Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Oil industry leaders are predicting “dark days” for fossil fuels under President-elect Barack Obama, while environmentalists are celebrating the election as a win for clean energy.

green capitol But much will depend on the makeup of Congress. Though a number of enviro-backed congressional candidates got the nod last night, there weren’t quite as many pick-ups as greens were hoping for — and a number of the new congressional Democrats come from traditionally fossil-fuel-friendly states.

The Senate

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Greens are pumped by the election of four Senate candidates who campaigned aggressively on clean energy and climate action: Democrats Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Udall of Colorado, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. All four will assume seats previously occupied by Republican senators who often voted against environmental interests.

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Still, Hagan and both of the Udalls called for more domestic oil and gas drilling on the campaign trail this year, as gas prices ticked higher and public support for drilling grew. Another new Democrat ushered into the Senate last night, Virginia’s Mark Warner, called for lifting the federal moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the outer continental shelf, saying he thinks drilling decisions should be in the hands of the states. And Warner is also bullish on coal, which his state produces, telling Grist this summer, “I think we’re going to continue to use coal. I want to keep pushing utilities to not use best-of-the-last-generation technology, but really push much more aggressively about the possibilities of [carbon] sequestration.”

Several notable environmental foes also coasted to reelection — including Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe, Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Kentucky Republican and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

[UPDATE: Actually, the Georgia race is still undecided — it was called earlier for Chambliss, but now it looks like they’re headed into a runoff. They’re still counting votes, but if Chambliss doesn’t get at least 50 percent, there will be a runoff on Dec. 2.]

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The closely watched Senate race in Alaska still hangs in the balance — with 99 percent of Alaska’s precincts reporting, incumbent Republican Ted Stevens was ahead of Democrat Mark Begich, but only by a margin of one point. Stevens, who last week was found guilty of lying on financial disclosure forms, is a long-time environmental foe who’s led the charge to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Begich too calls for drilling in ANWR, which is pretty much a given for an Alaskan politician, but he’s also promoted the state’s capacity for renewable energy and called for action on climate change to protect his frozen home state.

The Senate race in Oregon between Republican incumbent Gordon Smith and Democrat Jeff Merkley is also too close to call. [UPDATE, 11/6: Merkley has been projected as the winner.] And in Minnesota, Republican incumbent Norm Coleman is just 762 votes ahead of the enviro-backed Democrat Al Franken, which means there’s likely to be a recount.

The House

On the House side, a number of green-backed challengers won their races. Democrat Betsy Markey, who was endorsed by the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, defeated Republican incumbent (and generally anti-environment voter) Marilyn Musgrave in Colorado’s 4th District.

In Michigan’s 7th District, Mark Schauer, a Democrat who advocates clean energy, beat Republican incumbent Tim Walberg, whom LCV had named to its Dirty Dozen list. In Michigan’s 9th District, the LCV- and Sierra Club-endorsed Democratic challenger Gary Peters beat another Dirty Dozener, Republican Joe Knollenberg.

And in New Mexico’s 1st District, Democrat Martin Heinrich, also endorsed by LCV and the Sierra Club, won an open seat that had previously been occupied by not-so-green Republican Heather Wilson.

One of the most notable upsets came in Connecticut’s 4th District, where Republican incumbent and longtime conservationist Christopher Shays, endorsed by LCV and the Sierra Club, lost to Democrat Jim Himes. Himes had also put forward a strong green plan, so enviros will be happy enough to see him in the seat, but the outcome of this race points out how moderate, eco-friendly Republicans are an increasingly endangered species in Congress.

In California’s 11th District, Democratic incumbent Jerry McNerney, who was endorsed by LCV and the Sierra Club, held onto his seat; he earned the admiration of greens across the country two years ago when he ousted enviro bete noire Dick Pombo. In Kentucky’s 3rd District, incumbent John Yarmuth (D) retained his seat as well.

There were also disappointments for enviros among the House races. Don Young, the Republican incumbent in Alaska’s at-large seat, won handily over his Democratic challenger, despite greens’ efforts to defeat him. In Ohio’s 15th District, enviro-backed Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy lost to Republican Steve Stivers.

Overall, Democrats now hold 56 seats in the Senate, while Republicans have 41, and the Democrats control the House by the sizeable margin of 253 to 173. When all the winners take office in January, it will be the first time since 1995 that the Democratic Party has controlled the White House and both branches of Congress. Enviros are looking at this as a referendum, at least in part, on the country’s recent failures on energy and the environment, particularly as they relate to the economy.

“This election pitted the energy policy of last 30 years against that of the next 30 years,” said Anna Aurilio, Washington, D.C., office director of Environment America. “From Sen. Obama on down the ballot, the candidates who won were talking about a clean energy future, and voters understood that this was the key to a stronger economy, a more secure world, and the solution to global warming.”

But there’s lots of hard work to be done to make all those campaign promises into reality.