State Looks to Lead Pollution Fight
As diplomats from 189 nations meet here this week to discuss the world’s response to global warming, California is unveiling a new set of initiatives to control greenhouse gases that would put it in the forefront of a burgeoning campaign by state and local officials to begin regulating the root causes of climate change.
California’s action plan -- which includes proposals to cap greenhouse gases and force industries to report emissions of carbon dioxide -- sharply contradicts the official position of the Bush administration, which has dispatched a delegation to Montreal to reiterate its message that the United States opposes all mandatory limits on heat-trapping gases because, the administration says, such limits would hamstring the economy.
“We can’t control what the national government is doing, but we can control what California is doing,” said Alan Lloyd, the state’s environmental protection secretary, who is leading a California delegation in Montreal. “We are big enough to effect change, and we are still looked upon as a leader on these issues due to our decades of work on air pollution.”
Indeed, the United Nations’ Montreal conference on climate change -- the largest gathering of its kind since most of the world’s nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases in 1997 -- is attracting state and local officials eager to share the message that some parts of the U.S. have begun to address global warming.
Among the state officials scheduled to attend the Montreal talks are Vermont Gov. James H. Douglas, Connecticut’s top environmental official, Gina McCarthy, and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has pledged to reduce his state’s emissions, plans to address the conference by videophone.
Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who has organized a grass-roots campaign to tackle global warming that has enlisted the mayors of more than 180 cities, including Los Angeles, plans to meet today with a coalition of international mayors.
He said the goal of his campaign is not just to place pressure on the federal government but to show U.S. politicians that global warming can be good politics. Opinion polls in many states, including California, have shown strong public support for action against global warming, Nickels said.
“Our ultimate goal is to make it impossible for the federal government to continue ignoring this issue,” Nickels said. “We want to show that it can be done without devastating impacts on our local economies ... and we want to show other politicians that this is safe.”
Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to slash California’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Schwarzenegger has yet to endorse the ideas that state officials have outlined to reach his target, however, making it uncertain whether the proposals set to be officially released Thursday will translate into real policies.
At the same time that Schwarzenegger was promising to lead the world’s fight against global warming at a U.N. event in San Francisco earlier this year, his top energy advisor was working on an equally ambitious proposal to build an electricity highway that would move coal-fired power from Wyoming to California.
Coal-burning power plants are the leading emitters of carbon dioxide, which is the most abundant greenhouse gas.
California already receives more than a fifth of its electricity from out-of-state coal-fired power plants in the West. The state’s demand for coal power has grown in the last decade despite a state law requiring investment in renewable energy, environmental groups said in a report released last week.
In response to criticism that the Schwarzenegger administration appeared to be contradicting itself, state officials have acknowledged that better coordination -- and stricter electricity-buying policies -- will be needed to achieve the governor’s goals.
The California Public Utilities Commission and Energy Commission have adopted policies that make it more difficult for in-state utilities to purchase new coal power, citing coal’s contribution to global warming. The policies have led to legal threats from officials and power plant operators in other Western states, who contend that California is violating constitutional provisions on interstate commerce.
Environmentalists said it remained to be seen whether California’s ambitious proposals -- which include a new fee on major greenhouse gas emitters to fund state global warming programs, and a renewed push to produce cleaner-burning ethanol as an alternative to gasoline -- would survive what is expected to be a fierce lobbying push by oil refiners and other affected industries.
A highly publicized plan by eight Northeastern states to set a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants was recently thrown into turmoil when Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised concerns about electricity costs and asked that the proposal be delayed.
The seven other states, which include New York and New Jersey, may move ahead without Massachusetts.
Nonetheless, environmentalists said they were encouraged by what they see as a sincere effort by Schwarzenegger administration officials to examine potential solutions.
“This is where Arnold starts to think about his legacy,” said V. John White, a veteran Sacramento air quality lobbyist. “There may be some people around him that will try to change his mind, and we know Exxon and the coal companies will try, but there are enough businesses supporting this that it will happen.”
Representatives of Calpine, a private power company that generates most of its electricity from natural gas, are in Montreal as part of the state’s delegation.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, who has provided seed capital for several of the state’s biggest technology companies, has also expressed support for the state proposal to enact a “cap and trade” system that would not only place a ceiling on emissions, but also allow businesses that cut more than their share of the gases to profit by selling “pollution credits” to businesses that do not cut emissions enough.
California’s proposals are part of a groundswell of global warming initiatives by state and city leaders nationwide, who are promising to boost clean energy sources and cut greenhouse gases in response to what they see as a failure to act by officials in Washington.
Although the Bush administration contends that setting a ceiling on greenhouse gases would damage the economy, some states disagree, arguing that taking early action to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and conserve energy will save money.
To hammer home the point, California and the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo released a study this week showing that their clean-energy programs over the last two decades, which had the unintended effect of reducing greenhouse gases, have helped to improve their economies.
“In the absence of any congressional leadership and action by the Bush administration, we have decided to set climate change goals on our own,” said New Mexico Gov. Richardson in an interview with The Times last week.
Their stands sharply differ from the position of President Bush, who rejected the Kyoto Protocol, the current international treaty to combat climate change. Bush’s delegation is telling other nations that the U.S., the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, does not want to negotiate a new global warming treaty.
The Kyoto Protocol requires developed nations to reduce greenhouse gases by roughly 5% below 1990 levels. The United States and Australia are the only large developed nations that have not ratified the treaty. It expires in 2012, and most of the world’s nations this week are discussing whether to set a deadline of 2008, 2009 or 2010 for agreement on the treaty’s successor.
“Our position has been consistent now for some time: We do not support a new negotiation,” said James L. Connaughton, the president’s senior environmental advisor, in a recent interview. “We are pursuing a broad domestic strategy and an even broader multinational strategy of trying to advance technologies while improving air quality and strengthening our economy.”