What Midterm 2018 means for moving beyond coal

  • Published on November 13th, 2018

The 2018 midterms created a lot of new opportunities – and some challenges – for our ongoing work to move the U.S. from coal to clean energy. States and cities are where we make decisions about how we produce electricity in this country, and we made progress and gained new champions in some critical places.

beyond coal

Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

Here are some of the highlights:

In the West, the prospects of a carbon-free region took a few important steps forward as we elected new clean energy champions and passed several important ballot initiatives.

  • Nevada: Nevadans had big night as well, voting overwhelmingly to increase the state’s clean energy standard to 50 percent by 2030, via Question 6. Nevada ballot initiatives require a second vote by the people, so this will come back in 2020 unless the newly elected Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak and the Democratically controlled Assembly and Senate pass legislation next year. An effort to increase the Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50 percent was vetoed by Republican Governor Sandoval in 2017.
  • Oregon: And in Portland an historic local measure led by frontline and environmental groups is placing a tax on big box stores that will generate tens of millions of dollars for energy efficiency, clean energy, and green job training for frontline communities. This is an incredible step in solutions for climate justice being defined and delivered by the people most impacted, for the people most impacted.

In the Midwest, state victories give us exciting new opportunities to advance clean energy.

  • In the race for Illinois Governor, Democrat J.B. Pritzker won on a platform of 100 percwent clean energy, and has talked openly about the need for coal transition in Illinois. Pritzker will take office as the state’s energy future hangs in the balance ahead of expected policy debate over opportunities to expand clean energy, reduce the state’s carbon pollution, and update air and water protection rules. Statewide, Illinois elected 17 climate champions who all ran on a platform of 100 percent clean energy.
  • In deep red Nebraska, Sierra Club–endorsed-candidates Janece Mollhoff, Eric Williams, and Amanda Bogner are the projected winners of their bids to join the Omaha Public Power District Board. They campaigned on a more aggressive push toward clean energy in contrast to their opponents who wanted to move slowly. The three will now ensure a strong majority of clean energy champions as the utility looks to set long-term goals for clean energy in a state that continues to lag behind its neighbors in clean energy growth.
  • In Kansas, governor-elect Laura Kelly will appoint new leadership at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the agency that has permitted, re-permitted, and extended permits for the Holcomb coal plant expansion for more than a decade. Kelly will also have the opportunity to appoint new commissioners to all three seats of the Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) during her tenure. The current KCC commissioners have been hostile to solar and energy efficiency.
  • In Michigan, the election of Gretchen Whitmer as governor is a victory for the environment and clean energy. The outgoing Snyder administration, while portraying itself as moderate, allowed DTE Energy to write its own regulations at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Whitmer will appoint a new head of MDEQ and is committed to the rule of law and the role of science in setting public policy. Michigan voters also strengthened their democracy yesterday, passing a resolution to create an independent redistricting commission and passing measures that allow for same-day and automatic voter registration. While we saw some conservative clean energy champions in the state legislature lose their primary battles earlier this year (when DTE and other utilities backed their opponents), yesterday saw Republican majorities in both House and Senate shrink, though Democrats will stay in the minority in both houses.

In the East, newly elected members of Congress will bring clean energy leadership to Washington, and there are exciting new opportunities in governor’s mansions as well.

  • Virginia: Climate champion Tim Kaine was reelected in a landslide, and Democrats picked up key congressional races – notably ousting Republican incumbents Barbara Comstock and David Brat who ran on platforms of fear, hate, and division. And in Virginia’s Second Congressional District – home to Virginia Beach and surroundings, which are highly vulnerable to impacts of rising seas and climate change – Republican incumbent Scott Taylor lost a hotly contested race to Democratic Climate Hawk Elaine Luria. Taylor had publicly questioned whether humans have any role in climate change.
  • New York: With Governor Andrew Cuomo re-elected, Democrats taking control of the state Senate, and continued Democratic control of the Assembly, New York has the opportunity to make good on its climate leadership by finishing its transition from coal, becoming a leader on offshore wind, and scaling electrification of vehicles and buildings, all with a focus on avoiding costly and risky new investments in fracked gas.
  • Connecticut: The nail-biting victory of Ned Lamont as governor opens a path for Connecticut to continue to grow ambition in its next energy efficiency plan, including electrification.  With robust climate goals in place, a Lamont administration will support Connecticut’s continued progress on clean energy.
  • Maryland: Democrats held their supermajority in the legislature, boding well for the state to act on opportunities to transition from coal to clean energy while taking care of workers and communities.
  • Pennsylvania: Governor Tom Wolf came out of the election more powerful and, in breaking the Republican supermajority in the state Senate, voters sent several environmental champions to that chamber. Depending on how legislative leadership takes shape, there may be opportunities for community solar and energy efficiency investments.
  • New Hampshire: Democrats taking control of both houses should ease the path for New Hampshire to enjoy the full range of benefits from participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
  • Maine: With the welcome departure of Governor Paul LePage and his replacement with Governor-elect Janet Mills, as well as Democratic majorities in both houses, the state can move beyond LePage’s opposition to renewables and championing of gas expansion and realize Maine’s renewable energy development opportunities.  Mills is a strong proponent of wind power and local renewable power, stating that Maine can become “a wind energy powerhouse.”

There were also important firsts: the first two Native American congresswomen were elected, the two first Muslim women were elected to congress, and in Colorado, Jared Polis became the nation’s first openly gay governor. More women and more LGBT candidates ran for office than ever, and it’s encouraging to see for the future of our democracy.

In addition, some longtime climate-science deniers in the House of Representatives were replaced on Tuesday by new members who have called for increased investment in clean energy.

  • In Illinois, Democrat Sean Casten, an entrepreneur who founded an energy efficiency company, defeated incumbent Rep. Pete Roskam, who once called climate change “junk science.”
  • In California, environmental and energy lawyer Mike Levin has captured an open seat once held by climate denier Darrell Issa.
  • And in Iowa, Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, both advocates of defending and expanding clean energy, ousted Reps. Rod Blum and David Young.

There were big disappointments, too.

  • Andrew Gillum would have been an incredible champion for clean energy and the environment as governor of Florida, providing much-needed leadership in moving the Sunshine State past its outdated overreliance on fossil fuels.
  • By spending big, the fossil fuel industry managed to defeat some clean energy and climate ballot initiatives, including the carbon initiative in Washington, the drilling setback for fracking in Colorado, and the clean energy standard in Arizona.
  • And the losses of some key Senate and governor’s races will create headwinds against climate action.

In this post-midterm landscape, we’ll march ahead in our shift from fossil fuels to clean energy, in red and blue states alike. In just the past two months, five new coal plants have announced retirement in Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana, and utilities have made major new commitments to clean energy.

We’ll make sure newly elected officials are hearing about that shift and feeling the heat of the public demand for clean air and water, for climate action, and for economic transition in coal communities.

We need your help. Join us.

(Mary Anne Hitt is the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign. Image CC by Brian K YYZ on Flickr)

About the Author

Not only is coal burning responsible for one third of US carbon emissions—the main contributor to climate disruption—but it is also making us sick, leading to as many as 13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in annual health costs. The Beyond Coal campaign’s main objective is to replace dirty coal with clean energy by mobilizing grassroots activists in local communities to advocate for the retirement of old and outdated coal plants and to prevent new coal plants from being built.