Editor’s note: Today we’re taking a look at the environmental records of the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor. Voters will choose between Neil Abercrombie and Mufi Hannemann in Sept. 18’s primary election. Their past work on energy and the environment point us toward an understanding of how they would manage Hawaii’s natural resources as the state’s leader. Here’s the link to the related article about Hannemann.

Neil Abercrombie

When it comes to evaluating the record of a legislator, one metric is best: votes.

Unlike executives — who can in many ways be held personally responsible, fairly or unfairly, for the on-the-ground realities in whichever jurisdiction they manage — legislators are responsible only for the bills they introduce and champion and for the votes they cast.

Neil Abercrombie spent two decades in Congress as one voice out of 435 and can hardly be expected to answer for American environmental policy as a whole.

But he did take some high-profile positions and did cast hundreds of votes on important measures related to energy and nature, giving environmental groups and voters concerned with environmental issues alike ample opportunity to evaluate his green creds.

Abercrombie for many years has been considered a friend to the environment, earning high marks on the League of Conservation Voters annual scorecard since he took office — with a few exceptions. Let’s take a look — through an environmental lens — at some of his important votes in Congress, including those relating to offshore drilling, endangered species and logging in Alaska.

Offshore Drilling a “Rough Spot”

In 2008, Abercrombie was among 141 co-sponsors of a bipartisan bill, titled the “National Conservation, Environment and Energy Independence Act,” that would have allowed offshore drilling on the outer continental shelf for the first time in decades. Some of the royalties collected were to be used for environmental conservation and restoration and clean and renewable energy research and development, but many environmentalists criticized the proposal.

Civil Beat previously fact-checked Abercrombie’s claim that his bill would have helped prevent the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, made when he was pressed by Hannemann on offshore drilling at a debate in August.

Abercrombie eventually withdrew his support in favor of a more liberal “compromise” measure, but the political damage was done. Republicans accused him (and others) of flip-flopping, and Hannemann’s gubernatorial campaign this year highlighted some of Abercrombie’s more forceful statements in favor of his original bill — for example, calling opponents “environmental Taliban.”

TheRealNeil.org, a Hannemann campaign website, also pointed out that Abercrombie took more campaign money from oil companies in 2007 and 2008 than he had previously.

But the 2008 bill was hardly Abercrombie’s first action related to drilling.

Source: Flickr: mikebaird

In 2005, Abercrombie was one of 41 Democrats to vote in favor of a Republican energy bill that, in its initial form, was criticized for opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling and using only 5 percent of its $8 billion in tax breaks to promote efficiency and clean energy. It passed the House, 249-183.

“Neil has always opposed drilling in Alaska and has never voted to support it,” campaign spokeswoman Laurie Au wrote in an e-mail to Civil Beat when asked about the vote. “Although the initial version … contained a provision for drilling in Alaska, Neil voted for an amendment to repeal that. The final version of the bill that Neil supported did not include this provision.”

Indeed, after conference with the Senate, the bill no longer had the ANWR provision. But it “still weakened key protections for oil and gas drilling, added billions in new subsidies for coal, oil and nuclear power, and stripped states and local governments of their authority over liquefied natural gas terminal siting,” the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) said in its 2005 scorecard [pdf]. With Abercrombie voting aye, the bill passed, 275-156, and was signed into law.

“Neil supported this bill despite some of the provisions he disagreed with because overall it promoted a cleaner environment with innovations on alternative power sources, provided incentives for renewable energies and expanded the Energy Star program,” Au said. “Also, at that time, the bill looked like a promising way to help Hawaii’s remaining sugar producers while also developing biofuels in Hawaii.”

The conservation league also criticized Abercrombie’s vote on another 2005 measure: a proposed amendment to the House Interior Appropriations bill that would have lifted the moratorium on natural gas drilling. Abercrombie was among 157 aye votes and one of only 27 Democrats who were in favor of the failed amendment.

Abercrombie earned condemnation from the league for drilling-related votes in 2006 [pdf] and 2007 [pdf], though he escaped a rap on the knuckles by reversing course in 2008 [pdf] as described above.

“Offshore drilling is an important issue and it’s one that we disagree with Rep. Abercrombie,” Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, told Civil Beat last month in explaining the club’s endorsement of Abercrombie. “That being said, it’s an important issue on the federal level. We don’t see it as being particularly relevant for a candidate for state governor.

“There isn’t going to be any offshore drilling in Hawaii, so the capacity of a governor to do anything on this is relatively miniscule.”

Blue Planet Foundation Executive Director Jeff Mikulina said Abercrombie hit a “rough spot” on offshore drilling, but expressed sentiments similar to Harris’.

“I think people focus on that, but he had a long career of supporting clean energy,” Mikulina said.

Blue Planet Foundation is a non-profit 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization and as such is barred by federal law from making endorsements or entering the political fray. However, Mikulina personally donated $400 to Abercrombie’s gubernatorial campaign, disclosure filings show, and two other Blue Planet Foundation employees chipped in a total of $1,280 during the most recent reporting period. Mikulina also made two brief (and uncredited) appearances in an Abercrombie YouTube video.

