If bipartisanship ever emerges in the national fight against climate change, the guiding light will likely come from the Northeast. But even here, it is only a glimmer.
The prime vehicle is the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Last week, nine participating states agreed to nearly halve the cap on carbon emissions produced by power plants. The current cap is 165 million tons. Under the law, power plants pay a price for each ton of carbon dioxide they spew, giving them an incentive to convert to greener forms of energy. The states would then invest any fees in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.
But largely because power plants switched from coal to cheaper natural gas coming from newly tapped shale reserves, emissions fell to 91 million tons in 2012, and there was little investment in clean technology. So Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, and Delaware agreed to lower the cap to 91 million tons beginning in 2014 and scheduled 2.5 percent annual reductions until 2020.
On the surface, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was correct in boasting that the agreement is “a strong statement that this region, which comprises nearly 20 percent of the national economy, is serious about being stewards of our environment.” The problem, at a time when climate denial remains rampant among national Republican leadership, is that the only stewards from the nine states publicly praising the new carbon reductions were Democratic governors, senators, and representatives.
Long gone is Mitt Romney’s original support of RGGI when he was the Republican governor of Massachusetts. New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, pulled his state out of the initiative in 2011. Despite saying that climate change is real, he declared RGGI to be a failure that “does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernible or measurable impact upon our environment.’’
Maine is still part of the initiative, but Republican Governor Paul LePage is grumbling that he will stay in RGGI only if he can divert the carbon fees away from investments in renewable energy to instead reduce consumer and business energy bills. LePage has been hostile to incentives for wind and solar energy development, deriding wind as a “boutique energy source.” New Hampshire remains in the initiative, but only because Democratic governors John Lynch and Maggie Hassan have been firewalls against efforts by Republicans in the state legislature to pull out.
Rhode Island is the only state without a Democratic governor to strongly support RGGI. Independent Lincoln Chafee has not been very outspoken in his advocacy, but his director of environmental management, Janet Coit, issued a statement last week to the Providence Journal saying the initiative is a “triple-play of environmental, consumer, and economic benefits to families and businesses.” A 2011 study by the Analysis Group found that RGGI’s first three years created the equivalent of 16,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in energy savings.
So how does the initiative go from one where Democrats pull everyone along to something more of a bipartisan embrace? Dark blue California has been the only other state to mimic RGGI. Kenneth Kimmell, Massachusetts commissioner of environmental protection, said the answer may come if and when the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers extending emissions caps for new power plants to existing ones. States already in RGGI are talking with the Obama administration about an exemption from federal regulation because they already have an ambitious carbon-reduction plan in place.
Kimmell calls it the “$54,000 question,” because stringent EPA limits could drive many a Republican governor to join RGGI or work more cooperatively to create regional counterparts throughout the country. In fact, former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine said RGGI offered a national “template” to avoid EPA regulations. “Nine states may not be a critical mass yet by any means,” Kimmell said yesterday, “but what if 20 states embraced it? Those governors who do not like federal mandates might see RGGI as an attractive market-based cap-and-trade option. I think we’ve proven that we’re not a job killer. We’re a job creator.”
Now the job is to create a climate in which Republicans feel more comfortable enjoying its benefits.