Five energy contests to watch on Election Day

Voters heading to polling booths nationwide today aren’t just determining the fate of would-be lawmakers. They’re also dictating the future of energy policy in states and on Capitol Hill.

Here’s our list of the top five races and issues to watch as election returns stream in tonight.

1) California Senate race:

As chairwoman of the powerful Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has aggressively pushed legislation to combat global warming, thrown her support behind federal incentives for clean energy and shined a spotlight on toxic pollution, chemical safety and water pollution. Environmental advocates have long viewed her as an important ally in the Senate.

Boxer is in the fight of her political life against Republican Carly Fiorina. If Fiorina ousts Boxer today, that would put the more moderate Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., in line to head the environment committee if Democrats retain control of the Senate.

2) Alaska Senate race:

As the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has been an unabashed advocate of the oil and gas industry that fuels her home state. But Murkowski also has won points with environmental advocates by supporting renewable power policies, being open to limits on greenhouse gas emissions and collaborating with the panel’s Democratic chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, on major energy legislation last year.

Murkowski is now in a three-way race for re-election, running as a write-in candidate against Democrat Scott McAdams and Republican Joe Miller, who defeated Murkowski in the GOP primary earlier this year.

3) The fate of cap-and-trade supporters:

In June 2009, Democratic leaders in the House eked out a victory on climate change legislation, with a 219-214 vote to pass a bill that would set nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The vote was a tough one for many Democratic lawmakers, especially those from conservative districts or areas heavily dependent on coal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., convinced some wary Democrats to vote “aye” despite the potential political costs, in hopes that the Senate would follow suit and pass its own cap-and-trade bill soon after. That never happened. Now lawmakers have been battered on the campaign trail for their support of the legislation — and a big question is how many of them will lose their re-election bids.

The subject has emerged as a major challenge for Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, who is running for re-election in Virginia against Republican Robert Hurt. Perriello has become famous for declaring that his vote in support of the cap-and-trade bill was the right thing to do, even if it cost him his seat in the House.

4) Greenhouse gas limits in California:

Texas-based refiners Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., are going up against California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a battle over the state law slashing greenhouse gas emissions. The oil companies have spent millions building support for Proposition 23, which would halt the emissions reduction requirements until California’s unemployment level hits 5.5 percent or lower — and stays there for at least a year.

The contest has been viewed as a test of voters’ support for anti-global-warming initiatives that could mean higher energy and gas bills. The vote on Prop 23 also could be an important signal about whether other states will be able to cut carbon dioxide emissions even if Congress never acts on the issue.

5) A red tide hitting Washington:

Republicans need to win 39 seats in the House to take control of the chamber they lost four years ago — an outcome that most political pundits are betting on today. But in the Senate, analysts generally predict Republicans won’t be able to pick up all 10 seats they would need to take control.

A Republican House takeover would mean major changes on the handling of energy and environmental policies, with the GOP shutting the door on Democratic proposals to impose nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions and clamp down on offshore drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. In their place: the Republicans’ “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy, which blends oil and gas drilling with incentives for nuclear energy and proposals to give a boost to some clean energy.

GOP gains in the Senate also likely would mean the end of sweeping energy legislation in favor of smaller, piecemeal bills that deal with renewable and nuclear power.