Tuesday’s environmental impact

From an environmental standpoint, it’s hard to figure out whether to celebrate or mourn the results of Tuesday’s election. The failure of Proposition 23, which would have suspended California’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, sends a powerful message that tough economic times haven’t blinded Golden State voters to the urgent threat posed by climate change. But much of the rest of the country proved less farsighted.

The Republican takeover of the House puts an end to hopes for a federal climate bill or clean-energy legislation; a party traditionally hostile to environmental regulation appears to have shifted even further to the right on energy issues, essentially turning itself into a lawmaking arm of Big Oil. Environmental lobbyists in Washington expect to spend the next two years playing defense — rather than pushing for positive action, they’ll be trying to prevent the GOP from rolling back the progress already being made.

For example, a key goal of Republican lawmakers for the next session is to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate greenhouse gases. Such an irresponsible rejection of U.S. law (the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act) and science (the EPA concluded in 2009 that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and welfare, based on overwhelming scientific evidence) couldn’t overcome a veto from President Obama. But Republicans could attach such a bill as a rider to crucial spending legislation, and a few Democrats from coal states would help them pass it.


Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad. Congress may be stuck somewhere in the Victorian era when it comes to attitudes on fossil fuels, but the Obama administration and many states are not. Presuming it isn’t hobbled by Congress, the EPA is poised to start regulating major stationary greenhouse gas polluters next year, predominantly coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and cement producers.

More far-reaching action is coming at the state level. Not only does the failure of Proposition 23 mean that California can proceed with reducing its greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020, but the state is gearing up to join with seven other Western states and two Canadian provinces in a cap-and-trade program starting in 2012. Another cap-and-trade program restricted to power plants is already up and running in 10 Northeastern states, and nine Midwestern states are studying a similar scheme.

The economic and political climate might cause some states to drop plans to join these programs, but no matter. By demonstrating that carbon-pricing schemes don’t cause the economic harm that conservatives like to claim they will, California and a handful of others will beat a path clear enough for even the likes of Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., to follow.