Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Independent and the Environment

On Tuesday, my home state elected Angus King, a political independent and former governor, to the Senate.  Stealing a theme from Dan Farber, who has been profiling the environmental implications of Senate races across the country, I thought I’d venture a few observations on King’s election.

In general, King’s positions on environmental issues are similar to those of a mainstream Democrat.  While his campaign wasn't long on discussion of environmental issues, his website does state his strong support for the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.  He recently put out a short energy policy paper that touts his support for natural gas as a bridge fuel and, in the long-term, for renewable sources and increased efficiency.   Those positions reflect more energy policy experience than the average senator has, for King has been in the energy industry for decades, with much of his time spent working on conservation and renewable energy.  His website also emphasizes the importance of minimizing regulatory burdens, but I don’t see that rhetoric as necessarily anti-environmental.   Most elected politicians, including some who I’d count as strong environmental advocates, today say pretty much the same things.

In the past, environmentalists have had some differences with King.  As governor, he opposed a citizens’ initiative to limit clearcutting, despite widespread support from environmental groups.  He also actively, though ultimately unsuccessfully, opposed the listing of Maine’s Atlantic salmon runs under the Endangered Species Act.  And King’s wind industry ties have raised hackles among some environmentalists (while earning him support from others).  In Maine, most wind development occurs on mountaintops, where the environmental impacts are somewhat greater than they might be on Minnesota farmland or Texas ranches.  While most of the larger Maine environmental organizations support on-land wind energy development, some groups do have reservations.  Nevertheless, these disagreements weren’t enough to stop the Sierra Club from endorsing him, and advertising on his behalf, in the recent campaign.

So what will King do once he reaches the Senate?  He’ll be a vote for renewable energy, a potential supporter of climate legislation, and, probably, a supporter of EPA in its battles over Clean Air Act implementation.  None of that involves going too far out on a limb; those positions reflect the interests of a state on the downwind side of the fossil fuel industry as well as King’s own personal leanings.  But he also seems proud of his independence and his pro-business leanings, and, having proclaimed himself independent, will probably want to put occasional daylight between himself and the Democrats.   Where that daylight will emerge is hard to say, and it might not emerge on environmental issues at all.  But he could be a less reliable supporter of the Endangered Species Act than the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act.

Perhaps the biggest questions about King involve his likely role in the Senate.  Legislative trench warfare doesn't seem like his comfort zone; he presents himself as a visionary leader more than a specialist in political dealmaking (or political hand-to-hand combat).  But it’s hard to know how much a freshman senator can transcend or defuse the partisan politics of our present era and still get things done.  Ultimately, if King is going to be a leader, not just a vote, on environmental and energy issues, he’ll probably need to become an enthusiastic and effective practitioner of the legislative process.  Whether he’ll do that remains to be seen.

-Dave Owen

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