The Politics of Being Green

How EPA's proposed regulations on carbon emissions will exacerbate the geographic red-blue divide.

NEW EAGLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on September 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, will be one of two plants in the region to be shut down, affecting 380 employees. The Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama administration have been taking major steps to get coal-fired power plants into compliance with clean air regulations.  (Getty Images)

Add brown and green energy to the list of issues separating red and blue.

The regulations that the Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday limiting carbon emissions from power plants will likely stand as President Obama's most consequential second-term domestic policy initiative. But the rules will also reinforce his presidency's central political dynamic: Both demographically and geographically, Obama's climate push will likely strengthen Democrats where they are already strong and weaken them in states trending toward the GOP. Taken together, that dynamic could solidify the balance of power that tilts the White House toward Democrats and Congress toward Republicans.

The EPA proposal, which seeks a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions from power plants by 2030, is part of a clear pattern. On issues from gay marriage to gun control to immigration reform, Obama has systematically embraced the preferences of the Democrats' "coalition of the ascendant": minorities, the millennial generation, and college-educated whites, especially women. All of these groups are growing in the electorate. Roughly three-fourths of each described climate change as a "serious problem" in ABC/Washington Post polling this week. The price of this alliance has been continued erosion in Democrats' standing with older and blue-collar whites, both of which groups now preponderantly favor Republicans.

This has produced a clear geographic fault line that the EPA regulations should deepen. In both presidential and congressional elections, Democrats now rely mostly on states where their diverse and urbanized coalition dominates the population; that includes the East and West coasts, plus Sun Belt states fitting that model, such as Colorado and Virginia. Republicans now lean primarily on the South, as well as on heartland states that are older, more religious, more blue collar, and less racially diverse. (The biggest exceptions to this pattern are the burly Midwestern battlegrounds, such as Michigan and Ohio, where economic populism allows Democrats still to compete.)

Patterns of energy use closely track these political lines. Many red states are heavily invested in the fossil-fuel economy, either as producers of oil, natural gas, and coal, or as large consumers of low-cost, coal-powered electricity (partly because several are manufacturing centers). The blue states, with only a few exceptions, produce little fossil fuel, rely less on coal for electricity, and generate less carbon (partly because many have moved further toward a postindustrial, white-collar economy).

The result is that red states that are hostile to government activism also face greater material risks from the EPA regulations than blue states. Interest fortifies ideology. All 10 of the states that emit the most carbon per megawatt-hour of electricity generated voted for Mitt Romney in 2012; so did 14 of the top 20. By contrast, 15 of the 20 states that produced the least carbon per megawatt-hour backed Obama. Likewise, in four-fifths of the states Romney carried, per-person carbon emissions from all sources exceed the national average, federal figures show. Four-fifths of the states that backed Obama emit less per person than the national average.

In its proposed regulation, EPA attempted to accommodate these differences. The proposal, which maximizes state flexibility, generally imposes smaller percentage reductions through 2030 on the high-emitting states than it does on the low-emitting states.

None of that prevented red-state Republicans like Indiana Gov. Mike Pence from denouncing the proposal. But blue-state leaders generally welcomed the rules. "They are very positive," says Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board. "There is a net benefit here to the West and to California from having stepped out early."

The regulations seem poised to accelerate the blue-state movement toward a lower-carbon economy. With the last two coal power plants in Oregon and Washington state scheduled to close after 2020, for instance, Pacific Northwest environmentalists already are pushing to ban electricity imports generated from coal, and to block coal exports to Asia. Their goal: Create the nation's first "coal-free zone," says Cesia Kearns, a Sierra Club representative.

More broadly, California, Oregon, and Washington are cooperating on climate policy, and Nichols says the EPA rules could generate "a new wave of interest" from other states in joining California's pioneering cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions. The same could happen for the East Coast blue states that have established a regional carbon-reduction partnership.

Like their approach in the health care fight, red states may resist through every means available. Charles McConnell, director of Rice University's Energy and Environment Initiative, says EPA's rules fail to acknowledge how much coastal states rely on interior states to manufacture and produce energy for the products "that provide their way of life so conveniently and affordably."

Like many Obama initiatives, the EPA proposal creates headaches for Democrats defending House and Senate seats in right-leaning heartland states. But it also threatens GOP presidential candidates, who are being pulled toward positions on climate change (including denying its existence) that could alienate the voters and states they must flip to capture the White House. In more ways than one, those Republicans stampeding to condemn the EPA climate rules may be missing a change in the weather.

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