States Outdo Federal Government in Combating Global Warming

 

In the absence of a federal policy to combat global warming, at least 39 states are actively pioneering strategies to reduce greenhouse gases. The state of Washington has taken the boldest action by adopting the nation's toughest carbon dioxide reductions for new power plants.

Regulations recently signed into law by Washington Gov. Gary Locke will require new power plants that burn fossil fuels to offset 20 percent of their carbon dioxide emissions, whose buildup in the atmosphere leads to global warming. Utilities can mitigate a new plant's emissions by investing in projects such as planting trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, or converting transit buses from diesel to clean-burning natural gas.

Washington is the first state to build on a program pioneered by Oregon in 1996 that requires new power plants to offset emissions by funding climate-change projects worldwide. California is considering a similar crackdown on coal- and oil-fired plants under a West Coast global warming pact among the three governors.

Locke said the West Coast pact, which originally included California Gov. Gray Davis (D) and since has been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), is meant to counter the inaction of the Bush administration, which has rejected pollution limits to curb global warming. Locke's new regulations are the latest in a series of efforts by states to address the risks of climate change and add pressure for federal action, climate experts say.

"Governor Locke's leadership on this issue is part of a growing national groundswell," said K.C. Golden, policy director for Climate Solutions, a Northwestern global warming public interest group. "Governors on both coasts, Democrats and Republicans, are moving forward to reduce the threat of climate disruption, reduce fossil-fuel dependence, and attract clean-energy jobs."

The Bush administration, which backed out of the international 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce heat-trapping gases, came under fire in December for citing state actions as evidence that America is not ignoring the threat of global warming. State officials strongly criticized the administration, arguing that a patchwork of state actions is an ineffective way to deal with a global problem and no substitute for a national plan.

Climate scientists warn that fossil-fuel power plants are the No. 1 source of carbon dioxide pollution, and they blame plants in the United States for producing 10 percent of the planet's carbon dioxide emissions.

Oregon's program requires new power plants to offset 17 percent of their emissions by paying into the Oregon Climate Trust, a nonprofit agency created by the state in 1997 that funds global warming mitigation projects worldwide. The Climate Trust is currently funding 11 projects expected to offset about 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide at a cost of $5 million.

Because new power plants already must install state-of-the-art technology to minimize pollution emissions, requiring utilities to help finance reductions of other carbon dioxide sources means total greenhouse gas emissions can be cut more than is technologically feasible, Climate Trust Executive Director Mike Burnett said.

"It isn't terribly burdensome" to electric utilities and consumers, Burnett said.

A one-time fee is easier for electric utilities than a complex cap-and-trade system, in which high-polluting power plants buy credits from more efficient plants, Burnett said.

New York Gov. George Pataki has invited neighboring states to participate in a regional cap-and-trade system to cut carbon dioxide gases from power plants in the Northeast. States planning to participate are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Independent power producers in Washington state have publicly endorsed the new rules, but the Association of Washington Business (AWB) lobbied against it, claiming the costs would be passed along to consumers and would burden business owners.

"We need to make sure that we're not putting our state at a competitive disadvantage with other states," Grant Nelson, AWB director of environmental policy, said.

The state Department of Ecology estimated that a business using one megawatt of power per year, with a $350,000 utility bill, might pay an extra $570 a year. The average homeowner would pay less than $1 more per year.

Washington's and Oregon's regulations target large power plants of 350 megawatts or more. A single megawatt powers 800 to 1,000 homes.

"This legislation is a winner both for the environment and businesses," Locke said of the last environmental legislation he will sign before he steps down this year after eight years as governor. "Having clear standards in place will decrease (carbon dioxide) emissions that lead to global warming, create more certainty for businesses, decrease rulemaking costs, and speed up permitting processes by as much as a year."

In addition to the West Coast pact, New England governors signed an agreement in 2001 to create a regional Climate Change Action Plan, which aims to reduce regional greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 and 10 percent more by 2020. Maine in 2003 became the first state to adopt the agreement as state law. New Hampshire and New Jersey have committed to cutting greenhouse gases to below-1990 levels by 2006, and Massachusetts hopes to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent from its six largest coal-burning power plants by 2008.

Other state actions include creating an inventory of total greenhouse gas emissions and a registry for large carbon dioxide emitters in 39 states. Fifteen states (Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin) have adopted programs that require utilities to produce increasing amounts of power using cleaner energy sources, such as wind and sun.

Twelve states (Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin) and three cities filed suit against the Bush administration last fall to try to force the federal government to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants.

Carbon dioxide emissions currently are not regulated by the federal government. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, while emissions of acid rain pollutants such nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide are decreasing thanks to a decade of regulation under the Clean Air Act, according to an April 14 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

 
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