What could the 2012 elections mean for climate and energy policy in the Southeast?

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | November 19, 2012 | Climate Change, Elections, Energy Policy

Although a final few races are still being determined, including several recounts or runoffs here in the Southeast as noted by the circled districts to the right, the vast majority of the 2012 races have been decided. Here, in the ten Southeastern states that SACE covers, voters elected 1 new governor, 4 U.S Senators, nearly 100 Representatives and hundreds of members to serve in state General Assemblies from Richmond, Virginia down to Tallahassee, Florida.

Despite a close presidential contest and multiple tight races for Senate and Congressional seats in this region, this election saw a slightly lower participation rate than the 2008 and 2004 elections did with approximately 57.5 % of the electorate casting votes this year.  As is to be expected, this cycle garnered considerably higher turn out than the recent midterm election where only 41.5 % of voters cast ballots.

The only governor’s race in the Southeast was in North Carolina which saw a change in party as former mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory (R), won his bid to succeed the outgoing governor, Bev Perdue (D). There were no party changes for any of the Southeastern Senate seats from Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia, although Virginia will send a new Senator to D.C. in January as former Governor Tim Kaine (D) defeated former Senator George Allen (R) to replace the retiring Senator Jim Webb (D). Democrats retained the overall majority in the U.S. Senate as they gained two seats (bringing their total to 53) and will continue to caucus with the two Independent Senators for a total of 55 seats to the Republican’s 45. There were party changes in ten Southeastern House seats – as well as four new seats created following the 2010 Census – and Republicans comfortably retained control of the U.S. House of Representatives with 233 seats to the Democrats’ 199 seats.

In short, after $6 billion and more than a year of campaigning, we have ended up right back where we started at the national level: President Obama in the White House, Democrats controlling the Senate and Republicans controlling the House.  The two main energy-policy implications of President Obama’s reelection may be (1) the EPA’s ability to enforce the Clean Air Act remains intact and (2) new rules and standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or improve air quality and public health are likely to move forward, including a Carbon Pollution Standard, a Coal Ash Standard, National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), and a revised Ozone Rule. While these standards will be national in scope, they would have particular significance in the Southeast which has such a heavy dependence on coal-fired generation.

Maintaining a split Congress suggests that the sweeping energy legislation which our country needs is unlikely to become a reality in 2013 or 2014, but that we may see incremental policies advanced where there are ‘broad areas of agreement’ such as wider-deployment of electric vehicles, improvements in energy efficiency and transitions to lower carbon fuels. Unfortunately, continued legislative threats against the Clean Air Act are equally likely in the new Congress, requiring advocates such as SACE as well as citizens to defend this seminal law to maintain the public health protections it provides. One energy-related proposal that may advance in the new Congress – a Clean Energy Standard (CES) – could be problematic if it includes nuclear or ‘clean coal’ provisions which are not actually clean and which would preempt clean, renewable energy sources like solar, wind and bioenergy.  Early in 2013, SACE will be releasing a white paper on how various CES proposals might impact energy generation in the Southeast, so check our website for updates.

While comprehensive climate legislation like that which advanced in 2009 is unlikely in the next Congress, the concept of a ‘carbon tax‘ earned plenty of media coverage in the week following the election. Proponents and opponents have debated the carbon tax issue in the past, but the pending ‘fiscal cliff‘ will necessitate new revenue sources before tax hikes and automatic spending cuts go into effect on January 1, 2013. Some estimate that taxing the carbon content of fossil fuels could conservatively raise $90 billion or more a year, suggesting it is possible, though not probable, that this topic could be addressed as part of much-needed tax reform in the new Congress.

On November 9, SACE’s monthly webinar series presented a state-by-state run down of election results with some early commentary and analysis for what the election may mean for energy policy in our region.  For more detailed information, download and listen to our 2012 post-election webinar and podcast here.

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