Less than two days after Donald Trump was elected to be president, California Governor Jerry Brown issued a short statement:

Changes coming in 2017 graphic

“In California, we will do our part to find common ground whenever possible,” Brown said in part. “But as Californians, we will also stay true to our basic principles. We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time – devastating climate change.”

The message was clear: If a Trump Administration pursues policies hostile to lowering carbon emissions, California, with the sixth-largest economy in the world, will not waiver from its path to a low-carbon future. But how far can California and other states really go? And might an unfriendly federal government seek to undermine such efforts?

It’s still unknown just what specific steps a Trump Administration may take regarding climate change policy. An early omen was Trump’s choice to lead the transition at the EPA: Myron Ebell, a well-known climate-change science “skeptic” and director of the Center for Energy and the Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Then, on December 7, Trump announced his selection of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, no backer of the climate science consensus, to be EPA Administrator.

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And there are more hints: Trump has said he would reverse President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, cut back EPA regulations, and recommit the U.S. to developing fossil fuels. He’s also expressed skepticism over the viability of renewable energy. Pruitt, a lead litigator against the EPA Clean Power Plan, appears in sync with the President-elect on each of those issues.

“This is an unmitigated disaster for U.S. climate policy,” Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at the Carnegie Institution for Science, told Climate Central right after the election.

California’s ambitious plans

But all this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a disaster for individual states. California’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2006, and separate fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles have placed the Golden State on track to cut greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. On the strength of the state’s economic power, its actions on environmental issues historically have set the bar for other states. And entire industries, such as automobile manufacturers, have had to adapt to meet California standards and reach the state’s huge market.

Earlier this year, Brown signed into law a new mandate — the most aggressive in North America — to cut statewide emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. The California Air Resources Board on December 2 released a draft plan to achieve the new goal. The agency said the plan calls for “cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and zero-emission vehicles, low-carbon fuels, renewable energy, cap-and-trade regulations, waste diversion from landfills, water conservation and improvements to energy efficiency in homes and businesses.”

The draft plan says the cap-and-trade program can provide more certainty that the state will meet the new 2030 goal, even if other measures fall short. But the plan also presents two other alternative strategies: one includes more direct regulations, the other a carbon tax.

A federal wrinkle

A Trump Administration could throw some wrenches in California’s efforts, according to Ethan Elkind, a law professor at both the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley.

As Elkind wrote on the blog Legal Planet:

Yes, California’s climate program will continue, as a bright spot. But the state relies on the federal government in crucial ways to lessen the economic burdens to Californians of the transition to a clean economy. The immediate examples that come to mind are the federal tax credits and research on solar and wind energy, tax credits for electric vehicles and associated charging infrastructure, and general support for and research on energy storage technologies. Without that support, California’s climate policies will likely become more expensive and potentially politically unpopular.

In a December 5 story in the Los Angeles Times, journalist Evan Halper reported that the federal government could pull financial support for energy-progressive states like California. For example, Energy Department grants could dry up. One sign: Trump’s choice of former Koch Industries lobbyist Thomas Pyle to lead the transition at the Energy Department. “For years, Pyle has led a coordinated national assault on renewable power. … Now, in his role with the Trump transition, Pyle’s vision will shape the new direction of a federal agency that has been a crucial partner to California and like-minded states in their embrace of solar, wind and geothermal power,” Halper wrote.

It’s true that state programs that support renewable energy, in California and elsewhere, are much more mature and therefore more resilient to political changes in Washington. Some observers also suggest Trump may not quickly move to end federal tax incentives that support existing renewable-energy projects. However, incentives for new projects may disappear, making it more difficult for states to launch new large-scale projects.

According to the L.A. Times article:

The industrial-scale desert solar operations that power tens of thousands of California homes … were built with considerable financial backing from the Energy Department. The agency’s national laboratories in the West have been incubators for next-generation renewable-energy technologies. The department has taken a lead in encouraging other states to pursue California-style programs.

Bryan Miller, a lobbyist for green-energy firms, told Halper: “It is inevitable with the Koch brothers already showing they have so much influence in this administration, that it will do everything in its power to inhibit the growth of renewables.”

