Clean Energy May Backslide in Pennsylvania but Remains Intact in Colorado

In Colorado, a broad coalition keeps clean energy on track. But Republican gains in Pennsylvania threaten to derail legislation

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WASHINGTON—It turns out there is more than one way to stir up the color purple on the post-midterm elections paint palette.

Look, for instance, to Colorado and Pennsylvania for variations on that hue.

While geographically distant, the two political battleground states share numerous characteristics. Both supply bountiful energy resources—Colorado with coal, oil, natural gas and uranium, Pennsylvania with coal and natural gas—and are split between urban progressives with a wide green streak and rural conservatives who tend to be more leery of environmental initiatives.

And until Election Day, both states had bold Democrats in their respective governor’s mansions who are disciples of renewable energy, clean technology and low-carbon economies. However, results from Nov. 2 indicate that while that legislative momentum likely remains intact in Colorado, it could backslide in Pennsylvania.

“In states like Colorado, it seems like green is part of purple,” Ivan Frishberg told SolveClimate News in an interview. “That’s because of so much work done by a broad constituency of folks there who support this transition.”

But the situation is a bit more tenuous in Pennsylvania, said Frishberg, political director with the Washington-based advocacy organization Environment America.

“That’s a dramatic shift in the politics of Pennsylvania,” he said about a significant Republican presence. “So how will the leadership take on an ideological fight around energy? There’s a lot at stake with clean energy jobs. What will be interesting to watch is how the state handles an extreme shift in political leadership, given what has been the healthy development of a clean energy economy.”

Republican Make State Gains Nationwide

Most of the post-midterms talk centered on the Republican tsunami that swamped the federal government close to two weeks ago. The GOP reclaimed a huge edge in the House of Representatives by taking over at least 60 seats and slimmed the majority of the Democratic caucus in the Senate to 53-47 by gaining six seats.

But a similar GOP shakedown happened at statehouses. Before Nov. 2, Republicans governors guided 24 states. That number is now up to 29 and could rise to 30, depending on results in Minnesota.

Republicans also scored victories in even more state legislatures. They more than doubled the number of states where they control both branches of government, from nine to at least 20.

Traditionally-blue Pennsylvania was right in the thick of the anti-incumbent GOP changeover as it morphed into a purplish tone heavier on the red.

Voters favored Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett to follow two-term Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell, who wasn’t on the ballot. They also turned both state legislative chambers over to the GOP. Before, Democrats reigned in the House, while Republicans ruled in the Senate.

On the federal level, the Keystone State will send one senator from each party to Capitol Hill instead of two Democrats. And, Democrats now represent just 7 of the state’s 19 congressional districts, instead of the previous 12. Voters ousted 13-term Democrat Rep. Paul Kanjorski and Rep. Joe Sestak, who beat Republican-cum-Democrat Sen. Arlen Specter in the primary but ultimately lost the U.S. Senate race by a 2 percent margin to Republican challenger Pat Toomey.

In Colorado, classified as a red state until relatively recently, voters continued their march toward a blue-tinged shade of purple by replacing Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter—who opted not to run for a second term—with Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. The geologist-turned brewpub pioneer has made green buildings one of his signature issues.

Instead of being Democrat-dominant, the Colorado Legislature is now split. However, Republicans will likely have just a one-vote majority in the House when final votes are tallied in one too-close-to-call contest.

At the federal level, the Centennial State will be sending two Democrats to the U.S. Senate after appointed Sen. Michael Bennet squeaked past Republican Ken Buck, a climate change denier courted by the Tea Party. On the U.S. House side, losses by Betsy Markey and John Salazar mean Democrats have three, instead of the previous five, of Colorado’s seven congressional districts.

“As things basically grind to a halt in Congress, action on energy and the environment will default back to states,” Frishberg said, adding that despite the Democrats’ collapse, “there are still enough states where those programs can continue to make real progress.”

Fingers Crossed in Colorado

Though Colorado conservation organizations fretted about the midterms, they were pleased when results indicated their state remains an island of blue. To them, it means the long-term commitment to a clean energy economy is resonating.

Since Ritter took charge four years ago, Colorado has been the envy of every “green wannabe” player. He and Tom Plant, director of the Governor’s Energy Office, invented and promoted dozens upon dozens of initiatives aimed at spurring conservation and attracting energy entrepreneurs.

In these fiscally restrained times, Colorado conservation organizations are hoping Hickenlooper doesn’t cause a hiccup in that steady climb.

