Welcome back to the Climate Crisis News Roundup, elections postmortem edition. 

Election Day has come and gone. At the presidential level, after days of anxious ballot counting, we finally have a declared winner: This Saturday, at 11:25 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, the Associated Press called the race for Joe Biden. But many other races—and, in particular, ballot initiatives—got a vote and results last Tuesday. On climate and environmental issues, progressives got some big wins in some unexpected places. 

If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the Roundup, or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at steve@therealnews.com or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.

Rights of Nature Gets Biggest Win

In Orange County, Florida, home to Disney World, the state’s waterways won a major victory by a wide margin. The Right to Clean Water Initiative—called Question 1 in official terms—grants affirmative legal rights to the county’s waters against their pollution.

The 30th largest county in the United States and fifth largest in Florida, Orange County is the first municipality in the Sunshine State’s history to enact rights of nature, and the largest ever to do so in the United States. Orange County now joins a list of about three dozen municipalities in the United States that have granted rights to nature within their borders. While Joe Biden won by a margin of 68% to 31% in Orange County, the ballot measure won by an overwhelming 89.2% to 10.8%.

During TRNN’s live election night show, Chuck O’Neal, director at large of the Florida Rights of Nature Network, spoke about the resounding victory and vote tally.

“This is a non-partisan, bipartisan issue: the right to clean water,” O’Neal said. “It’s nice to see an issue that transcends partisan politics. The right to clean water today has exerted itself in the public domain of Florida as being what the voters of Florida want.”

Thomas Linzey, senior legal counsel at the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights, a group that assisted with the measure, echoed O’Neal in a press release.

“This is an important step forward in Florida, with the adoption of the first rights of nature law in the state,” Linzey said. “We look forward to assisting the people of Orange County to enforce and defend this measure, and to helping people across Florida to adopt similar measures to protect Florida’s threatened rivers, streams, bays, and watersheds.”

But there is still a major hurdle to clear for O’Neal’s group. As O’Neal said previously on TRNN’s pre-election show, Election Day is the “regular season,” and the ongoing litigation surrounding the ballot initiative’s language will be the “playoffs.” A few months after the initiative made it onto the ballot, the Florida Legislature passed a law halting municipalities from enacting “any legal rights to a plant, an animal, a body of water, or any other part of the natural environment.” The law received lobbying support from the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Ag Coalition, Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida Home Builders Association. Watch the segment here at 7:29:

The Florida Rights of Nature Network has challenged the law in state court, and the case is in its early stages. Ultimately, the end result of that litigation will determine the fate of the Right to Clean Water Initiative.

The fight in Florida is part of a broader international rights of nature movement. Proponents of enshrining such rights in law say that, compared to environmental regulations, it is a far stronger way to protect biodiversity, clean air, clean water and even the atmosphere itself from climate change. 

“I think people have been frustrated with conventional environmental regulations for a long time,” Linzey said on TRNN’s election night show. “People who are told to trust the state and federal government on environmental protection issues are starting to see through that scam and that the system is rigged and is not taking care of those problems.”

Big Oil State, Big Oil Loss

Another southern state known for its support of Big Oil also saw the industry face a big loss on Election Day. Louisiana’s Amendment 5, a ballot initiative that would have essentially stripped the ability of local governments to collect property taxes from manufacturing companies based in the Bayou States, lost by a count of 63% to 37%. It was a crushing defeat for the oil and gas industry, which got the amendment on the ballot to begin with. 

Louisiana does not have direct-democracy ballot measures, but constitutional amendments can be placed on the ballot if voted on by the state legislature. Amendment 5, voted on during an emergency session of the legislature in May as SB 272, was the product of years of lobbying and legislative dealmaking by the owners of the Cameron LNG facility. That fracked gas exports facility is co-owned by the San Diego-based Sempra Energy, the French company Total, and Japanese companies Mitsui & Co., Mitsubishi and Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha. Sen. Ralph Abraham, a Republican who represents the district in which Cameron LNG is located in Cameron Parish, authored and voted for the legislation that put Amendment 5 on the ballot on Election Day. Abraham has received over $191,000 from the oil and gas industry throughout his tenure in the state legislature.

The amendment would have benefitted Cameron LNG by allowing the joint venture to enter into a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) deal, which means paying an agreed-upon lump sum upfront and then never having to pay property taxes again. Cameron LNG had initially entered into a PILOT agreement with Cameron Parish in 2016, but it was thrown out by Louisiana courts in 2017. 

Had Amendment 5 passed, its scope would have gone far beyond benefitting Cameron LNG. The language of the amendment says that “property eligible for this exemption shall be limited to property of a new manufacturing establishment or an addition to an existing manufacturing establishment.” That would have applied to any new oil, gas, or petrochemical facility; any manufacturer of other goods; and any significant additions to existing facilities.

