Proponents of environmental protection in the U.S. breathed a sign of relief last Tuesday November 6 when President Barack Obama was reelected by an electoral vote margin of 332 to 206. Obama swept all the “swing states” and received nearly 51% of the popular vote. Obama received 3.3 million more votes than Republican Mitt Romney, who had sought to blame slow economic growth on environmental regulation. Democrats increased their majority in the U.S. Senate by two votes, despite having to defend far more seats than Republicans. Even though Democrats gained seats in the U.S. House, Republicans retained control of the chamber. Democrats in the aggregate received more votes in House races than Republicans did, but widespread gerrymandering in redistricting helped Republicans retain their majority.
Even though climate change had rarely been mentioned in his presidential campaign, President Obama referred to it in his victory speech. “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet,” Obama said. Despite pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign ads blaming regulation for a weak economy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups saw nearly every candidate they supported go down to defeat. By contrast, the League of Conservation Voters saw nearly every candidate they supported win election. Some are now arguing that the election results prove that Super PAC money and the Citizens United decision that freed corporations to become directly involved in campaigns makes little difference. I think this is an overstatement. The substantial funds the Obama campaign was able to raise for its own campaign were vital to the electoral outcome. However, much of the corporate money was spent on ads that were so implausible that they had little effect. One example is the numerous ads that Karl Rove’s group American Crossroads ran in Virginia accusing Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine of all manner of evils including being more hostile to funding education than Republican candidate George Allen. Kaine won by five percentage points in the final vote.
Voter initiatives approved gay marriage in three states and recreational use of marijuana in two, but the most hard fought environmental initiative did not fare as well. California voters defeated Proposition 37, a measure to require labeling of food products containing genetically modified material, by six percentage points. The measure had led by a wide margin in early polls, but public support faded after $46 million was spent in opposition to it, about five times the spending of its proponents. While I did not see these ads, my former students in California informed me that they were convincing in making the case that the measure was poorly drafted. Voters in Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska and Wyoming added a right to hunt, fish and trap to their state constitutions. Idaho voters also approved a constitutional “right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production and ranching practices.”
Last week a court in Argentina froze the assets of local subsidiaries of the Chevron Corporation in response to efforts by plaintiffs to enforce the $18 billion judgment against the company for oil pollution in Ecuador (see February 14, 2011 blog post). The court cited the Inter-American Convention on the Execution of Preventive Measures, which authorizes an asset freeze when a company fails to pay a final judgment. The treaty has been ratified by Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. On November 9 Chevron subsidiaries Chevron Argentina and Ing. Norberto Priu appealed the ruling, arguing that their assets should not be frozen because they are not directly owned by the Chevron. Plaintiffs also are trying to enforce the judgment in the courts of Brazil, Canada and Ecuador.
Last Wednesday Laotion officials reportedly were about to hold an official ceremony to launch construction of the controversial Xayaburi dam on the lower portion of the Mekong River. The 1,260 MW dam is designed to supply electricity to Thailand. Although the dam would be built entirely inside Laos, the countries of Cambodia and Vietnam have objected to the project, fearing that it will harm a rich river ecosystem that is the source of livelihood for millions of their citizens who live downstream. The U.S. State Department criticized Laos for rushing to begin construction without conducting an adequate environmental impact assessment. Thai environmental activist Pianporn Deetes noted that a Thai dam on the Mun River has contributed to the disappearance of nearly two-thirds of the 265 species that previously had been found in the river. Thomas Fuller & Poypiti Amatatham, Laos to Proceed with Dam Project on Mekong River, N.Y. Times, Nov. 7, 2012, at A3. Denying these news report, Laotian Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong told the Wall Street Journal that the Xayaburi project was still on hold pending “further study.” Ben Otto, Prime Minister Says Dam Project Is on Hold, Wall St. J., Nov. 7, 2012, at A21.
On Thursday November 8 I was one of the nearly 800 people who attended the Environmental Law Institute’s annual dinner at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson introduced Carter Strickland, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Strickland accepted ELI’s annual Award for Achievement in Environmental Law, Policy and Management on behalf of the City of New York for its “PlaNYC” to green the city’s infrastructure. Jackson, who is rumored to be leaving EPA during the next presidential term, joked that some of her potential successors might be in the audience for the event, which is widely attended by D.C. environmental lawyers. Mentioning a prominent Republican by name she added, “sorry about that.” But she then quickly admitted that she “really wasn’t sorry” that the election had now ruled him out.