Climate Quietly Wins Midterm Victory

Environmental groups got few of the results they'd hoped for Tuesday night, losing big both on the national level and in governors' races.

But there was one surprising winner from the races: The Northeast's multistate carbon-trading plan.

In fact, the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative could even be poised to pick up one massive new member.

Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, the sole bright spot for Democrats on the state level, has promised to move Pennsylvania to join RGGI, setting emission caps for the state and using revenue gained to invest in renewable energy. Gov. Tom Corbett, whom Wolf defeated on Tuesday, had rebuffed calls to join RGGI, with campaign manager Mike Barley calling it a "coal-killing liberal" program.

The addition of Pennsylvania would effectively double the footprint of the cap-and-trade program, while bringing in a state with a more diverse energy mix.

What about the Republican victories in the Northeast?

Neither Gov.-elects Larry Hogan in Maryland or Charlie Baker in Massachusetts appear poised to withdraw their own states. In fact, it wasn't even much of a wedge issue.

Baker—in the tradition of recent Massachusetts Republican governors—is progressive on clean energy and climate change, telling The Boston Globe in an interview that diversifying the state's energy mix would be "one of [his] top priorities" and that he would work on "market-based incentives for the further reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions." As for RGGI, Baker said he would keep the state in because "reducing greenhouse gases is important to protecting our environment."

Even Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who won a second term despite heavy opposition spending by green groups and Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate PAC, has kept his state in the program, although he did try to block implementation of a new rule in 2013 (he was overruled by the legislature).

Under RGGI, which went into effect in 2009, electricity generators greater than 25 megawatts purchase allowances for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit, which are then sold at quarterly auctions to pay for energy-efficiency programs, renewable energy, and other energy measures.

That such a program was a nonissue in a year when the Obama administration's climate plan emerged as an easy bogeyman for Republicans is a reflection of its traditional bipartisan support (it was proposed by Republican George Pataki of New York and has withstood political shifts in the region). But, said Peter Shattuck of the Massachusetts-based Acadia Center, it also shows that cap-and-trade has simply become the norm in the region.

"I think we're seeing that a lot of the rhetoric nationally is just that, and once you have a program in place it's less controversial," Shattuck said. "It's been proven over the last five-and-a-half years that the sky hasn't fallen and in fact we've seen electricity prices come down."

It's unclear how soon Wolf could move Pennsylvania into RGGI, or if he could even do so at all, given that Republicans increased their control over both chambers of the state's legislature on Tuesday. But the debate comes as states will have to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which will require cuts from existing power plants. EPA is allowing market-based mechanisms for compliance in the plan, and state-level experts have said that joining RGGI could be an easy path for Pennsylvania to meet the mandates.

It would also double the size of RGGI, since Pennsylvania's 2012 emissions were higher than the nine other states combined, and would bring in a greater mix of coal and natural gas that could offer up more revenue for member states.

"With a market-based program, the bigger it is the more effective it is," said Shattuck. "Politically, this would be an important validation of the economic, market-based language behind this cap-and-trade program. It's at a point where it's just noncontroversial here."