Abercrombie touts his record on energy on his campaign’s website. He specifically points to the Residential Communities Initiative for military families that was part of the 1996 National Defense Authorization Act and has helped Schofield Barracks and other Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps facilities capitalize on energy efficient technologies like solar water heating and photovoltaic systems.

His campaign says he helped secure funding for “a photovoltaic park at Pearl Harbor, an Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion project off Oahu, which uses the different water temperatures at various depths to generate energy, a hydrogen fuel cell demonstration for outdoor lighting at Pearl Harbor and a wave buoy off Kaneohe that actually converts the kinetic energy of ocean waves into electric power.”

Looking at Abercrombie’s work both advancing oil drilling bills and promoting clean energy technologies, it’s clear that Abercrombie takes energy independence seriously, even when that puts him at odds with environmentalists who can usually be described as allies.

Protecting Endangered Species

Abercrombie boasts on his campaign website about the steps he’s taken to preserve animal habitats and otherwise protect species.

Abercrombie and the late Patsy Mink introduced legislation in 1992 to create the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, his site says. He worked on legislation to expand Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park on the Big Island another measure to expand the James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge on the North Shore of Oahu, the site says.

In 2008, Abercrombie introduced the National Marine Mammal Research Program Act to better understand animals like the Hawaiian Monk Seal, and in 2009 cosponsored the Shark Conservation Act that would have made it illegal to remove a shark’s fin in U.S. waters.

Source: Flickr: randystoreyphotography

But Abercrombie’s record on protecting animals is not without blemishes.

In September 2005, California Republican Richard Pombo introduced a bill titled the “Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act of 2005” that the league categorized as an “assault” on the Endangered Species Act.

Had it become law, it would have repealed the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to designate critical habitats, would have exempted otherwise legal pesticides from provisions of the Endangered Species Act and would have replaced the term “best available scientific data” with “best scientific and commercial data,” a summary of the bill shows.

“Neil has always supported the Endangered Species Act and still does,” Au said. “As Congressman, Neil supported the highest levels of funding possible for the federal government to carry out the requirements of the program. However, Neil felt that the Endangered Species Act was no longer functioning as it was meant to.

“For example, designating areas as a ‘critical habitat’ was only made when a lawsuit was filed against the Department of Interior for not following the Act. There was not enough staff and funding to do more than that. Neil wanted and attempted to change that in order to preserve the original intent of the Endangered Species Act,” Au wrote.

With Abercrombie and 35 other Democrats in support, the bill passed the House, 229-193. It died in the Senate, but the league still marked down Abercrombie for his vote. He received negative marks for six of the 18 important environmental votes in 2005, according to the league scorecard, and earned his lowest-ever mark of 67.

Over his 19 years in Congress, Abercrombie averaged 82.7 out of 100 on the league’s annual scorecard. He scored a perfect 100 in the 2009 scorecard [pdf] — the year the House passed Cap and Trade.

He came in below 75 just three times — all of them since 2004. The common thread between some of his lowest scores is one issue: logging.

Logging in Alaska’s Tongass Forest

The largest unit in the national forest system, Tongass National Forest covers nearly 17 million acres in Southeast Alaska. About 400,000 acres of old-growth trees have been harvested in the past century, the government says.

Source: Flickr: Tongass National Forest

In its legislative scorecards issued for 2004 [pdf], 2006 and 2007, the League of Conservation Voters made protections for the forest from loggers among its important votes.

In each of those three years, an amendment was introduced during deliberations of the bill appropriating funding for the Department of the Interior. The amendment, if adopted in the final acts, would have prohibited the use of federal funds to subsidize the building of commercial logging roads. The amendment passed three times — 222-205 in 2004, 237-181 in 2006 and 283-145 in 2007.

Abercrombie was among a handful of Democrats to join with Republicans in voting against the amendment three times.

“One of Neil’s allies in the House was Rep. Don Young, of Alaska, who supported federal subsidies for roads for logging in the Tongass National Forest,” Au said. “Neil knew that this issue was important to the people of Alaska, similar to how many members of Congress supported the ‘Akaka bill’ knowing that it was of local importance to people in Hawaii.

“Hawaii’s congressional delegation always collaborated and worked closely with Alaska’s congressional delegation because of their similarities of representing small, non-contiguous states with unique needs,” she said.

The lesson from Abercrombie’s environmental record is that while he’s certainly left-leaning, Abercrombie is not a “lockstep liberal” or environmental zealot. His independent positions — some of which he justifies by saying they were made to help Hawaii — have forced him to break with the national environmental community on a number of occasions.

Whether that practical attitude serves Abercrombie well as governor or helps him in the Democratic primary remains to be seen.

DISCUSSION Which of the Democratic hopefuls for governor has proven to be the best friend to the environment? Join the conversation.

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