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Divide On Climate Change Policy In Race For Governor Puts N.H. At Crossroads

Annie Ropeik
NHPR file

Climate change policy marks one of the sharpest divides between incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and his Democratic challenger, Concord state Sen. Dan Feltes.  

NHPR’s Morning Edition host Rick Ganley spoke with reporter Annie Ropeik about how the candidates' differences on this issue put the state at a crossroads on climate action.

Rick Ganley: Let's first talk about the incumbent governor, Chris Sununu. What kinds of actions have we seen on climate change in Sununu's two terms in office so far?

Annie Ropeik: Firstly he's shifted from expressing some skepticism about climate science several years ago to now acknowledging that human activity is at least part of the problem. In reality, it's far and away the biggest part of the changes that we're seeing right now. But we've heard Sununu sort of shift into really accepting mainstream climate science as a baseline for how he approaches this issue.

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We've also seen the start of the federal offshore wind planning process in the Gulf of Maine, after Sununu gave the last state approval needed in the region to get that going. There's been more of a focus on adaptation in state coastal resilience programs, some planning for an electric vehicle charging network through VW trust fund settlement money. We've seen some slight shifts in state renewable energy policy, although not half as many as Democrats have sought.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR file
NHPR file
Solar panels are installed atop Worthen Industries in Nashua.

And there have been some grid modernization efforts, some community power programs, you know, a decent amount of wind and solar development, though not nearly as much as we've seen in our neighboring states.

And then I do think that public awareness and just awareness in state government has really grown a lot in the past few years, and that's a huge change as well, although it hasn't translated quite as much into policy as, again, it has in some other states.

Rick Ganley: What's happened with the climate picture here in New Hampshire during this time?

Annie Ropeik: The public awareness has really changed. We've seen events in and out of New Hampshire that have, I think, really brought this home to people - that climate change is happening now. We've seen winters with less snow, record hot temperatures, hot summers in the past few years, besides major hurricanes and wildfires outside of New Hampshire. We've had two major droughts here, including one that's going on right now, and that's influenced by climate change. Big storms, king tides on the Seacoast - all evidence for people that climate change has arrived and that we will not be spared by these changes.

We've also seen a growing sort of protest culture and activism culture begin here. New advocacy groups, the largest environmental protest in a generation at Merrimack Station coal plant in Bow last year. And climate change was a top issue in the presidential primary for the first time this year. Voters, especially Democrats, really seem to have woken up to this issue and put it really at the top of their list for the first time.

Rick Ganley: A lot of voters have said it is in their top tier of worries, and as a voter issue. Turning to Sununu's challenger, Dan Feltes, the Democrat - what his Feltes talking about when he says Governor Sununu has been an obstacle to action on climate change?

Annie Ropeik: This really comes down to legislative action and to Sununu's many vetoes of clean energy-friendly policies that people like Feltes have sponsored. So many of Sununu's record number of vetoes have been focused on solar energy policies, on changes to our required renewable energy usage and our climate goals in the state. And these are all things that Feltes has really tried to champion. They've been really focused on issues like net metering, which dictates how much solar power homeowners and businesses can install and benefit from. And this has really become a sticking point between these two candidates, and it's what Feltes is talking about when he says that the biggest obstacle to climate action in New Hampshire has been Sununu.

Credit Dan Tuohy / NHPR file
NHPR file
Nuisance flooding is becoming more common on the Seacoast, including on Route 1A during storms like this one in 2018, as sea levels rise due to climate change.

This story is part of By Degrees, NHPR’s climate change reporting project. Click here to share your ideas for our coverage.

I think it really gets at that this is, in many ways, a local- and state-level problem. There are things that federal policymakers can do, there are things that the private sector can do. But there are a lot of state policy changes needed to enable that sort of transition to really happen in a way that affects people's lives and their wallets. And that's been something that really Sununu and Feltes specifically have fought a lot over in both of their times in office.

Rick Ganley: What is Feltes proposing to actually do?

Annie Ropeik: He wants the state to be using 100% renewable energy by 2030, first of all. That would be big - it would be a leader in New England among renewable energy goals. He has a big focus on energy efficiency in buildings. He wants to expand public transit, commuter rail, electric vehicle infrastructure in the state. He talks a lot in his climate plan - which is somewhat extensive and was co-authored by some top climate advocates and climate business leaders in the state - about job creation, through policy changes for things like solar. A lot of those policies that he's been trying to get past the governor for many sessions now, he would like to see passed. And he would create new state agencies, commissions around this. It's basically a full court press that would bring us in line with, for example, what we've seen happen in Maine in the past year under their new governor, Janet Mills.

Rick Ganley: And if Sununu is re-elected, what can we expect from him?

Annie Ropeik: So we'll see this continued focus on wind - that's definitely going to be a big story for the next many years. And we're early in that process, but it's something Sununu is very excited about as an economic possibility, and something that climate activists say could really take a huge chunk out of our renewable energy needs. You know, that's a high risk, high reward kind of economic situation where you're contributing a lot of new power to the grid once those things get built many years down the road.

Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR file
NHPR file
Protesters participate in a climate strike outside the Statehouse in late 2019.

We also may expect to see continued sparring over these smaller scale policies for things like solar power. I think it kind of remains to be seen how much Governor Sununu is willing to compromise with Democrats on things like net metering.

You know, he'll put forth his own compromise policy proposals that, then, Democrats will say don't go far enough. Those will end up sort of dying on the vine. So if the governing picture in the state is the same next year as it was this year, we could see sort of a continued stalemate on that. Or the needle could shift - it's really unclear.

You know, Sununu has this 10-year state energy strategy that has an "all of the above" theme to it. So in theory, we are supposed to be supporting all forms of energy in the state. But he has continued to claim, you know, sometimes against the advice of regulators or without clear economic evidence, that expanded use of solar power in particular would have negative economic effects. And so I think we'll see that debate sort of continuing.

And then we will see more renewable energy development in the state regardless. There are private sector projects that don't really need to wait for these state policy changes in order to happen. We just saw the state approve its first large-scale solar project just this week. Sununu hasn't commented on that - it comes from NextEra, which also owns Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. So as more projects like that get proposed, we may see him take a position there or potentially see economic opportunity in those projects and work to support them.

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Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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