Saving the Planet Goes Local

Saving the Planet Goes Local

The Trump administration plans to decimate environmental safeguards—so blue states and cities are stepping up their efforts to arrest climate change.

April 21, 2017

This article appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Of all the Trump administration’s policies, the one most likely to cause damage that can’t be undone may not be deporting immigrants or throwing poor people off Medicaid or outsourcing our foreign policy to the Kremlin. Rather, it could well be a cessation of efforts to combat climate change. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is cumulative; even a later reversal of the Trump administration’s fossil fuel–friendly policies would not be able to undo the damage about to be done.

Even by the environmentally retrograde standards of his party, Donald Trump stands out as an extreme climate-science denier: Cold winter weather in New York prompts him to tweet that global warming has been proven a hoax. He hates wind farms (partly because they threaten the views from one of his Scottish golf resorts). On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to repeal President Obama’s pro-climate regulations and all other Obama-era limits on coal pollution, and to drop out of the Paris climate agreement.

To make good on his promises, he has named Scott Pruitt—who, as Oklahoma attorney general, repeatedly sued and attacked the Environmental Protection Agency, in accord with the wishes of his state’s oil and gas industry—to head the EPA. He appointed former Texas governor and noted fossil fuel enthusiast Rick Perry to run the Department of Energy, and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.

In the first weeks of his presidency, Trump issued a flurry of executive orders directing the EPA to eliminate even the most locally focused restrictions on fossil fuel extraction, such as a regulation preventing coal companies from dumping their detritus in streams. His planned undoing of the Clean Power Plan, which regulated carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, could arrest the decline of U.S. emissions. The White House also announced that it is going to reconsider the Obama administration’s “clean car” rules that set higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Whether it ultimately also revokes California’s waiver that allows it to set more rigorous fuel efficiency standards than the federal government remains to be seen.

But climate change policy isn’t set only at the federal level. States and cities can do a lot to reduce emissions. Energy utilities are mostly regulated at the state level, and progress on climate issues can happen—and has happened—at the state level, assuming a willing government. Only a limited number of state governments are currently willing, however: Today, there are only six states in which Democrats control both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, all of them small except California. Climate action is sufficiently popular in largely blue states, however, that even some without full Democratic control are still moving ahead in curbing emissions and transitioning to clean energy. The Republican governors of Maryland and Massachusetts have sometimes signed pro-environment legislation, and the large Democratic majorities in both houses of the state legislatures also can override some vetoes. In New York and Washington, Republicans have very narrow control of one legislative chamber while Democrats control all else. Those states, too, have adopted progressive climate policies. Put all these states together—the Atlantic Coast states from Massachusetts to Maryland, and the Pacific Coast states save Alaska—and while you have a substantial slice of the nation, the vast majority of the U.S. population still falls outside of them, including the more emission-intense states of the Midwest and South.

States in those two coastal belts may be able to reverse some Trump administration policies in the courts. Whether they win or lose their lawsuits, however, they still will be able to strengthen any number of climate change policies (such as the standards for their utility companies) on their own. And they won’t be alone. Most major cities, in red states as well as blue, are governed by Democrats, and many—even such unlikely locales as Houston—are greening up their transportation networks, improving the energy efficiency of their building stock, and doing everything else they can to combat climate change.

Lonnie Tague/Public Domain

"You're going to see state attorneys general emerge as an important line of defense in the weeks and months ahead," says New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. 

Accordingly, environmental activists are redirecting their focus from Washington to state and local governments—and the courts.


JUST AS SCOTT PRUITT constantly sued the agency he now heads when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general, progressive state AGs intervened repeatedly on the side of the EPA during the Obama years. Now, their roles will be reversed, as the progressives sue federal agencies, demanding that the Trump administration follow laws such as the Clean Air Act. A group of 14 attorneys general already sent a letter to Trump, warning him they will file suit to block any effort at Clean Power Plan repeal.

