12/06/2013 10:25 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

All Politics is Local...but so is Energy Development

Voters in three Colorado cities passed anti-fracking measures last month. This week the Colorado Oil and Gas Association announced it would sue two of those communities over their bans. Meanwhile, several state legislatures will turn to fracking bills when they return to session in the new year.

Industry executives and grassroots fractivists will be following these developments, but there is another group of people who should pay close attention: candidates running in mid-term elections.

America is in the midst of an energy boom. U.S. oil production has risen 48 percent since 2008 to the highest level in two decades. Clean power has spiked too. Wind energy quintupled in the last decade, and accounted for 35 percent of all new power generation capacity built in the U.S. in the past four years.

In the past, most energy development took place in lonely outposts and dusty plains. Today it is occurring on people's property, in school yards, and in beloved community parks. One in 20 Americans now lives within a mile of a fracking operation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This changing landscape has major implications for elections: if all politics are local, energy development just got local too.

Voters may not be terribly focused on America's fossil fuel policy or how we are going to fight climate change, but when a fracking operation shows up in their subdivision and starts behaving badly, people engage with state agencies and elected officials in ways they never have before. They start to care passionately, and they take that passion into the voting booth.

That's what has happened in Colorado. Dorsey Johnson was content living in her home north of Denver until a towering frack pad showed up nearby, bringing truck traffic, industrial noise, and flares with it.

Rod Brueske says that after an oil and gas company installed a five wells across the road from his farm in Longmont his family experienced headaches, sore throats, and persistent nosebleeds. One night he woke up and heard one of the wells hissing. State officials inspected the well and discovered it was leaking condensate and other toxic chemicals. The company hadn't installed parts of the well correctly, but like Brueske, residents often find that out the hard way.

"There are probably thousands of wells in Colorado just like this that are out of compliance because our state only has very few inspectors," Brueske said. He may not have thought much about inspector/well ratios or inadequate oversight before, but now he might expect his elected officials to have something to say about it.

That goes for Republicans as well as Democrats, because party affiliation doesn't protect you from the hazards of living next door to reckless fossil fuel companies. In the deep red region of Appalachia, for instance, the Tennessee Conservative Union is joining with local environmental groups to protest mountaintop removal coal mining. This collaboration is part of what Politico recently called an emerging Green Tea movement, in which Tea Party members join forces with environmentalists. The focus of most of their work together turns out to be energy.

Candidates running for office in 2014 can expect to see more strange energy bedfellows, more energy-related campaign ads, and more pressure to take a stand on local energy debates. These issues can be tricky to navigate. But research done by the NRDC Action Fund confirms that when it comes to energy issues, voters consistently prefer candidates who champion clean energy and stronger safeguards against dirty fuels. Just look at 2012. Up and down the ticket, voters overwhelmingly favored candidates who support building a cleaner, safer, energy future.

Right now, voters are focused on what that future looks like in their own communities. In Georgia, conservative and liberal groups alike want to expand solar power in their state. In Arizona, Representative Barry Goldwater Jr. is working leading a coalition aimed at removing hurdles for business and residents who want to install rooftop solar panels. Local efforts like these will likely play a role in midterm elections, and voters will reward candidates who promote clean energy in our communities.