“Ritter was the greenest governor in the country,” said Dana Hoffman, an energy associate with Environment Colorado, an advocacy group affiliated with Environment America. “Out on the campaign trail, Hickenlooper hasn’t made that his top issue. We’re afraid it’s going to be a challenge to prove to him that Coloradans want this as a priority.”

However, she was quick to tick off a series of positive signs. Leading the pack was Coloradans rejecting Buck as too extreme, she said, noting that the environmental vote made a difference in toppling him in his Senate bid.

Also, voters supported seven of the eight vulnerable Democrats in the statehouse who won re-election by strutting their support for a robust renewable electricity standard and votes for legislation aimed at attracting clean technologies.

“Overall, I’d say it has taken four or five years to totally change the conversation on energy in Colorado,” Hoffman said. “It’s now to the point where residents don’t see legislation as a tax hike but as new jobs for the state.”

Indeed, the “National Solar Jobs Census 2010” compiled by the non-profit and non-lobbying Solar Foundation found that Colorado ranked sixth in the United States with an estimated 5,300 solar jobs.

Part of that growth was spawned by utilities conforming to an aggressive renewable energy portfolio standard first passed by a healthy margin as a ballot initiative in 2004. The standard has been bumped up twice since then, and now requires 30 percent of power to come from wind, solar and other renewable sources by 2020.

“For Coloradans it is not a Democratic or a Republican thing,” Hoffman said. “Overall, people buy into clean energy as the way forward.”

Despite Ritter’s monumental energy endeavors, green groups still have a lengthy wish list. At the very least, they want to offer more incentives for energy-efficient buildings; encourage the real estate business to adopt a green rating system for homebuyers; and beef up mining regulations as the search for uranium expands and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas becomes more prevalent.

“With a tight state budget, we know there will be attempts to scale back,” Hoffman said. “We have to keep Colorado at the forefront of what the entire country is doing with energy policy.”

Picking Up the Pieces in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, as in Colorado, state agencies have relied heavily on copious infusions of federal stimulus dollars to jump-start their clean technology revolutions. The Keystone State could be slammed with a double whammy with more conservative leadership and a tapering off of grants and loans from President Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Pennsylvania’s green groups are holding their breath on the future of a trio of crucial programs: a comprehensive plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from multiple sources that includes boosting public transportation and strengthening the existing renewable electricity standard; the Pennsylvania Sunshine Program that provides $600 million in rebates and other incentives for clean energy; and an energy efficiency standard that requires power companies to reduce their electricity use 4 percent by 2013.

“It’s totally right to say it’s going to be a difficult fight for clean energy growth,” emphasized Adam Garber, field director with PennEnvironment, an affiliate of Environment America. “These are the three big pieces. If they die out, we lose all of that progress. Investors don’t want to come back to a state that can’t make a constant push forward.”

The comprehensive plan to tackle climate change that emerged from Gov. Ed Rendell’s advisory committee is a year-old non-binding proposal, Garber noted, adding that it has yet to be enacted into law.

John Hanger, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, is a gung-ho devotee of Rendell’s vision.

He regularly brags about how the manufacturing state has invested more than a $1 billion in renewable energy projects, employed 350,000 workers in green jobs and attracted hundreds of companies that build the batteries for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and parts for wind turbines and solar panels.

Hanger was elated when the “National Solar Jobs Census 2010” compiled by the Solar Foundation found that Pennsylvania ranked second behind only California with an estimated 6,700 solar jobs.

The Energy Department also selected the Philadelphia Naval Yard as one of three nationwide energy research hubs. As such, it will receive $122 million in federal funding over five years.

Though governor-elect Corbett was mostly mum on environmental issues during the campaign, Garber and his colleagues suspect the Republican might be inclined to claim that greening the state is too expensive during these fiscally restrained times.

But they are not letting the election results deter them.

“Yes, we lost a lot of environmental champions who did yeoman’s work on that front,” Garber said, adding that Pennsylvania still has its share of traditional Northeastern moderate Republicans. “But in urban areas, politicians are concerned about environmental issues because their constituents are.”

That citizen passion, he said, gives PennEnvironment leverage as it strategizes in these less-than-predictable months ahead.

“We need to re-engage with the public,” Garber said, adding that coalitions of veterans, national security experts and business entrepreneurs will be critical to advancing the state’s new economy because they grasp the links between energy independence and national security. “They know clean energy has already created a lot of jobs and it has the potential to create a lot more.”

He’s fully aware that this undertaking is no cakewalk.

“For us, strategically, there’ll be a lot more defense,” Garber concluded. “And that’s hard because you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s going to be a waiting game.”