This power is not to be underestimated. In 2007, a coalition of liberal states won the Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court case that compelled the agency to regulate carbon as a pollutant. “That President Trump has appointed a climate change denier to be head of EPA does not change the legal structure that we operate in,” says New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “You’re going to see state attorneys general emerge as an important line of defense in the weeks and months ahead.”

Demanding that the federal government fulfill its legal obligations is not the only pro-environment lawsuit that state attorneys general such as Schneiderman can bring. They also may sue polluters directly, arguing under common law that climate pollution creates a nuisance, akin to dumping garbage in a neighbor’s yard. It’s a largely untested legal theory, but one that becomes more likely to succeed each year, as instances of climate-induced extreme weather events with massive social costs, like Superstorm Sandy in New York, pile up. (These suits, unlike those against the federal government, would be filed in state court. States cannot sue greenhouse gas emitters in federal court.)

Some AGs will also have to defend their state when it is sued by polluters for passing stricter environmental regulations than the feds. (Past suits from polluting industries and right-wing advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity have unsuccessfully targeted California’s clean car rules.) They may also investigate fossil fuel companies to make sure they are being transparent with the public about the risks from climate change. Schneiderman and his Massachusetts counterpart, Maura Healey, are already doing so in the case of ExxonMobil, following revelations in InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times about the company’s past suppression of climate science.

Schneiderman is optimistic that even Republican-appointed federal judges will give these cases a fair hearing. Just days before we spoke, he noted, Republican judges struck down Trump’s initial Muslim travel ban. “We just saw in courts all over the country, Republican and Democratic judges ruled in favor of my colleagues and myself,” says Schneiderman. “I believe in the rule of law and I believe in science. That there is an administration in Washington that believes in neither doesn’t change the law.”


WHEN IT COMES TO THE legislative and executive branches of government, however, environmental activists will direct their focus closer to home. “Energy policy is determined largely at the state level, with states sometimes working together,” says Emily Norton, chapter director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. In the age of Trump, state-level environmental groups such as Norton’s are experiencing a surge of grassroots enthusiasm. “We’re now at 23,000 members in Massachusetts, up from 18,661 in December 2015,” she says. “We have also seen donations increase.”

In blue states, at least, enviros are pushing on an open statehouse door. “This could be a massive year for the environment in California,” says Michelle Kinman, a clean energy advocate with the group Environment California. “That speaks to the increased resolve [in the legislature] to make sure California is not going backward in the Trump era and is going forward on combating climate change.”

While California has long drawn national headlines for its climate initiatives, its next-door neighbor Oregon is currently gearing up to tackle climate change from every conceivable angle. Oregon climate activism has only been strengthened by having a climate-science denier in the White House. “The election has just ramped everything up,” says Michael Dembrow, chair of the state Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee. “When we have town halls or any kind of public meetings, people are turning out in great numbers. They are very discouraged with what’s happening at the national level and they’re putting a lot of pressure on us at the local level. It’s had a really positive effect and sharpened attention to climate action. Clearly, the stakes are higher now.”

The state already has innovative programs in place for reducing emissions from its electricity and transportation sectors. Oregon’s clean fuel standard, passed in 2009 and made permanent in 2015, requires large oil companies to reduce their carbon emissions per gallon through either incorporating biofuel or buying credits. The policy functions as a financial transfer from dirty transportation fuels to cleaner ones, especially because not all biofuels are treated equally. In Portland, a company called SeQuential collects waste oil from restaurants and refines it into auto fuel. That has a much lower carbon footprint than many other forms of biofuel, and it is rewarded accordingly. “They get more shares from the market than a dirtier biofuel,” says Brad Reed, a spokesman for Renew Oregon, a clean energy advocacy coalition. “Essentially, it’s a way of juicing the clean energy economy here while also reducing pollution.” Clean fuel standards have been so successful in Oregon, California, and British Columbia that Canada announced in late November that it is taking the model nationwide.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Green State Power: Washington state has limited greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and factories, like this coal plant in Centralia. Trump can't stop states from doing that. 

