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How Climate Change Is Shaping The Race For New Hampshire Governor

NHPR staff

After taking the spotlight in the presidential primary, climate change policy is back in focus in New Hampshire's governor's race -- and not just as a partisan issue.

Energy is driving a wedge between the Democratic candidates competing in next week's primary, as well as with incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with energy and environment reporter Annie Ropeik, who’s heading up NHPR’s climate reporting project By Degrees, for more on the candidates’ views and the role this is playing in the race.

Peter Biello: So, like most Democrats, state Sen. Dan Feltes and executive councilor Andru Volinsky appear to agree on the broad strokes of this issue. They acknowledge it's a problem and caused by humans, and they say there are big economic and social justice opportunities in addressing it. And they want to make the state carbon neutral. So where do they differ on climate policy?

Annie Ropeik: So, first of all, Dan Feltes has a lot more specific policy proposals on this issue. Volinsky has broadly endorsed the Green New Deal, but he doesn't have the sort of detailed plan that Feltes has released, which focuses a lot on the kind of policies around things like net metering and solar power that Feltes has championed in the state Senate and Governor Chris Sununu has largely vetoed. They also have different goals for when they want the state to become carbon neutral – so Feltes wants that to happen by 2050 and Volinsky had 2030 as his net zero goal.

Their biggest difference, though, is really on natural gas. So Dan Feltes has supported Liberty Utilities’ efforts to expand gas service in the state – that was initially with the Granite Bridge pipeline, which Feltes and most of the state Senate endorsed when it was first proposed. And now Liberty is not going to build that pipeline, but instead says that they want to sign a new 20-year contract to bring natural gas to new customers over some existing infrastructure. And Feltes is supporting that, too. He’s said that for him, this is about helping low-Income ratepayers get off of even dirtier, more expensive fuels like heating oil, and that doing this now will sort of aid in a longer-term transition away from fossil fuels.

And this has really been almost the sole focus of the Volinsky campaign on this issue. Volinsky built his run on opposing Granite Bridge, and he has kept hammering Feltes on his continued support for Liberty's gas efforts, even in the project's new form. Volinsky is in this camp of – immediately end all fossil fuel use, focus state programs on supporting that transition as quickly as possible. No incrementalism, no new infrastructure, and no new contracts, the likes of which Feltes is backing.

This story is part of By Degrees, NHPR's climate change reporting project. Click here to see more and share your ideas and questions for future stories.

Peter Biello: And how does this seem to be affecting supporters of the two – climate activists in particular?

Annie Ropeik: So this basically represents kind of two ends of the Democratic spectrum on this issue. You know, the question of whether natural gas is a bridge fuel is really a stand-in question for, how quickly, how radically and aggressively do you want to move on climate change? Do you want to try to do this in sort of the normal course of governing – as quickly as possible, but without causing sort of major disruption and radical change necessarily to people's lives, to businesses, to industries? Or do you want to, you know, go a step above that and do things the likes of which the Green New Deal calls for that really are quite a bit more aggressive.

And so it's a similar dynamic to what we saw between, say, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in the presidential primary. And similar to sort of the spectrum we've seen Joe Biden work with on his own climate platform, which has some input from groups like the Sunrise Movement, but also has some of these more moderate viewpoints that Senator Feltes is espousing. So we really have a candidate in Volinsky who is much further left on this issue, a candidate in Feltes who is a little bit more mainstream Democrat on this issue.

But, you know, as we've said, they really do agree on most aspects of this issue besides gas. And activists that I've talked to say Feltes doubling down on Granite Bridge and on Liberty's gas efforts the way that he has has given them a really unprecedented opportunity in this state to debate natural gas, which is where we get most of our electricity. And so regardless of what happens in the primary, they say they've been excited about the ability to even have that conversation at all.

Peter Biello: Governor Sununu is running for a third term. What's his record on these issues?

Annie Ropeik: So Sununu has softened from the sort of climate skepticism that he espoused a few years ago. He now acknowledges the science that says humans are causing this problem, that it is, you know, an existential threat to aspects of life in New Hampshire. But Sununu says his priority on this is always costs, short- or long-term, when it comes especially to energy.

So he has called support for the solar industry in bills that Senator Feltes has championed “crony capitalism,” even though we know that fossil fuels receive billions in subsidies in the same way that people like Feltes are proposing for the solar industry. The governor often claims, sometimes without clear evidence, that adopting renewable energy policies would raise rates for low-income people, for businesses, who often support him on this issue. And he has vetoed many bills on things like expanded energy efficiency funding and more ambitious emissions0-cutting goals. So you often hear the Feltes campaign say that they see Sununu as the single biggest obstacle to climate change progress in the state.

There is one notable exception here, which is that the governor does support offshore wind development. So they all agree that there is a huge opportunity for job creation, for renewable energy creation through offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine. And Sununu has worked across the aisle with Democrats, including State Senator David Waters, who supports Dan Feltes, on trying to make offshore wind happen in New Hampshire. But, of course, that is many, many years off.

New Hampshire's primary takes place on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Click here for our voting guide and all of our coverage of the candidates.

What has your voting experience been like during COVID-19? Do you have questions about casting a ballot that we didn't address here? Let us know at elections@nhpr.org. Your feedback will help us better cover the elections from a variety of perspectives.

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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