Important Climate Ballot Initiatives to Watch on Election Day

Vote with the planet in mind, please!

Vote with the planet in mind, please!
Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski (Getty Images)

The presidential race may be sucking up all the climate oxygen at the national level, but it’s far from the only place climate is on the ballot. This election is full of existential choices down the ballot, with tons of crucial Senate, House, and local fights, too.

There are also a number of ballot initiatives and referendums in the 26 states that allow them focused on climate and preserving the biosphere. Here are some of the most exciting ones that we’ll be tracking. They include everything from the fate of wolves to gig workers to taxes on oil and gas companies. Even cities are getting in on the action, showing how climate is a local issue, too. What times them together is they all matter for the future of our planet.


More Parks—But Also More Oil

Michigan voters will get to chime in on Proposal 1, a measure that’s aimed at expanding and restructuring the state’s conservation and land trust fund. More money for parks and protected areas is good! But here’s the weird thing: The money would come from the fossil fuel industry.

If passed, this measure would allow Michigan’s Parks Endowment Fund to sell off oil and gas leases on public lands and put that money into the State Parks Endowment Fund fund until its balance reaches $800 million. That fund could be used to maintain existing parks and buy more land to create new ones. After that fund is full, any additional oil and gas money would go into a Natural Resources Trust Fund, which is also used for natural resources protection and recreation.

I’m all for parks and public lands, but this measure feels a bit like the national Great American Outdoors Act passed by Congress earlier this year, which relies on similar funding mechanisms for conservation. I’m nervous that policies like this just incentivize more and more leases to extractive firms.

Renewables—But Not Enough

Question 6 is on the ballot in Nevada. It would require the state’s utilities to get 50% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The state actually passed the same measure in 2018, but—no joke—Nevada requires that amendments get passed in two election cycles. Nevada’s current renewable energy standard only requires 25% of electricity come from clean power, so this would be a relatively big improvement. But let’s be real: 50% by 2030 isn’t a fast enough transition according to reams of research.

Bringing Wolves Back 

Colorado voters could vote to bring back the wolves. If Proposition 114 passes, the state’s Parks and Wildlife Commission would be required to make a plan to reintroduce and manage gray wolf populations in the mountainous areas west of the continental divide. The region has been largely wolf-free since the 1940s after a campaign by ranchers and their allies in government to eradicate them to protect livestock. Doing so also threw ecosystems out of whack, though. There have been other examples of wolf reintroduction, most notably in Yellowstone National Park 25 years ago. That program has been wildly successful in restoring ecosystems.

Making Polluters Pay

The ballot measure I might be most anxiously awaiting is California’s Proposition 15. This initiative would close a loophole made possible by another state ballot measure: 1978’s Proposition 13. The new proposition would force the owners of commercial and industrial properties—including fossil fuel producers—to start paying their taxes based on the current market value of those properties, not the price at which they purchased them in decades long passed. That would mean the state would have more cash for schools, wildfire safety initiatives, and other public services, while issuing a big blow to polluting industries like fossil fuel producers. Oil and gas companies are among the biggest forces lobbying against this measure because they could stand to lose out on a lot of money if it passes.

“Companies like Chevron, Exxon, Phillips 66, Shell, and Tosco are paying taxes based on assessments taken prior to 2000,” the National Resources Defense Council, which supports the measure, said in a statement. “Prop. 15 would end this hidden subsidy to dirty energy.”

Absurdly, though, a key point that these corporate naysayers are making in their opposition to it is that it would come at a big expense to renewable energy firms (don’t worry, that’s not the case according to solar experts).

Oil Production Tax

Alaska’s looking to raid polluters’ overstuffed pockets, too. Ballot Measure 1 would implement a fuel production tax aimed at producers in the state’s North Slope oilfields. Right now, those producers pay some $400 million a year, but if this measure succeeds, their annual taxes will increase by about $1 billion.

Oil extraction in the North Slope puts Indigenous communities at risk and threatens polar bears and other wildlife, too. It also, of course, heats up the climate. Despite a global fuel economy crash, business there is booming, but this measure could change that. Here’s hoping it passes—and that when it does, oil workers aren’t forced to bear the brunt of the hit.

Changing A Utility Commission

New Mexico voters are considering a state constitutional amendment. If Amendment 1 passes, it will restructure the state’s public utility commission. Right now, the group is made up of five independently elected commissioners. But if this measure passes, the commission will shrink to three members who are all appointed by the governor.

On first read, I thought this seemed wildly undemocratic. But then I realized that the state’s commission is led by politicians, not environmental experts. Supporters of the measure say that New Mexico is unlikely to meet its 100% clean energy target under its current system because the commissioners’ elections are so often riddled with corporate money. Under the new system, a bipartisan nominating committee, which would include at least one representative from a local Indigenous group, would come up with a list of environmental experts from the state, and the governor could choose which ones to appoint. The idea is that this could ensure that commissioners aren’t acting on special interests. If you live in New Mexico, please tell me what you think of this one.