Oregon’s other major existing initiative is regulation of its power sector. Like many progressive states, Oregon has a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS. These laws force utilities to shift a portion of their energy portfolio to renewable sources such as wind, solar, or hydropower within a certain time frame. Last year, Oregon raised the RPS’s ambition, setting a mandate to be completely coal-free by 2030 and to use 50 percent renewable energy by 2040.

And now Oregon environmentalists have set their sights on a more comprehensive solution: carbon pricing.


THE HOLY GRAIL OF CLIMATE regulation is an economy-wide limit or fee on carbon pollution. National hopes for a carbon cap died with the demise of cap-and-trade in the Senate in 2010 and the subsequent GOP congressional takeover. States have been nervous about instituting such a system on their own, fearing that without a national program they would chase business away by raising energy costs. But the success of the first programs in California and British Columbia is showing that carbon pricing can actually be good economics. What is sending your money out of state to oil, gas, and coal companies, after all, but a kind of tariff or tax on the local economy? By putting a price on pollution, either directly through a carbon tax, or indirectly through auctioning permits, states raise money that they can reinvest in their economy through subsidies for renewable energy, mass transit, and energy efficiency. Not every state has its own reserves of fossil fuels underfoot, but all have wind and sun.

So far, only California has an economy-wide carbon cap, which functions as a kind of carbon price because the credits are auctioned and tradeable. But more states are likely to join it soon, starting with Oregon. Oregon environmentalists and legislators say that they expect to pass a “cap and price” bill this year. Activists are flexible about the exact pricing mechanism. It could be called a fee for polluting, rather than a tax, so as to avoid the state’s constitutional supermajority requirement for tax increases. (The Democratic majority is slim in the state senate.) Five different bills have been introduced in the legislature, offering various carbon caps and prices. “We have some great champions on both the Senate and the House side,” says Reed.

Oregon enters the fiscal year with a budget deficit, which casts a pall over other possible green initiatives, such as expanding home solar energy tax credits. But since a cap-and-trade program produces its own revenue, it is more politically appealing. Environmental activists will only support a bill, though, that directs all the funds to environmental and social justice initiatives, rather than closing the budget hole.

Maryland GovPics/Creative Commons

In Maryland and Massachusetts, Democratic supermajorities could push state policies in more pro-climate directions. Here, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan delivers the 2016 State of the State address. 

In Washington state, on the other hand, using carbon pricing to plug a budget hole is the only way a carbon tax is likely to pass. The state is in violation of its own constitution, according to a court ruling, by shortchanging its school system to the tune of several billion dollars per year. A controversial carbon tax on the ballot this November failed. Many liberals, including Governor Jay Inslee, opposed it because it was revenue-neutral, and the last thing they wanted was a tax that didn’t provide more money for education and other underfunded needs. Carbon-tax proposals are now being debated in the Washington legislature.

With the price of renewables dropping and the need for climate action more urgent than ever, a growing number of progressive states are increasing their RPS. In February, both houses of the Maryland state legislature, which have Democratic supermajorities, overrode Republican Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of an RPS expansion. The state will now increase its standard from a 20 percent renewable portfolio by 2022 to 25 percent renewable by 2020.

Blue-state Republicans such as Hogan often try to present themselves as environmental moderates, without supporting the actual policies needed to match their rhetoric. Hogan signed a bill last year extending and expanding Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal, from a 25 percent reduction from 2006 levels by 2020 to a 40 percent cut by 2030. Two months later, Hogan vetoed the higher renewable standard that is essential to meeting those targets. “He signed a piece of paper to say he was an environmentalist, with no intention of helping actually get there,” observes Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a Maryland environmental advocacy group. “He wanted to fool voters into thinking he was actually doing something on climate change.”

