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US ELECTIONS: Results show deeper divide on energy, tough path for tackling climate

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US ELECTIONS: Results show deeper divide on energy, tough path for tackling climate

Highlights

Lack of 'blue wave' to sweep in climate agenda

Fracking faceoff amplifies rural-urban divide

Status quo embraced in governor, state house races

Washington — While control of the White House and US Senate still hung in the balance, a host of implications for energy and commodity markets from the Nov. 3 elections unfolded across the country, revealing a deepening divide on energy issues that will make it harder to pursue federal policy on decarbonization and mitigating climate change.

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"Energy remains a powerful wedge in an increasingly divided America," said Katie Bays, managing director of FiscalNote Markets.

LATEST: Biden declared winner of presidential race, faces challenges to energy agenda

Even if Democratic nominee Joe Biden ultimately secures the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, the state and local results showed a lack of a Democratic "blue wave to easily sweep in national US climate policy," said Amy Myers Jaffe, research professor and managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

Jaffe pointed to Florida and Texas as two states hard-hit by recent severe weather events that nevertheless reaffirmed support for Republicans, who oppose climate legislation.

In statewide ballot measures, Texas voters rejected tougher limits on natural gas flaring, New Mexicans revamped utility oversight, Nevada voters adopted a 50% renewable power mandate by 2030, and Louisiana voters tied oil and gas wells' property taxes to production.

Democratic hopes of flipping state legislatures, with important energy policy implications, were not realized as results began settling in. Republicans appeared headed to hold onto state House control in Texas, the Senate in Minnesota, both chambers in Pennsylvania and the Michigan House. One notable flip came in New Hampshire where voters appeared poised to give Republicans the trifecta of gubernatorial and Senate and House control.

At the federal level, Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives, but with their majority narrowed.

Democrats' chances of picking up four net seats to take control of the US Senate were seen as dwindling immediately after the election, although runoffs were later declared in both of Georgia's Senate races when no candidate received more than 50% of votes.

Even if Democrats were to regain the Senate with a 51-vote majority, that razor thin margin would put limits on energy legislation Democrats could advance, said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners.

"Historically, the US Senate has been the key obstacle for comprehensive climate legislation, and the results from [the Nov. 3] elections suggest that this dynamic may not change," said Jeff Berman, S&P Global Platts Analytics' director of emissions and clean energy analytics. "At the same time, Platts Analytics expects that a potential Biden administration would use existing executive and regulatory authority to implement more ambitious climate policies than what we've seen under the Trump administration."

According to Berman, that could include initiatives like implementing more stringent fuel economy standards for vehicles. "However, it would also include a return to using higher social cost of carbon values that ultimately justify federal action, as well as considering climate action in future [National Environmental Policy Act] reviews."

'Bitter battle' ahead

Biden appeared to be closing in on a victory as of press time Nov. 6, as results continued trickling in from remaining battleground states Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Arizona. But President Donald Trump's lawsuits challenging vote counting and demand for recounts seemed headed to drag out a resolution.

If Trump were to remain in office, he would continue a deregulatory push that emphasizes the country's abundant fossil fuel resources if elected to a second term, while Biden would embrace a shift to clean energy through climate policy, tougher environmental regulations and restrictions on federal oil and gas permitting.

Control of the Senate will determine how far a Biden administration could get on this green energy agenda, while Trump's policies lean more toward administrative actions and fending off court challenges.

"A bitter battle could eradicate Washington's shrinking political center, potentially aligning lawmakers more closely with national party ideologies than home-state resource bases and leaving less room for energy policy compromises," Book said. He said he doubts the fracking debate near the end of the presidential race and Biden's declaration of plans to "transition" away from oil and gas definitively swayed any races. But it could have combined with social issues to draw Republican support in rural, producer districts, he said.

FiscalNote's Bays said energy may have become "something of an 'identity' issue for voters – more connected to their ethos than their pocketbook."

"This might explain a surge in support for the president in counties in Texas and New Mexico that are adjacent to but not in the core Permian Basin," she said.

Tight Senate races

US Senator Joni Ernst, Republican-Iowa, held onto her seat after a tight race that tested her support of biofuel makers and knowledge of commodity prices.

In her first term, Ernst played a key role in White House negotiations over the US biofuel mandate, defending the Renewable Fuel Standard on behalf of biofuel makers as oil refiners pushed for exceptions and lower blending requirements.

Ernst promised to vote against any climate legislation like California's recent goal to end new sales of gasoline-powered passenger vehicles by 2035. She said it amounted to "outlawing fossil fuels, ethanol and biodiesel in a matter of 15 years."

