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Election day 2013: Fossil fuels take hits from Virginia to Washington State

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(Read caption) Virginia Democratic Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe waves while shaking hands with supporters during his election victory party in Tysons Corner, Va., Wednesday. Mr. McAuliffe defeated pro-coal Ken Cuccinelli on election day 2013.

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Tuesday wasn't a great day for hydrocarbons. 

From Virginia to Colorado to Washington, voters on election day 2013 threw their weight behind politicians and policies that in one form or another limit the use of coal, oil, or natural gas.

Energy from fossil fuels isn't likely to disappear anytime soon, and supporters of the carbon-heavy fuels say curbs on emissions threaten to stymie economic growth. But election day 2013 served as a sort of referendum on Americans' attitude toward the country's changing energy mix, with bans on fracking, coal exports, and tar sands up on the ballot in a handful of states. In most cases, the results did not favor the status quo of US energy.

Environmental groups see election day 2013 as a microcosm of a broader public trend toward favoring clean energy as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change. In particular, they point to the defeat of pro-coal Ken Cuccinelli by pro-regulation Terry McAuliffe in the race for governor of Virginia, a state that has long profited from the region's coal industry.   

"This victory in Virginia is round one," Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, an environmental group that contributed to Mr. McAuliffe's campaign, said in a statement late Tuesday. "Those running for office now must choose whether they stand with solutions or whether they stand in the way. The climate crisis won’t wait, and neither will we.”

Voters in three Colorado cities choose to limit or outright ban the use of hydraulic fracturing in their communities. Boulder and Fort Collins placed five-year bans on the advanced drilling technique used to wring oil and gas from stubborn shale rock formations. Lafayette went one step further, banning any new oil and gas wells in town. A push to place a five-year moratorium in Broomfield, Colo., was narrowly defeated.

While the four cities don't produce a statistically significant amount of the nation's oil and gas, they do sit in the heart of the Niobrara shale, one of the six regions that account for 90 percent of the country's growth in oil and gas production. Other states in the region have been watching the referendums as a barometer of public sentiment over a drilling technology that pumps a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to unlock oil and gas. Ninety-five percent of all oil and gas wells in Colorado have been hydraulically fractured.

“We never believe a ban is necessary,” Doug Flanders, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, an industry trade group, told The Denver Business Journal Tuesday, before the polls closed. “Our experience with people all across Colorado is that we take responsibility for our energy use. Banning a product we all use every day is damaging to the Colorado brand of compromise and reasonableness."

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In Washington state's Whatcom County, voters backed four Democratic county council candidates who are likely to vote against plans for a $600 million coal export terminal in the region. The terminal would ship as much as 48 million tons of coal a year to China and help establish the state as a major coal exporter. Environmental groups and coal companies had injected tens of thousands of dollars in the campaigns. Environmentalists viewed the results in Washington as a win.  

“It’s a signal: Nationally, the coal industry is in a death spiral, and cannot find buyers for its product,” Eric de Place of the Sightline Institute, an environmental policy nonprofit based in Seattle, told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “They cannot even buy an election right now.  They’re grasping at straws.”

The news wasn't all bad for oil and gas. South Portland, Me., voted 51 percent to 49 percent against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which would have banned crude oil from tar sands from flowing into the city's import terminals. Voters in Youngstown, Ohio, voted down a fracking ban on election day, for the second time this year. 

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