Hawaii, California lead fight for renewable energy

A sugar factory , Puunene, Maui, Hawaii. (Photo: Mike Brake)

Prodded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and led by California and Hawaii, states are tackling climate change and promoting renewable energy. But the fossil fuel industry and skeptical Republicans are pushing back.

Hawaii last month became the first state to establish a goal of relying 100 percent on renewable energy, setting 2045 as the year to reach this ambitious target. Meanwhile, legislation moved forward in California that would significantly expand its pioneering efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change. The Golden State has an economy larger than all but six nations in the world, and almost anything it does has the potential of having global impact.

In several states momentum toward greater use of renewables has been stopped or slowed by the opposition of power companies and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)

“The eyes of the world are on California,” asserts State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D). He is the author of a bill [SB 350] that would require the state to generate 50 percent of electricity from renewable sources such as solar and wind power, halve the amount of petroleum used by vehicles and double energy efficiency of buildings by 2030. The bill is part of an environmental package making its way through California’s Democratic-controlled legislature over Republican opposition. Gov. Jerry Brown (D), outspoken on climate change, is likely to sign these measures if they reach his desk.

Six other states – Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington – have mandated reductions in fossil fuels to meet climate-change goals. Twenty-nine states have laws designed to increase renewable energy usage. Vermont’s is notable: it requires that 55 percent of a utility’s electricity come from renewables, including large-scale hydro power, by 2017. The target increases to 75 percent by 2032.

Presently, fossil fuels supply 85 percent of the nation’s energy. In several states momentum toward greater use of renewables has been stopped or slowed by the opposition of power companies and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) a corporate-funded policy group that provides like-minded legislators with “model bills” favoring fossil fuels.

Last February the Republican-controlled legislature in West Virginia repealed a mandate requiring that 25 percent of its energy be obtained from renewable or alternative sources such as natural gas by 2025. Last month Kansas made its previous mandate for 20 percent use of renewables by 2020 a voluntary goal. In 2014 Ohio froze its renewable energy targets while Florida cut its energy-efficiency goals by more than 90 percent.

In today’s politicized environment, global warming is a partisan issue.

But all states may become involved in the climate change battle when a pending EPA regulation is issued, said Glen Andersen, director of energy programs for the National Conference of State Legislatures. The regulation, known as the Clear Power Plan, is President Obama’s proposal to assign each state a level to which it must reduce carbon emissions from electric power plants, a culprit in global warming. The plan could become a burden for states that rely on coal-fired power plants. Twenty-six states obtain most of their energy from coal, with the highest users being Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.

The Clean Power Plan is the major element of Obama’s effort to make a difference on climate change through executive action. Republican congressional leaders charge he is exceeding his constitutional authority and infringing on legislative powers. In February, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) sent letters to all state governors urging them to refuse to carry out the EPA rule when it is implemented in August. While most states have ignored McConnell, five Republican governors have said they may honor his request. They are presidential aspirants Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana plus three governors from heavy coal-using states: Greg Abbott of Texas, Mike Pence of Indiana and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow each state to decide if it wants to abide by the regulation. It faces an Obama veto if it clears the Senate.

Obama maintains that he has broad authority to act under the Clean Air Act, a comprehensive federal law regulating air emissions and authorizing the EPA to establish national standards to protect public health. Put forward in 1963 by President Lyndon Johnson, it passed by bipartisan vote. In 1970, Congress approved President Richard Nixon’s proposal creating the EPA. The Clean Air Act was strengthened and the EPA given most of the powers it possesses today. Congress approved the changes with only a single dissenting vote.

That was then. In today’s politicized environment, global warming is a partisan issue. Dealing with climate change is a priority for Obama and many Democratic governors and legislators, especially on the coasts. Republican attitudes range from ambivalence to hostility; many question the scientific consensus that global warming is a growing peril.

Gallup’s annual Environment Survey highlights the partisan division. It shows that 52 percent of voters who lean Democratic consider global warming and climate change a major problem; only 13 percent of Republican-leaning voters agree. A Pew Research survey found that nearly two-thirds of voters believe the planet is getting warmer, but neither the Pew nor the Gallup respondents assigned much urgency to corrective action. These findings suggest that Congress has little to fear in the way of voter retaliation for its resistance to climate-change legislation.

Later, California became a national pacesetter on greenhouse gas emissions, a role it’s now expanding.

The impasse between a chief executive who favors action on climate change and a resistant Congress could continue beyond the Obama presidency. Helped by favorable 20ll redistrictings, Republicans appear to be in position to control the House of Representatives into the next decade. In this context, state actions matter. When the federal government – including President Obama – was opposed to same-sex marriage, state actions made such unions legal and paved the way for the historic ruling last month by the Supreme Court declaring marriage equality a constitutional right.

Even small states can set an example, and Hawaii’s establishment of a 100 percent renewable energy goal could have “aspirational” value for other states, said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. For Hawaii itself, developing renewable energy is practical economics. The oil-dependent Aloha State has solar, wind, wave and geothermal resources but lacks fossil fuels. In signing the bill, Gov. David Ige (D) said Hawaii spends about $5 billion annually on foreign oil. “Making the transition to renewable, indigenous resources for power generation will allow us to keep more of that money at home, thereby improving our economy, environment and energy security,” he said.

But it is the pending California legislation that could have the greatest impact on other states – and perhaps other countries as well. California has long been a trend-setter on environmental issues. In 1974, legislation authored by a conservative Republican assemblyman and supported by Gov. Ronald Reagan gave the California Air Resources Board power to prohibit sale or registration of vehicles that failed to meet the state’s strict standards on emissions control. The U.S. auto industry, which had opposed the bill, capitulated and made all its cars meet the California standards.

Later, California became a national pacesetter on greenhouse gas emissions, a role it’s now expanding. In April, Gov. Brown issued an executive order calling for reduction of pollutants in California to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2040 and to 80 percent below these levels by 2050, matching the standards of the European Community.

How important are such actions? Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said at the Aspen Ideas Festival, that state measures and Obama’s Clean Power Plan initiative had broken a stalemate with China, which suffers ominously from air pollution. Last November Obama reached an agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping in which the United States promised to cut carbon emissions by one-fourth through 2025 and China pledged to reach peak emissions by 2035.

These are at best starting points, but they could be useful. Air pollution does not respect state boundaries, and climate change is a global phenomenon. As important as California’s actions are, says Sen. de Leon, they will not make a significant dent in global warming unless other states, the federal government, and the international community also take action.

Vicki Arroyo believes a tipping point could be near. She points out that polls show younger people are more concerned about global warming than their elders – and more convinced that something can be done. Public opinion changed rapidly in defiance of conventional wisdom on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to removal of the Confederate flag, Arroyo observes. Many ational leaders and Pope Francis have warned of looming climate catastrophes unless something is done about global warming. Is climate change an issue whose time has come?

Ed’s Note: Author Lou Cannon, the definitive biographer of Ronald Reagan, covered California politics for many years for the Washington Post and served as an editorial adviser to the California Journal magazine. He writes for State Net’s Capitol Journal, where this story originally appeared.


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