Democrats were able to flip one seat in the US Senate early on, with former two-term Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who backed regulations seen as favorable by the oil and gas industry as well as environmental groups, defeating incumbent first-term Republican Senator Cory Gardner.

Colorado, an oil and gas-producing state, has grown increasingly concerned with climate change. While state oil output grew under Hickenlooper's two terms as governor, he has taken a strong stance on the need to advance efforts to combat climate change. The newly elected senator has backed climate initiatives that include addressing methane emissions, introducing a carbon tax and revisiting the social cost of carbon, which was revised downward by the Trump administration.

States with climate focus

Gubernatorial races offered few surprises. States that have been vocal about leading on climate change in the absence of federal policy, or that have experienced economic wins from renewable energy in the state, retained their Democratic incumbents.

For instance, Democrat Jay Inslee held onto his seat as governor of the state of Washington. Climate policy will remain a priority in his third term, with the state on a path to a carbon-neutral electric grid by 2030 and 100% renewable energy by 2045.

North Carolina's Democratic Governor Roy Cooper will get a second term to continue efforts to harden infrastructure against extreme weather and cut carbon emissions in the politically conservative South. His plan to address climate change and transition to a clean energy economy looks to accelerate coal plant retirements, expand renewable energy growth and reform utility regulation and rate setting. North Carolina already ranks second among US states in solar energy capacity.

Cooper's reelection does not bode well for the oil and gas lobby. He has opposed drilling off the North Carolina coast. And while his position on pipelines and fracking has wavered in the past, more recently he has taken a more critical view of gas pipeline projects routed through the state.

Fossil fuel-friendly states

States dependent on fossil fuels that remain significant players in coal production, on the other hand, held onto their Republican leaders.

Republican Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb, a fossil fuel advocate, won reelection. Neither climate change nor the environment made his top-five list of priorities as Indiana ranks seventh among US states in coal production and second in coal consumption. In 2019, coal fueled 59% of Indiana's net power generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Renewables accounted for just 7% of the state's generation in 2019.

New Hampshire's Republican Governor Chris Sununu secured a third term in office, defeating a Democratic challenger who planned to take a more proactive stance on mitigating climate change. Sununu, though no longer touting the GOP line of climate skepticism, has rejected regional initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions, making New Hampshire a regional outlier among New England states.

Sununu's approach to climate policy has emphasized keeping costs down. He has opposed various renewable energy proposals from lawmakers and more ambitious emissions-reduction goals, but has been a vocal proponent of offshore wind development. With a legislature now in his corner, his position is only strengthened, making it unlikely that state Democrats could advance more aggressive policies to combat climate change in line with New Hampshire's New England neighbors.

North Dakota's Republican Governor Doug Burgum easily won a second term as the state grapples with an economic downturn brought on by the oil price drop and weak global demand.

North Dakota is the No. 2 oil-producing state after Texas, but it fell to the third spot behind New Mexico in May and June when producers rushed to shut in wells in response to low prices.

As of August, North Dakota's oil output has recovered to 1.16 million b/d, the highest since April, but state regulators continue to predict that another sharp downturn lies ahead after all easy-to-restart wells return to production. A lack of new drilling will bring on the next downturn as natural declines outpace new production.

Ballot measures

In state-level voting, clean energy advocates failed to rack up the wins seen in the 2018 midterms, when multiple states flipped to single party control. Scott Segal of Bracewell's Policy Resolution Group said the results mean the calculus doesn't change a lot, but if a federal stalemate continues, certain states with current Democratic majorities will play stronger roles advancing the clean energy agenda and activist governors could continue to push the envelope. Even states with incumbent fossil-fuel interests such as Texas have seen fit to debate renewable policy initiatives, he said.

In Nevada, voters amended the state's constitution to require electric utilities to source 50% of their power from renewable resources by 2030. The amendment, passed with 56.8% of the vote with 88% of precincts reporting, prevents a future legislature from reversing the existing renewable portfolio standard without the additional say of voters.

Question 6, the 50%-by-2030 requirement, was backed by voters a first time in 2018, with nearly 60% voting yes, and required a second affirmative vote to become final.

In New Mexico, residents also voted to revamp oversight of the Public Regulation Commission, handing governors greater control over the body that regulates utilities. Prevailing with 55.6% of the vote, the constitutional amendment would end election of commissioners and cut their number from five to three.

The commission has become increasingly contentious since the state adopted a 100% renewable energy mandate by 2050, clashing with Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham over implementation of the act.