Jesse Thompson Public Service Commission

5 state-level races that could alter the energy transition

While much of the nation’s attention is focused on how November midterm elections will change Congress, several state-level races could have wide-ranging effects on the energy sector for years.

From attorneys general to utility regulators, down-ballot races may influence the electricity mix in several battleground states and guide the future of natural gas development in energy-rich areas like Texas.

Many of the elections will select officials who will make day-to-day policy decisions on everything from how much fossil fuel generation utilities can use to rates for residential solar energy. Nine states will hold elections for open seats on commissions that oversee electric utilities or oil and gas companies.

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In Arizona, for example, two seats on the five-member Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) are up in statewide races — with broad repercussions for renewables.

“In a lot of ways, the ACC races are the most important races for energy in Arizona,” said Troy Rule, a law professor at Arizona State University who studies sustainability.

In areas like the Sun Belt, many of the utility regulation boards are controlled by Republicans and have a history of favoring industry over consumers and environmental concerns, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

“If Democrats were to win one or more of these offices, you would at least have a debate then in state government about the relationship that should exist between the regulatory agencies and the industries,” he said.

Republicans in some states, meanwhile, are arguing that a push to renewable energy has gone too far and made the grid less reliable.

“Please don’t California our Arizona energy,” said Kevin Thompson, a Republican member of Mesa City Council running for a seat on the Arizona commission, at a debate last month hosted by Arizona PBS and the Citizens Clean Elections Commission.

Here are five state-level races to watch in November:

Arizona Corporation Commission

After years of debate, the Arizona Corporation Commission in January voted down a rules package that would have required regulated utilities to achieve 50 percent clean energy by 2035 and 100 percent by 2070, less than a year after rejecting a similar 100 percent by 2050 target (Energywire, June 4, 2021).

The November elections could revive those rules — or sideline them indefinitely, which could in turn determine the future of renewable energy development in a state with some of the nation’s best solar potential. With two seats in play, there is potential for the current 3-2 Republican majority to flip to Democrat control. Republican incumbent Justin Olson is vacating his seat after an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.

On the renewable standard, Rule said “all the attempts to update or amend a renewable standard have fallen flat because the composition of the ACC has not been amenable.”

Voters can choose any two candidates for the open seats, making it possible to split support for political parties. The candidates are encouraging voters to choose single-party tickets.

Incumbent commissioner Sandra Kennedy, a Democrat, is seeking a second consecutive four-year term after holding a seat on the panel earlier. She is running alongside fellow Democrat and Tempe council member Lauren Kuby, a sustainability scientist at Arizona State University.

The two have said they would back a renewable energy mandate and other steps to encourage utilities to invest in solar energy, saying that the voluntary commitments from utilities are not enough.

Kennedy has also said she wants to unleash the state’s solar energy capacity. “Arizona’s time in the sun is now,” she said at the September debate.

Also running are Thompson and ACC policy adviser Nick Myers, both Republicans. Both Thompson and Myers have expressed concerns about renewable energy mandates, saying they could force utilities to lock in expensive technology and could pose reliability problems if the state does not invest in storage.

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At the debate, Thompson said California is “suffering the consequences” of a renewable energy mandate with potential blackouts and reliability challenges.

The race could help determine how utilities will harness abundant solar resources and the continued life of the Palo Verde nuclear power plant outside of Phoenix that has been in operation for more than 35 years. The Republican candidates have said they’d like to encourage small modular nuclear development.

The Arizona panel could also face debates about local gas and renewable mandates — a 2020 state law prevented cities and towns from banning natural gas. Deregulation of the utility industry also could be in play.

But looming over everything is the clean energy standard. Arizona last set renewable energy standards in 2006 requiring utilities to get at least 15 percent of power from renewable resources by 2025. That’s well behind a number of Western states, and even Arizona’s regulated utilities have announced voluntary targets beyond that.

A Democratic-controlled ACC would likely bring stronger clean energy targets up for a swift vote, while a Republican board could adopt looser rules on utilities’ integrated resource plans that would likely focus on driving down utility costs.

Louisiana Public Service Commission

Two of five seats on the Louisiana Public Service Commission are on the ballot this November, and although the party makeup of the board is unlikely to change, the races could affect consumers’ electricity costs and how the state shores up its grid in response to extreme weather.

“The decisions that are made in the coming six years will have everything to do with whether Louisiana is part of taking action on climate change to protect residents and businesses by moving to renewables,” said Logan Burke, executive director of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy.

In District 3, covering most of New Orleans, incumbent Democrat Lambert Boissiere III is running for his fourth six-year term. New rules limit commissioners to three terms, but Boissiere is grandfathered in to be eligible for a fourth.

He faces four Democratic challengers: former lieutenant governor candidate Willie Jones, Louisiana Budget Project public affairs director Davante Lewis, pastor and activist Gregory Manning and civil engineer Jesse Thompson. The progressive challengers argue that Boissiere is too entrenched with the utilities the board regulates, and they have campaigned on a more aggressive stance that would force utilities to adopt a renewable energy standard and lower the cost of energy efficiency programs.

In District 4, covering the southwestern part of the state, one-term incumbent Republican Mike Francis faces off against fellow Republican businessman Shalon Latour and independent Keith Bodin, who has worked in environmental mediation and waste disposal. All the candidates have focused on lowering energy bills.

In an interview with the Louisiana Radio Network, Francis blamed the “federal government … controlling a lot of the price of our fuels” for “really hurting our electricity bills.”

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Bodin has worked to distinguish himself in the Republican district by talking up energy efficiency and renewables. In a candidate survey for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, he said Louisiana has “fallen so far behind in [renewable energy] due to our current PSC board wanting to protect shareholders of utility companies.”

