The Politics of Being Green

How EPA’s proposed regulations on carbon emissions will exacerbate the geographic red-blue divide.

NEW EAGLE, PA - SEPTEMBER 24: A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on September 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, will be one of two plants in the region to be shut down, affecting 380 employees. The Evironmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Obama administration have been taking major steps to get coal-fired power plants into compliance with clean air regulations. 
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Ronald Brownstein
June 5, 2014, 5 p.m.

Add brown and green en­ergy to the list of is­sues sep­ar­at­ing red and blue.

The reg­u­la­tions that the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency an­nounced Monday lim­it­ing car­bon emis­sions from power plants will likely stand as Pres­id­ent Obama’s most con­sequen­tial second-term do­mest­ic policy ini­ti­at­ive. But the rules will also re­in­force his pres­id­ency’s cent­ral polit­ic­al dy­nam­ic: Both demo­graph­ic­ally and geo­graph­ic­ally, Obama’s cli­mate push will likely strengthen Demo­crats where they are already strong and weak­en them in states trend­ing to­ward the GOP. Taken to­geth­er, that dy­nam­ic could so­lid­i­fy the bal­ance of power that tilts the White House to­ward Demo­crats and Con­gress to­ward Re­pub­lic­ans.

The EPA pro­pos­al, which seeks a 30 per­cent re­duc­tion in car­bon emis­sions from power plants by 2030, is part of a clear pat­tern. On is­sues from gay mar­riage to gun con­trol to im­mig­ra­tion re­form, Obama has sys­tem­at­ic­ally em­braced the pref­er­ences of the Demo­crats’ “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant”: minor­it­ies, the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion, and col­lege-edu­cated whites, es­pe­cially wo­men. All of these groups are grow­ing in the elect­or­ate. Roughly three-fourths of each de­scribed cli­mate change as a “ser­i­ous prob­lem” in ABC/Wash­ing­ton Post polling this week. The price of this al­li­ance has been con­tin­ued erosion in Demo­crats’ stand­ing with older and blue-col­lar whites, both of which groups now pre­pon­der­antly fa­vor Re­pub­lic­ans.

This has pro­duced a clear geo­graph­ic fault line that the EPA reg­u­la­tions should deep­en. In both pres­id­en­tial and con­gres­sion­al elec­tions, Demo­crats now rely mostly on states where their di­verse and urb­an­ized co­ali­tion dom­in­ates the pop­u­la­tion; that in­cludes the East and West coasts, plus Sun Belt states fit­ting that mod­el, such as Col­or­ado and Vir­gin­ia. Re­pub­lic­ans now lean primar­ily on the South, as well as on heart­land states that are older, more re­li­gious, more blue col­lar, and less ra­cially di­verse. (The biggest ex­cep­tions to this pat­tern are the burly Mid­west­ern battle­grounds, such as Michigan and Ohio, where eco­nom­ic pop­u­lism al­lows Demo­crats still to com­pete.)

Pat­terns of en­ergy use closely track these polit­ic­al lines. Many red states are heav­ily in­ves­ted in the fossil-fuel eco­nomy, either as pro­du­cers of oil, nat­ur­al gas, and coal, or as large con­sumers of low-cost, coal-powered elec­tri­city (partly be­cause sev­er­al are man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ters). The blue states, with only a few ex­cep­tions, pro­duce little fossil fuel, rely less on coal for elec­tri­city, and gen­er­ate less car­bon (partly be­cause many have moved fur­ther to­ward a postin­dus­tri­al, white-col­lar eco­nomy).

The res­ult is that red states that are hos­tile to gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism also face great­er ma­ter­i­al risks from the EPA reg­u­la­tions than blue states. In­terest for­ti­fies ideo­logy. All 10 of the states that emit the most car­bon per mega­watt-hour of elec­tri­city gen­er­ated voted for Mitt Rom­ney in 2012; so did 14 of the top 20. By con­trast, 15 of the 20 states that pro­duced the least car­bon per mega­watt-hour backed Obama. Like­wise, in four-fifths of the states Rom­ney car­ried, per-per­son car­bon emis­sions from all sources ex­ceed the na­tion­al av­er­age, fed­er­al fig­ures show. Four-fifths of the states that backed Obama emit less per per­son than the na­tion­al av­er­age.

In its pro­posed reg­u­la­tion, EPA at­temp­ted to ac­com­mod­ate these dif­fer­ences. The pro­pos­al, which max­im­izes state flex­ib­il­ity, gen­er­ally im­poses smal­ler per­cent­age re­duc­tions through 2030 on the high-emit­ting states than it does on the low-emit­ting states.

None of that pre­ven­ted red-state Re­pub­lic­ans like In­di­ana Gov. Mike Pence from de­noun­cing the pro­pos­al. But blue-state lead­ers gen­er­ally wel­comed the rules. “They are very pos­it­ive,” says Mary Nich­ols, chair­wo­man of the Cali­for­nia Air Re­sources Board. “There is a net be­ne­fit here to the West and to Cali­for­nia from hav­ing stepped out early.”

The reg­u­la­tions seem poised to ac­cel­er­ate the blue-state move­ment to­ward a lower-car­bon eco­nomy. With the last two coal power plants in Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton state sched­uled to close after 2020, for in­stance, Pa­cific North­w­est en­vir­on­ment­al­ists already are push­ing to ban elec­tri­city im­ports gen­er­ated from coal, and to block coal ex­ports to Asia. Their goal: Cre­ate the na­tion’s first “coal-free zone,” says Cesia Kearns, a Si­erra Club rep­res­ent­at­ive.

More broadly, Cali­for­nia, Ore­gon, and Wash­ing­ton are co­oper­at­ing on cli­mate policy, and Nich­ols says the EPA rules could gen­er­ate “a new wave of in­terest” from oth­er states in join­ing Cali­for­nia’s pi­on­eer­ing cap-and-trade pro­gram to re­duce car­bon emis­sions. The same could hap­pen for the East Coast blue states that have es­tab­lished a re­gion­al car­bon-re­duc­tion part­ner­ship.

Like their ap­proach in the health care fight, red states may res­ist through every means avail­able. Charles Mc­Con­nell, dir­ect­or of Rice Uni­versity’s En­ergy and En­vir­on­ment Ini­ti­at­ive, says EPA’s rules fail to ac­know­ledge how much coastal states rely on in­teri­or states to man­u­fac­ture and pro­duce en­ergy for the products “that provide their way of life so con­veni­ently and af­ford­ably.”

Like many Obama ini­ti­at­ives, the EPA pro­pos­al cre­ates head­aches for Demo­crats de­fend­ing House and Sen­ate seats in right-lean­ing heart­land states. But it also threatens GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates, who are be­ing pulled to­ward po­s­i­tions on cli­mate change (in­clud­ing deny­ing its ex­ist­ence) that could ali­en­ate the voters and states they must flip to cap­ture the White House. In more ways than one, those Re­pub­lic­ans stam­ped­ing to con­demn the EPA cli­mate rules may be miss­ing a change in the weath­er.

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