After the amendment was defeated, Mary-Patricia Wray, founder of Top Drawer Strategies, a progressive lobbying and political consulting firm based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, pointed to the unlikely political dynamics that defeated the amendment.

“Amendment 5 passed the legislature with a big majority in a COVID vacuum and without public input,” said Wray, who worked for the Louisiana Taxpayer Education Fund to defeat the measure. “But it failed in all 64 of Louisiana‘s parishes on Tuesday night, with almost as many Louisiana voters rejecting Amendment 5, 1.22 million, as voted for President Donald Trump, 1.25 million, in ruby-red Louisiana.” 

Wray added that it took a years-long effort to fend off the measure. That included going toe-to-toe with some of the most influential industry lobbying forces in the state.

According to a 2017 presentation given by lobbyists for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and the Louisiana Chemical Association, the oil, gas and petrochemical industry lobbying groups successfully pushed to get a PILOT amendment introduced in the Louisiana Legislature in 2017. Sempra is a member of the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. 

That bill died in the Senate. Voters in Cameron Parish definitively voted against Amendment 5, 60% to 40%.

“Louisiana families are sick of footing the bill for giveaways to companies that hurt our families and fail to create or maintain well paying jobs,” Wray said. “Our people want good roads, schools, and well trained public safety officials. Together grassroots community leaders and faith officials, along with a well funded, polished media campaign, educated voters for a big victory.”  

Alaska Votes to Boost Taxes for Big Oil

Only 58% of the vote on it has been counted as of the morning of Nov. 9, but an industry-related taxation ballot measure in Alaska that would mandate the oil industry pay a higher extraction tax rate for drilling appears destined for defeat. Known as the Fair Share Act, the measure would compel the oil industry to pay higher taxes for drilling happening in the state’s North Slope, where 80% of Alaskan drilling takes place. Over 56% of voters have rejected the Fair Share Act so far, though, and it has a steep hill to climb to achieve victory.

BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Hilcorp spent over $25 million to defeat the referendum, officially known as Measure 1, spearheading a business coalition called OneAlaska, which has over 400 private-sector members. If Measure 1 did pass, it would close a state budget shortfall of $1 billion per year.

That shortfall began, in part, due to the passage of the More Alaska Production Act (Senate Bill 21) in 2013 in the Alaska Legislature, which created a scaling oil extraction tax rate based on the global price of oil. That means that when the price of oil goes down, Big Oil pays less in taxes and the state generates less revenue from one of its biggest industrial sectors.

When the More Alaska Production Act debate happened, “its backers made four promises: More oil production, more jobs, more money in the Permanent Fund, and economic growth in Alaska,” wrote the coalition supporting the Fair Share Act on its campaign website. “All four [promises] proved false: oil production has continued to decline, oil jobs have decreased, Permanent Fund Dividends have been cut, and budget cuts forced the state into a recession.” 

The Permanent Fund provides an annual payment to Alaska residents via tax revenue generated from oil extraction. A case in point of how the price of oil impacts the fund, this year residents got a check of about $900 amid the COVID-19-related global oil price collapse, while last year residents got $1,600.

Alaska Sen. Bill Wielechowski, who represents residents in Anchorage, said on TRNN’s election night show that the state is actually paying more in tax subsidies than the industry pays back to the state in the form of extraction taxes. “We’ve actually paid them to take our oil,” he said.

As a result, there have been cuts in public education, higher education, road construction, cuts to snow-plowing and other basic infrastructure.

“Historically we’ve gotten about 12.5% tax on our oil … The Republicans took over in redistricting in the last cycle and they passed a bill that … lowered our tax rate to about 4% at most prices,” Wielechowski said. “And so, it’s not a coincidence that shortly after this happened, we plunged into a recession—the longest recession in the state’s history.”

US Exits Paris Agreement

The US officially exited the Paris Climate Accord on Nov. 4, the day after Election Day. However, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reenter the agreement. 

But the reality is that Paris, with a goal of limiting the global temperature increase to “well below” 2°C over pre-industrial levels, has also failed to deliver the goods since the Climate Accord was adopted in Dec. 2015. 

A Nov. 2019 report by scientists involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found 75% of pledges by participating countries fell far short of what climate science dictated. The report added that “because the climate pledges are voluntary, technicalities, loopholes, and conditions continue to postpone decisive global action to reduce emissions and address climate change.”

The website for the Biden-Harris transition team says Biden will “go much further” than merely reentering the United States into Paris, pledging “to lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.” The next attempt at doing so will take place in Nov. 2021 at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Steve Horn

Climate Change Reporter

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website DeSmog.com, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.