In 2017, the Energy Department will have about $40 billion in loan money at its disposal, Halper reported. With Pyle setting the stage for an Energy Department with new priorities, it’s not unreasonable to anticipate that a lot of that money won’t be going to new renewable-energy programs.

Action in other states

A Bloomberg BNA article offers a more optimistic view of how different parts of the U.S. are already moving their own initiatives forward.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York, told Bloomberg BNA that some states likely will continue to act on their own.

Another consideration: Back in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s attempts to upend Carter administration environmental initiatives prompted some states to chart their own course.

Now, 29 states have renewable-energy standards and every state offers some form of tax break or other incentive for renewable energy initiatives, Robert Lempert and Debra Knopman of the RAND Corporation wrote on November 24 at Fox News Opinion.

“New York is a leader in deploying technology and a new regulatory system to enable a more efficient, more resilient, and more renewable-friendly smart grid,” they wrote. Michigan, meanwhile, is aggressively pursuing energy efficiency and renewable-energy strategies.

“Federal law gives states significant leeway in these pursuits,” Lempert and Knopman wrote. “They should be allowed to keep going unimpeded, even if the federal government moves in a different direction.”

Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ‘will remain aggressive,’ says his energy czar. Photo credit: Pat Arnow.

In the Northeast, the nine states belonging to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are in the middle of a program review that will likely lower the greenhouse gas emissions cap for its cap-and-trade program, according to the Bloomberg BNA story. “The program has endured throughout Republican and Democratic administrations in both Washington and at the state level,” the story noted, quoting Christopher Recchia, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service: “I do expect the New England states will continue their energy planning.”

In New York, Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s energy czar, Richard Kauffman, said as much in a November 10 story in Politico New York.

The governor’s energy policy is based upon the needs of what’s going on in New York. It hasn’t been driven by Washington, D.C. … It’s not like we’ve had a coherent federal energy policy for some time. That’s one of the reasons why states have gone ahead. … So the governor will remain aggressive on combating climate change and we believe New York will continue to be a model for other states.

A failure for a carbon tax

Back out west, an interesting story has been playing out in Washington State. There, a ballot initiative to establish a carbon tax — the first in the country — failed at the polls. But that wasn’t necessarily because voters rejected the idea on principle. Liberal groups in the state lined up against Ballot Initiative 732 in part because of its “revenue-neutral” stance — that is, the burden of the carbon tax was to be offset by other tax cuts or tax benefits.

As former Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich and Heather McGhee, president of the public policy institute Demos, wrote in The Nation on December 1:

“The principle of revenue neutrality is deeply out of touch with the realities of both climate change and inequality. It essentially suggests that polluters don’t really need to pay for the carbon reductions, and that nothing else in the economic system really needs to change.”

It will be interesting to see if the effort to introduce a carbon tax is resurrected — in a different form — in Washington State in coming years.

Little movement in the South (other than in Virginia?)

In the South, where Trump won big in the election, little new concerted state action is expected on climate change. One exception, the Bloomberg BNA article noted, is Virginia, where Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe in June convened a working group to recommend ways to cut carbon pollution from the state’s power plants. But he’ll likely face resistance in the Republican-controlled legislature.

Florida remains politically hostile to action on climate change – despite dire concerns over sea-level rise in South Florida and Miami in coming decades. “Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott was a vocal ally of Trump during the presidential campaign, and the state eliminated programs such as a solar-panel tax rebate, automobile-emissions standards, and a governor’s Florida Energy and Climate Commission shortly after Scott was first elected in 2010,” Bloomberg BNA reported. (Voters this past November did reject a utility-sponsored solar energy initiative widely seen as an effort to slow down the growth of solar.)

In their opinion piece, Lempert and Knopman argued that states that choose to pursue climate initiatives should be given leeway.

“There is no credible policy purpose, or likely existing legal basis, to hinder states that choose to make different judgments about mitigation of climate change and their economic future by continuing to pursue their own climate policies,” they wrote.

“Curbing states’ rights to innovate on climate policies would move in the opposite direction and undermine an ongoing U.S. leadership opportunity. It would put many up-and-coming U.S. firms now at the forefront of technological innovation at a disadvantage in world markets. Leaving states free to forge a path toward a greener economy and well-paying jobs powered by innovation is consistent with a long American tradition,” they wrote.

Topics: Policy & Politics