Hogan isn’t the only Republican governor of a liberal state who faces pro-climate supermajorities capable of helping the planet over his objections. Veto-proof Democratic majorities in the Massachusetts state legislature are pushing climate action forward, whether Republican Governor Charlie Baker likes it or not. Massachusetts State Senate President Stan Rosenberg recently said he hopes to pass a raft of legislation in 2017 to increase the state’s climate targets. Bills recently introduced to that end would increase the state’s RPS, institute carbon pricing, force utilities to cut down on gas leaks, and incentivize drivers to switch to electric cars.

Some Republican governors are supportive of switching to renewables. In December, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that raises the state’s RPS from 10 percent by 2015 to 15 percent by 2020. Snyder has long backed in-state renewable energy development for economic reasons: Michigan’s manufacturing sector is energy-intensive, and the coal and gas it burns come from out of state. The new law contains a host of other small provisions to help utilities enhance home energy efficiency and transition to cleaner energy sources.

An RPS is not the only mechanism for a state to switch to cleaner energy sources. In the Northeast, nine states belong to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which caps carbon emissions from power plants and sells pollution credits to utilities. RGGI may step up its ambition in the face of continued climate inaction from Washington. In his January state of the state speech, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for lowering RGGI’s carbon cap.

New York is switching to cleaner energy sources through a big push in offshore wind development. The Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) recently approved the nation’s largest offshore wind farm, off the east end of Long Island. Cuomo also committed in the same speech to building 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind power, enough to power 1.25 million homes, by 2030.


ALTHOUGH POWER PLANTS ARE usually the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the coal-heavy industrial Northeast and Midwest, on the West Coast the causes are more dispersed. States such as California, Oregon, and Washington have cleaner energy portfolios for their power plants and utilities. But they have high transportation emissions, and their large agriculture and forestry industries produce emissions from a wide array of small sources: cows burping up methane, soil tilling releasing trapped carbon, and lost carbon sinks when trees are cut down.

That’s why Washington last year created a “Clean Air Rule” that is much like cap and trade minus the tradable carbon allowances. All the major industrial greenhouse gas polluters—an oil refinery, say—have to reduce their emissions by 5 percent every three years. If they do not, they must buy credits that are created by other in-state businesses cutting their emissions beyond the required amount. “For example, let’s say a pig farm or dairy farm has huge amounts of manure, releasing methane as it decomposes: It puts in a facility that burns it as bio-gas,” says Chris Davis, a senior energy adviser to Governor Inslee. “The installation of that digester costs, say, $40 million and creates 10,000 tons of voided emissions. You can sell those voided emissions on a credit market.”

Oregon is looking at such ancillary measures as mandating higher energy efficiency in buildings. Washington and California already have laws that require gradually tighter standards for new buildings until all new buildings are “net zero” energy users. That means each new building will be designed to use so little energy that with rooftop solar panels it will, assuming typical usage, require no more electricity than it produces. Now Oregon environmentalists want their state to pass “net zero ready” legislation, which would require buildings to be so efficient that solar installation would make it net zero. (They avoid requiring solar itself because of the upfront cost, but assume the installation costs will continue to drop between now and 2032 so that by the time the law is fully implemented, a solar requirement could be added.) The proposal was introduced in the Oregon House in January, and insiders say it could pass this year.

Since energy efficiency is cost efficiency, state legislators can actually see these bills as an economic boon. “Homeowners are going to hugely benefit over time, just by catching up to Washington and California,” says Dave Van’t Hof, acting Oregon state director at Climate Solutions, a Northwest-based clean energy advocacy organization. Climate Solutions’ analysis found that energy efficiency increases of 10 percent to 20 percent will cost just 1 percent to 1.5 percent more for the average homebuyer, without even factoring in state tax incentives. “Roll that cost into a mortgage and the savings on your energy bill dwarf that every month,” Van’t Hof observes.

Reducing energy usage can lead to a big drop in emissions. Western states are still rapidly growing. Experts estimate that 40 percent of Oregon’s building stock in 2050 has not yet been built. “Putting these rules in place could save around six million metric tons per year of greenhouse gases,” says Van’t Hof. “That puts it in the same league of climate benefits as the 50 percent RPS and coal phase-out.”

AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File

Here Comes The Sun: Trump's not likely to bring back many jobs in coal, but he could reduce the number of jobs in clean energy, like those of these solar panel installers in Glendale, California. 

Many states have adopted tax credits for homeowners to reduce the upfront cost of going solar, and some states are now considering expanding them. Oregon, for example, is looking at how to make a tax credit currently only available to homeowners accessible to renters and to others who cannot put a solar panel on their home but would like to invest in a communal solar installation—say, on the rooftop of a local school.


ELECTRIC VEHICLES (EVS) PRESENT similar challenges and opportunities. Unlike their East Coast counterparts, many of the major West Coast cities lack the mass transit networks and residential density needed to reduce driving by having commuters access other means of transportation. Their main approach to cutting back on gasoline consumption is driving cleaner cars.

California has set higher fuel efficiency standards than those required by the federal government, though the Trump administration may seek to repeal the waiver allowing California to do so. Now, California, Oregon, and other states are also trying to get residents to buy electric vehicles. Last year, California lowered the maximum income threshold for a qualifying buyer and increased the value of each credit, trying to ensure that each credit goes to someone who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford an EV.

The Golden State also has three new state-supported pilot programs for getting more electric cars on the road. In the San Joaquin Valley and in the Los Angeles metro area, partly to help clean the notoriously smoggy air, buyers can get cash incentives to retire their conventional car and purchase a low-emissions one. In the San Francisco Bay Area, people with little or no credit history can obtain low-interest loans to buy an electric car. Later this year, a third program in the L.A. and Sacramento areas will launch a low-income electric car–sharing service. California is also trying to solve the other impediment to buying EVs, which is fear of running out of power, by building 7,500 recharging stations all over the state.

Although cities do not have a state’s energy regulatory authority, they are often able to adopt a host of policies to limit emissions. Environmental groups are increasingly turning their organizing firepower on city governments.

The Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 program persuades cities to rely on 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. (There are 20 states that let cities strike their own deals with energy providers.) San Diego, the country’s eighth-largest city, and 20 other cities have committed to using only renewables. Seven of them already hit that goal, the most recent being Georgetown, Texas.

Many cities, even in some unlikely places, are working to provide transportation alternatives to their residents. In November, voters all over the country passed initiatives to pay for expanded public transit. Seattle and Los Angeles County raised sales taxes to support light-rail expansion, while Kansas City, Missouri, and Indianapolis passed tax increases to pay for new bus service. Municipal bike-sharing has cropped up all over the country.

Finally, cities and states on the West Coast are also doing what they can to oppose expansions of the fossil fuel transportation infrastructure. To get from the oil- and gas-rich Bakken Shale in North Dakota or Wyoming’s coal-heavy Powder River Basin to the markets in Asia, fossil fuels must travel via the Pacific Northwest. Communities there aren’t excited about having dirty, explosion-prone fuels passing through town, and many worry about a glut of fossil fuel supply driving temperatures through the roof.

So Oregon’s state legislature is considering a bill that would subject to a “climate test” every fossil fuel infrastructure plan submitted for approval to state agencies, such as those for pipelines and export terminals. Each project would have to prove it complies with the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals and that it is economically viable in a future where regulations or carbon pricing might curtail demand.

Communities throughout the region are blocking fossil fuel exports. Last year, Vancouver, Washington’s city council passed a ban on future oil terminals, and the Washington towns of Hoquiam and Aberdeen changed their zoning codes to prevent oil companies from using their ports. In January, the Quinault, a coastal Washington Native American tribe, won a key legal challenge to a proposed oil train terminal, likely dooming the project. A month earlier, Portland’s city council passed zoning changes banning construction of fossil fuel terminals.

In the age of Trump, progressive state and local governments appear determined to find every point of leverage to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Environmentalists and sympathetic public officials are already working harder and thinking more creatively, simply because they must.


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