Green groups’ big win on candidates outshines drilling curb loss

DENVER • Environmental groups are finding it’s easier to get votes for candidates than for causes.

At least that’s the approach that national environmental groups are taking in the age of Trump, as they strategise how best to counter Republican Party leadership that’s dismissive of global warming and sees the development of fossil fuels as key to the nation’s financial future.

Anti-drilling ballots in Colorado and California could have changed the strategy, analysts say, but the losses — compared to overwhelming Democratic candidate wins in both states — are a signal to groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defence Council that while voters don’t have much appetite for fracking fights, they do want political change.

“Ballot initiatives are notoriously difficult to nail down in my experience,” said Emily Gedeon, a programme director for the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter. But the election of a more progressive Democratic governor is giving the group new confidence that oil and gas companies will be held “accountable” moving forward.

Proponents of the Colorado measure say they didn’t get much support from national environmental groups to begin with. The League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club both focused their resources on candidates during the latest election cycle.

Colorado Rising, the group pushing Proposition 112, raised just US$1.3 million (RM5.41 million) and didn’t win endorsements from the largest green groups.

“It was very difficult. We had very little support from the Big Greens,” said Anne Lee Foster, lead organiser for the group. “No Tom Steyer, no ‘Gang of Four’,” she said, referring to multimillionaires Jared Polis, Pat Stryker, Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges who together played a pivotal role in Colorado elections.

The lack of establishment support for the initiative is in line with environmental groups’ changing priorities, said James Lucier, an analyst with Capital Alpha in Washington. While fracking fights loomed large earlier in the decade, “they’ve really become less of a priority for the national environmental groups”, he said. “Their focus since has been on line infrastructure — the pipelines that bring the product to market.”

Colorado, a reliable purple state, has long been a bellwether for political causes. Had the drilling measure passed, environmental groups might have tried to replicate it elsewhere, said Katie Bays, head of energy at Height Securities LLC. Now, probably not.

“It’s fair to say that a successful initiative would have been contagious to states with similar politics, like New Mexico,” Bays said. “And the failure implies that initiatives like this won’t see sustained support from national environmental groups outside of Colorado.”

The focus on candidates over causes is largely a response to what green groups see as US President Donald Trump’s unchecked power in Washington, which had led to the rollback of numerous environmental regulations. National green groups spent about US$28 million on candidates in this year’s elections, more than during the 2016 cycle, according to the Centre for Responsive Politics.

“There is a triage analysis that environmental groups have to do on a national basis,” according to Bays. “You look at measures that are likely to be successful and you go after the low-hanging fruit.” — Bloomberg