How Big Oil Money Killed Green Ballot Measures

Illustration for article titled How Big Oil Money Killed Green Ballot Measures
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Climate and energy were on state ballots across the country this year. But rather than creating a green wave of new climate policies, there was but a ripple through oil slick.


Four major ballot measures would have limited fracking, expanded renewables, and enacted the nation’s first-ever carbon fee bit the dust on Tuesday. The common theme between them was the record-setting amount of fossil fuel (and in the case of an Arizona renewable energy measure, utility) money put into the opposition campaigns. All told, roughly $100 million was deployed in the interest of staving off these regulations, and the investment paid dividends for the opponents at the expense of the climate.

The biggest defeat of the night was Washington’s carbon fee. The initiative showed broad public support in an early October poll, but it ended up losing by a 12-point margin on Tuesday. It was a major blow for the state’s environmental advocates because this is second time an effort to put a price on carbon has been toppled at the polls. While it had its high-profile backers like Bill Gates, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups, they were outspent by the fossil fuel industry’s $31.5 million investment.

Alaskans voted down a measure that would’ve protected salmon streams from mining and drilling. In Colorado, voters shot down a proposition that would’ve required fracking wells to be placed further from occupied buildings. And Arizona residents overwhelmingly voted against a constitutional amendment requiring utilities to generate 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The opposition to these ballot measures was funded to the tune of $12 million, $31.7 million, and $31.2 million respectively. And the message was a simple one: Change is scary.

“It is almost always easier to oppose than propose, because people are inherently risk averse,” Ed Maibach, the head of George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication, told Earther. “Opponents were able to make the risks inherent in the proposal appear larger to voters than they otherwise would have been. In the end, the opponents to these measures had the advantage of being able to purchase lots of advertising to get their simple, clear messages out to voters.”

Virtually all of the opposition’s funding came from the oil, gas, and mining industries. Some special interests, like Koch Industries, are open that they do not care about the climate and want as little of a regulatory burden as possible. But what’s more insidious are the companies like BP, Exxon, and others that say they support carbon pricing while also using their vast resources to stymie efforts to enact real policies. That’s particularly true for any policy that takes tax revenue and puts it into clean energy or other popular initiatives like green jobs, which would eat into their bottom line.

Of course, there are other issues beyond opposition money that also contributed to why these ballot measures failed. For one, we’re still largely in terra incognita when it comes climate policy in the U.S.


“We’ve seen a carbon tax stall out on the ballot in Washington before,” Joseph Majkut, the director of climate policy at the libertarian-leaning, carbon-tax supporting Niskanen Center, told Earther. “That may be because carbon taxes are hard to achieve on the ballot or that the political coalition necessary to get one over the line hasn’t been built yet.”

That points to the need to build stronger coalitions (and places like Nevada and Florida, where voters passed a 50 percent by 2030 renewable energy mandate and offshore drilling ban respectively on Tuesday, could provide key case studies). And there’s also a failure of pro-climate messaging coming from Democratic leadership.


“The irony is that public opinion polling shows that large majorities of Americans support the measures proposed in these initiatives, in concept,” Maibach said.

Maybe national Democrats could try coming up with a climate plan and talking about the issue occasionally. Or at all, really.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.



Since Republicans want to avoid raising taxes, I’d like to see a carbon tax proposal that is a revenue-neutral replacement of the gasoline tax. This may not do much for the climate initially, but it could be popular because it would lower gasoline prices (which people see every day or every week) while raising natural gas and electric prices (which people see only once a month.)

It would also get the infrastructure in place to measure carbon emissions. Then, if there comes a time when people understand the importance of a carbon tax, the rate could simply be raised.