protect our planet (no matter that the EPA’s authority all originate with laws passed by congress and upheld by even the most conservative of Supreme Courts). Upton also complained about the $8 million Democrats spent investigating climate change – a sum representing 0.0002% of the nation’s $3.5 trillion 2009 budget – displaying impressive deficit-hawk skills for the incoming chairman.
Voters rejected at least two dozen candidates who had voted to address climate change – including 14-term Virginia Rep. Rick Boucher, who led efforts to include a number of giveaways and protections for the coal industry in the House-passed climate bill. As Dow Jones notes:
The overwhelming message for national energy policy: sweeping change is out, incremental change is in. That benefits entrenched industries, such as the oil and coal industries, which had the most to lose under Democratic efforts to cap greenhouse-gas emissions and set up a market to trade permits to emit. It works against the solar, wind, geothermal, and electric-car industries, which are still getting going and have benefited from billions of dollars earmarked by a Democratic-controlled Congress over the past couple of years . . . One of the clearest winners were gas-drilling companies seeking a favorable political environment in the Northeast. In Pennsylvania, Republican Tom Corbett, who has opposed a tax on natural-gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation, was elected governor. Coal producers, oil refineries, and coal-fired power plants gained new ammunition in a war to stave off Environmental Protection Agency regulations. These industries oppose rules to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from refiners and power plants that take effect in January. The industry hopes House Republicans will tie the EPA in knots with oversight hearings.
The role that Citizens United independent special interest money played in the election was significant. Three-quarters of the $75 million that independent, stealth PACs poured into races where seats changed hands benefitted the Republican candidate. In all, these stealth PACs spent a quarter of a billion dollars to influence voters in the 2010 midterm election. The Chamber of Commerce, American Crossroads and other organizations that aren’t required to disclose their funders have run ads critical of efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
While Public Citizen continues to believe that significant opportunities exist to promote consumer-friendly energy & climate policies in the 112th Congress – such as building support for cap and dividend in the Senate, and efforts to build Republican support for cost-effective energy efficiency standards and investments – there’s no question that a Speaker Boehner and a House energy committee chair Upton will focus on a strategy of expanding domestic oil and gas drilling, attacking the EPA, denying the science behind climate change, and slashing financial support for renewable energy while preserving or expanding support for coal, oil and nuclear power.
Those of us seeking to put American families first through the promotion of decentralized wind and rooftop solar and energy efficiency, can contrast our vision by clearly identifying and calling out those handful of powerful energy corporations that oppose a sustainable energy future. The oil, coal and nuclear industries have more than a trillion dollars in capital sunk into a centralized model of energy production and consumption, and they continue to fight any and all efforts that challenge their monopoly control. The electoral success in California in support of efforts to address climate change worked because voters were offered a clear choice: protect the planet or protect the interests of oil companies. Elections are about choices, and the campaign to help make America a leader in sustainable energy starts with giving all Americans a clear choice of what direction our country takes.