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Magazine / Need to Know: Energy

A New Front

The battle for a national climate-change policy is over. The fight has moved to the states.

Money well spent: David Koch(Carrie Devorah / WENN)

photo of Coral Davenport
February 24, 2011

All weekend, the robo-calls came in. “There is a bill in the New Hampshire House to lower your electric bill. RGGI takes money from you and me and gives it to Big Business.… The bill is HB 519, the RGGI repeal. Press 1 to be connected to your representative.”

The calls were paid for by Americans for Prosperity, the national tea party group backed by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, the heads of Koch Industries. The bill would pull New Hampshire out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a pioneering 10-state cap-and-trade program once viewed as a model for a national climate-change law. The tea party campaign against it has gone well. The New Hampshire House passed HB 519 by 246-104 on Wednesday.

The lobbying effort was just one of many by tea party groups and fossil-fuel interests across the country aimed at rolling back states’ climate-change and clean-energy laws. Some of the campaigns are driven by national organizations; others are emerging from the mansions of new Republican governors who question climate science. All have the potential to reverse a decade of state-level efforts to confront climate change. Together, they further cloud the already dim prospects for a national climate law.

 

Over the past 10 years, as Congress failed time and again to enact a national climate-change policy, states took the lead. Twenty-six states passed clean-energy laws requiring utilities to generate more power from wind, solar, and other renewable sources. Twenty-two joined regional climate and cap-and-trade programs, such as New England’s RGGI, the seven-state Western Climate Initiative, and the six-state Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord. All of these were considered intermediate steps to a national policy. In the end, advocates hoped, the compacts would be linked together in a comprehensive regulatory system.

Last year’s failure by the Democratic-led Congress to pass a climate-change bill, followed by the infusion of tea party adherents and climate-science skeptics in the House, has killed prospects for action at the federal level for at least two years. The fight has become even fiercer as Republicans have attacked the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules limiting greenhouse-gas emissions and pushed the campaign against climate regulation toward the top of the 2012 political agenda. Now, tea party groups are opening a new front, aiming to kill the state laws once seen as the building blocks of a national policy.

 

Americans for Prosperity, backed by David Koch, campaigned in New Hampshire and won.

 

In New Mexico, new Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who won office with the help of the tea party, immediately attempted to block the state’s rules requiring curbs on greenhouse gases. The state Supreme Court overruled her, but Martinez, whose campaign was supported by the oil and coal industries, has suggested she will next try to withdraw New Mexico from the Western Climate Initiative, which is set to begin a carbon cap-and-trade program in 2012.

The Iowa and Minnesota legislatures, meanwhile, are considering withdrawing from the Midwestern states’ climate pact. In Maine, the new tea party-backed governor, Paul LePage, has unveiled plans to change about 20 clean-air, clean-water, and climate-change regulations. In Montana, the Republican-controlled House voted 67-33 this week in favor of blocking federal greenhouse-gas regulations in the state.

State legislators aren’t acting alone. Many are receiving guidance from national groups such as the conservative, free-market American Legislative Exchange Council, which is approaching lawmakers with ready-to-go proposals to attack climate regulations at every level.

“We’ve been very active in encouraging states to pull out of RGGI and the Western Climate Initiative,” said Clinton Woods, director of the council’s energy, environment, and agriculture task force. “When cap-and-trade seems like an inevitability, it could seem wise to get out ahead. But now that the national effort is dead, we’re talking with states about how staying involved could hurt them economically.”

In states without climate laws, the group is pushing legislators to introduce resolutions highlighting GOP efforts on the national level to fight EPA’s climate rules. It is distributing a 50-page booklet called “EPA’s Regulatory Train Wreck: Strategies for State Legislators”—essentially, a blueprint for introducing bills that would help Republicans in Washington and on the campaign trail. One such measure simply denounces EPA’s climate actions. Another would require state governments to report on the cost of enacting the federal climate rules. Bills modeled on the council’s language have been introduced in at least 13 state legislatures: Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Advocates of state climate-change laws are fighting back. Last fall, when the oil industry funded a ballot-initiative campaign to freeze California’s pioneering cap-and-trade program, clean-technology companies joined with billionaires such as Bill Gates to outspend the oil companies and save the law.

As the attacks on state climate laws gather force, environmental advocates say they may have to replicate the costly California campaign across the country. “There are a number of legislators at the state level who are interested in rolling things back. There are going to be a lot of fights on this,” said Judi Greenwald, vice president of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “The campaign against [the climate law] in California indicated that you can win—but it was a really big fight. It took a lot of energy and a lot of money.”

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