A Tax Loophole for Big Oil

This one really, really sucks. In Louisiana, Amendment 5 could exempt the fossil fuel industry from having to pay property taxes. Forever. This fucked up initiative would amend the state constitution to let local governments start “a cooperative endeavor agreement” with companies, allowing those companies to stop paying taxes and instead make comparatively small payments to the government.

The main lobbying force behind this measure is Cameron, a liquified natural gas firm. Last year, based on a payment in lieu of taxes agreement, the company paid just $38,000 in taxes. But if it had to pay their full taxes, it would have paid $220 million. The company’s agreement is now expiring, so it’s fighting to make it—and other agreements like it—last forever. If the measure passes, it could incentivize even more extractive industry activity in already very polluted parts of the state, like Cameron Parish, which saw a dangerous petrochemical leak when hurricanes roared through earlier this year.

“The petrochemical and natural gas industry…want to get out of paying their property taxes,” Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said. “They want this amendment so that they can pay little or nothing to the state while they run away with the money”

Louisiana folks, y’all know what to do!

The Gig Economy

In California, the wretched Proposition 22 would consider drivers with app-based companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash to be independent contractors and not employees. Those companies really want this to pass— Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash collectively spent more than $181 million lobbying for it.

The measure has gotten a lot of attention for its negative impact on workers’ ability to organize and receive benefits. But it would also be a climate atrocity, since it’s would likely result in more cars on the road if passed. Research shows gig economy driving increases congestion, and one study even found that Uber and Lyft were responsible for about half of the rise in congestion in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016. All that pollution is a big environmental health problem, and also a problem for the climate. In fact, one study found that ride-hailing apps’ car trips result in 69% more greenhouse gas pollution than the average car trips they displace. The same analysis also found that access to the apps discourages low-carbon modes of transit like walking and biking.

“Prop 22 is a blatant corporate power grab at the expense of workers and the planet,” Ryan Schleeter, senior communications specialist for Greenpeace USA, said.

Local Measures

Even further down the ballot, voters in cities and counties across the U.S. will vote on local environmental initiatives. While citywide measures may seem like a small solution to the global issue of the climate crisis, they can make a big difference in shifting public opinion on what kinds of policies are possible at state and federal levels, encouraging people to think bigger. Plus, some of these initiatives could raise money for climate adaptation and lower people’s energy bills. Sounds like environmental justice to me.

Community Choice Aggregation

With Columbus, Ohio’s Issue 1, voters have the opportunity to start a citywide community choice aggregation program, giving officials the right to purchase energy in bulk from local renewable sources. This would allow Columbus to meet its goal of powering all homes and businesses with renewable energy by 2022. Nice timeline, folks!

Another city, East Brunswick, New Jersey, is also considering Measure 4, a ballot initiative to create a community choice aggregation program, too. Its timeline is a little less ambitious; if approved, residents and businesses would have access to 100% clean, renewable electricity by the year 2030. But that’s still pretty good and in line with the best available science.

Climate Action Funds

Denver as well as three California cities—Berkeley, Long Beach, and Albany—are all considering ballot measures to create climate action funds. All four of these cities have made climate plans and pledges, but these funds would allocate the funding so the city could actually pay for the projects necessary to meet those goals.

This looks a little different in each place. Berkeley’s Measure HH would fill its fund by raising utility taxes, except on low-income families, who would no longer have to pay those taxes at all. Albany’s Measure DD would work similarly. The Long Beach proposal, Measure US, would up taxes local oil production (hell yeah). And Denver’s Measure 2A would work by raising the local sales tax by .25%. That tiny increase would raise $36 million annually. These funds could all be used to fund clean energy and climate adaptation projects.

A Fake Green Deal

Boulder has a pair of initiatives on the ballot this year, 2C and 2D, that would enter the city into a 20-year franchise agreement with Xcel Energy, a utility company that gets more than half of its energy from fossil fuels. That’s a big deal because right now, Boulder has a goal of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2030, while the company only plans to get there by 2050. Ballot issue 2C would also force the city to abandon its decade-long effort to municipalize its utilities, a move that would make it easier to push the clean energy shift. Corporate lobbyists for 2C and 2D say they would bring Boulder a “Great Green Deal,” but that seems like bullshit to me.

Cruises

Three referendums in Key West, Florida—1.09, 1.10, and 1.11—could place new regulations on the cruise industry. The first would cap the number of passengers on any individual cruise ships to a total of 1,500 people per day, the second would prohibit any single trip on a ship to have more than 1,300 passengers, and the third would give priority to cruise lines with the best environmental and health records.

Analysts say that in combination, these measures could eliminate 95% of the island city’s ship traffic, taking a ton of environmental pollution with it. Y’all know how I feel about cruises.

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