Under Louisiana’s open primary system, a candidate must win more than 50 percent of the votes. If no one does, the top two finishers enter a runoff.

Burke said there has been renewed focus on the PSC races as electricity bills of Louisianans spiked this summer due to a collision of storm cleanup costs, hot weather and the high cost of natural gas. The last factor, Burke said, will have to be a priority for the PSC as the global natural gas market remains in flux.

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Sixty-five percent of Louisiana’s electricity came from natural gas in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The PSC will also have jurisdiction over a potential renewable portfolio standard, which was called for in the state’s Climate Initiatives Task Force action plan released earlier this year. That plan set a goal of 100 percent renewable or clean energy by 2035 (Energywire, Feb. 2).

The PSC considered a renewable standard a decade ago, but elected not to implement one because of the high cost of renewables at the time compared to natural gas. In 2020, the commission also cut net metering rates for new solar customers.

The PSC has also been working on a docket for demand-side management and energy efficiency programs since 2009, which has emerged as a major factor in the race. Those rules could help homeowners and businesses upgrade homes and buildings and reduce bills, including by harnessing federal funding.

New Orleans’ City Council has primary jurisdiction over electricity regulation in that city, meaning regulations there can be different than in other parts of Louisiana.

Texas attorney general

In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) is in a fierce fight against civil rights lawyer Rochelle Garza (D). The winner will be able to influence energy policy both in Texas and nationally because the state plays such a large role in energy production.

Texas Railroad Commission     
   The Texas

A recent poll by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation showed Garza trailing Paxton by 5 percentage points, almost within the survey’s margin of error.

Paxton, who is seeking his third four-year term, has been an outspoken opponent of federal energy policy under President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama. He joined lawsuits against various Obama administration climate initiatives such as EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would have limited greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. More recently, he’s criticized Wall Street banks that highlight environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in their investments.

Paxton was accused of securities fraud that took place before he was elected in 2014 and was indicted in a Texas court in 2015 after he was elected. His case has not gone to trial. He has also been investigated by the FBI after several aides in his office said he was using his state job to help a campaign donor, according to local media reports.

Paxton’s legal problems have made him vulnerable, said Jason Villalba, a former state legislator who leads the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation.

Paxton “has a peculiar situation — the baggage he’s bringing to this race is tremendous,” he said.

Garza is making her first run for office and would be the first woman elected as attorney general in Texas if she wins. She has not made energy issues a centerpiece of her campaign, stressing a plan to expand access to health care and protecting voting rights and the right to abortion. Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Texas, apart from a handful of judicial positions, since 1994.

Neither Garza nor Paxton responded to requests for interviews. Paxton has pleaded not guilty to the securities fraud charges, and one of this attorneys, Philip Hilder, blamed the delays in the case on prosecutors, the Associated Press reported in May.

“Mr. Paxton is innocent of these charges and sought to have his day in a proper court long ago,” Hilder said.

Paxton was also in the news last month for apparently fleeing his home when a process server tried to deliver a summons in a civil lawsuit about Texas restrictive abortion law. Paxton has denied that he was trying to avoid accepting the paperwork and said he feared for his safety when a stranger appeared out his home, according to The Texas Tribune.

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Texas Railroad Commission

The Texas Railroad Commission race includes a challenger who’s asking voters to hold incumbent Republican Wayne Christian accountable for statewide power blackouts tied to a deadly winter storm last year. The commission oversees oil and gas production and pipelines in Texas.

The three commission members are elected statewide and typically receive most of their campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Christian didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment. In an opinion piece last year in The Wall Street Journal, he blamed the Texas blackouts in February 2021 on wind and solar power and said the state needs to rebalance its electric mix toward gas, coal and nuclear generation. Climate “catastrophists have an oversize influence on public policy,” Christian wrote.

The February 2021 winter storm froze parts of the natural gas system, contributing to power blackouts that left more than 4 million homes and businesses in the dark.

Luke Warford, a Democrat making his first run for office, said the commission’s close ties to the energy industry prevented it from making reforms after previous cold-weather problems in 2011 and 2014.

“We have a real coherent story to tell about why he didn’t do his job,” Warford said in an interview.

Christian is leading the race, 44 percent to 37 percent, according to the Hispanic Policy Foundation poll.

Texas land commissioner

A sitting state senator and a descendant of a pioneer ranching family are running for a powerful but historically low-profile job in Texas: land commissioner.

The state land office oversees 13 million acres of state property, much of which is off the state’s coastline in the Gulf of Mexico. Revenue from state lands, mostly from oil and gas production, helps fund public education and the state’s universities.

The land office took on a higher profile under outgoing Commissioner George P. Bush (R), who is the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The younger Bush lobbied the federal government to build a storm barrier on the Texas coast, but he was criticized for his handling of relief funds after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

One of the 2022 candidates, Democrat Jay Kleberg, is part of the family that owns the King Ranch in South Texas. He said he wants to bring a “multigenerational” perspective to the job, which he learned growing up on the ranch and working in land management for the nonprofit Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation.

The King Ranch has a long history of oil production, and Kleberg said he wants to help preserve the industry. At the same time, he said, the land office could open up state land and waters for wind development or carbon sequestration.

“While we’re generating the necessary funding for education, what kind of a world are we handing off to our children?” he said in an interview.

Republican state Sen. Dawn Buckingham is an optometrist who has served in the state Senate since 2016. She says on her website that she’ll oppose the Biden administration’s energy policies and “unleash Texas energy.” She didn’t respond to an interview request.

“Despite what my opponent claims, we can support robust energy development that fuels jobs, funds public education, and powers our grid while being good stewards of our precious public lands,” her site says.

Buckingham is leading the race, with 46 percent of likely voters compared with 38 percent for Kleberg, according to the Hispanic Policy Foundation poll.