One of the few bright spots for environmentalists and progressives over the last year was this week’s successful defeat of Proposition 23 in California.  As the organizer Saul Alinsky famously observed, power flows from both people and money.  Unlike every other energy battle this year, for Prop 23, activists had both.

It hasn’t been an easy year to be green.  Despite an historic effort, there’s no climate and energy law.  In March, President Obama caved to the opposition and called for expanding offshore drilling.  Then, BP’s Macondo well blew out producing the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.  In June, as oil from that well was washing ashore, the US Senate voted to continue to send billions of dollars annually to the oil industry.  In October, President Obama caved again on offshore drilling. 

Throughout 2010, the fossil fuel industry flooded the media with nearly $250 million in advertising dollars, while they were outspending national environmental groups at least 8 to 1 in lobbying and pouring close to $20 million directly into key campaigns, usually to Republicans.  Conservative groups on the outside echoed and amplified this imbalance by more than ten to one in the run up to the election.

If you want to know why Washington can’t pass clean energy legislation or even a coherent response to the BP spill, following the money is imperative.  And if you want to make progress on clean energy and ending our nation’s addiction to oil, exposing and stopping that money is the first step.

In California, environmentalists, allied with Hollywood, clean energy businesses, Google, Gates and others, outspent the fossil fuel industry including the Koch Brothers’ Flint Hill Resources by 3 to 1 on Prop 23.  Why did an industry that can clearly afford to spend more essentially stop funding Yes on 23?

By late September, activists working against Prop 23, riding a wave of grassroots support, had essentially pulled even on fundraising. A Field poll at that time showed the opponents of 23 leading by 11 points.  This groundswell of public opposition to Texas oil companies, coming just as Silicon Valley money began to pour in, caused Big Oil to blink.  In short, grassroots power plus money fueled victory.

But the industry had a Plan B.  Instead of rallying behind Prop 23, much of the oil industry broke ranks with the Koch Brothers and decided to back Prop 26, which was termed the “stealthy twin of Prop 23″ near the end of the campaign.  Chevron posted nearly $4 million to pass 26.  They were joined by Conoco Phillips and Aera, which is jointly owned by Shell and Exxon.  None of these companies gave anything directly to pass Prop 23. 

Plan B worked, as the much more diverse business coalition behind 26 was able to win handily.  Environmentalists weren’t as deep pocketed, and were unable to fight on separate fronts.  It remains to be seen whether or not Prop 26 can withstand a court challenge, and actually live up to its “stealthy twin” name.

If greens and their allies have to outspend the oil, gas, and coal industries to get a win, victories may indeed be few and far between. Outspending these industries dollar for dollar, day in and day out, is a questionable strategy at best – even for Hollywood and Google.  Given this, it may be that the most needed piece of environmental legislation is not cap and trade, but rather campaign finance reform.

Fierce grassroots support was also clearly a key ingredient in fighting Prop 23, although a lot of the energy behind No on 23 was mobilized in response to an outside attack.   Like the national level fights to defend the Clean Air Act, environmentalists have been able to organize well to defend existing laws.   But grassroots support has been absent or fractured in the national effort to pass new energy legislation.

Environmentalists need to create conditions to win, as opposed to not losing.

Finding ways to work with others on laws that would expose and ultimately reduce the influence of Big Oil and other corporations on government is an important next step for our democracy, and our planet.