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Midterm Wrapup: What the Election Means for Energy and the Environment

Here’s a quick recap of the midterm results from last night that have implications for energy/climate/environmental policy.

It was mostly bad news for House Democrats who voted for the chamber’s cap-and-trade bill. The two most stinging defeats were Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), who worked furiously behind the scenes to secure benefits for his coal-dependent state in the bill before finally giving his “yes” vote, and Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), who became somewhat of a celebrity on the left for standing by the more liberal wing of his party on a number of key votes, including cap-and-trade. Boucher, from Virginia’s 9th district, lost to his Republican opponent, Morgan Griffith, and Perriello, despite a big last-minute push by environmentalists and President Obama himself, lost to state Sen. Robert Hurt (R).

Politico ran the numbers this morning. At least 12 freshman Democrats who voted for the cap-and-trade bill lost their re-election bids, while at least seven (I noted Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) last night) won, with some races still too close to call. In total, Politico notes, more than 30 Democrats who voted for the House climate bill fell to their Republican opponents last night.

In the West Virginia Senate race, Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, managed to eke out a victory over Republican John Raese. While Democrats can technically put Manchin in their column, he campaigned against nearly every significant Obama administration policy, including cap-and-trade. In one now-infamous ad, he shot the House climate bill with a shotgun.

But there was some good news for environmentalists last night. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, won her reelection bid against Carly Fiorina. Boxer has always been a strong advocate for environmental protections, but her job is likely to get harder in the next Congress. She has already been accused of unwillingness to reach across the aisle, but with more Republicans in the Senate, she’ll have no choice if she wants to pass energy and climate bills.

At the same time, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) survived a tough race against Tea Party darling Sharron Angle. The big question going forward now is what will Reid do on energy and climate legislation next Congress. By now, it’s common knowledge that it will be next to impossible to pass comprehensive climate legislation in the next two years. So it seems Reid will focus on a series of low-hanging-fruit provisions that are popular on both sides of the aisle, including bills to incentivize electric vehicles, improve energy efficiency and weatherize homes.

The fate of two big-ticket items for environmentalists — a renewable energy standard and a much-delayed oil spill response bill — remains unclear. While there’s still time in the lame-duck session to try to pass both provisions, Republicans have more incentive to block the bills until next Congress, as they’ll have more sway later. There is Republican support for an RES, which would require that a certain percentage of the country’s electricity come from renewable sources like wind and solar, but GOP gains in the Senate could make it more likely that Republicans will push to add nuclear power and coal with carbon capture technology to the mix, a nightmare scenario for environmentalists.

It’s even less clear what will happen with the oil spill response bill. More than six months after the massive Gulf oil spill, Congress has yet to pass significant legislation to overhaul offshore drilling (on the regulatory side, the Interior Department has issued its own new drilling rules). A number of contentious issues, like how liable an oil company is for damages from a spill, are sure to take on new significance now that more Republicans are in the Senate.

In other key midterm results, Proposition 23, a California ballot initiative that would suspend the state’s landmark climate change law, failed. It’s a huge win for environmentalists, who funneled millions of dollars into the “No on Prop 23″ campaign, pitting themselves against two Texas oil refiners that campaigned heavily for passage of the initiative. California’s climate law is viewed by environmentalists as the gold standard. Passage of the ballot initiative would have been the icing on the cake of a disappointing year for climate activists.

At the same time, it looks like another California ballot initiative, Proposition 26, will pass. The measure would require a two-thirds majority vote in the state legislature and in local government bodies to impose new fees on industry. Environmentalists say the proposition will make it more difficult to implement key environmental rules, including parts of the state’s climate law. In the last days of midterm election campaigning, as it became clear that Prop 23 would fail, activists’ attention shifted to Prop 26. But it was apparently too late to make a significant difference at the polls.

It’s also worth noting that the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) was defeated last night. Obsertar worked for years to reform pipeline safety and was in the process of developing new legislation to do so in the aftermath of a massive oil pipeline spill in Michigan and a natural gas pipeline explosion in California.

Two other key Senate races remain too close to call this morning. In the Colorado Senate race, Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and Republican Ken Buck are still neck and neck. As I noted yesterday in my midterm preview, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club have trashed Buck in ads, highlighting his comments questioning whether climate change is man-made. Environmentalists have made Buck the poster child of Republican climate skeptics running this cycle. For his part, Buck’s spokesman said his official position is this: “Ken believes climate change is occurring, but that it’s natural more than man-made.”

Bennet does not support the House version of cap-and-trade, but his campaign said recently that he would support a “well-thought-out, market-based bill.” Buck’s campaign jumped on the comments, saying Bennet’s position on the issue is unclear.

Don’t hold your breath for results of the Alaska Senate race between incumbent and write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), Tea Party favorite Joe Miller (R) and Democrat Scott McAdams. Murkowski appears to be winning, according to early results. Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Though she has opposed cap-and-trade bills in the past, she has a history of working closely with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the panel’s chairman, on key energy bills, including the comprehensive energy bill they passed in 2009.

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