Look to States, Companies if Trump Shifts on the Environment

States and corporations will keep moving forward on transition to clean energy

Next year, even if President-elect Donald Trump does try to save the environmentally retrograde coal industry as promised, Google will be heading in the opposite direction — buying enough wind and solar energy to account for all of the electricity it uses at its data centers and offices around the world.

Another of Trump's promises, to abandon the Paris climate agreement, prompted hundreds of American companies, among them Mars, Levi Strauss, Nike and Starbucks, to write urging him to abide by the agreement and the decreases in greenhouse gases it calls for.

And in California, Gov. Jerry Brown warned after the election that if Trump puts an end to research conducted by NASA, "California will launch its own damn satellite."

With a Trump administration threatening to reverse the current administration's environmental agenda — his choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency has sued the agency repeatedly — corporations and states, not the federal government, could be out front on advances to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, create clean-energy jobs and keep the air and water free of pollution.

"A motivated state can accomplish a great deal," said Michael B. Gerrard, the faculty director of Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University in New York City. "California is the jurisdiction leading the world on action on climate change. It has adopted a very ambitious plan that in most respects does not depend on the federal government."

California's goal: to reduce pollution 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. The plan will be anchored by the state’s own cap-and-trade program, which sets a limit on emissions and creates a market for carbon allowances.

California's governor vowed last week to challenge any attempts to halt climate change research, including NASA's satellite programs that collect information on temperature, ice and clouds. Climate scientists have been worried about the future of the program since two of Trump's space policy advisers wrote about the agency's focus on "politically correct environmental monitoring."

"We've got the scientists, we've got the lawyers and we're ready to fight," Brown told a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Elsewhere states in the Northeast have come together to create a regional cap-and-trade program. Hawaii plans to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Illinois' lawmakers this month voted for the Future Energy Jobs Bill, which is expected to expand clean energy, create thousands of jobs and spur billions of dollars in investment in what the Environmental Defense Fund called "the most significant clean energy economic development package in the state's history."

Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia require utilities to get a minimum percentage of their power from renewable energy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. In 2013, the renewable portfolio standards accounted for 2.4 percent of nationwide electricity generation and a 3.6 percent reduction in fossil fuel generation.

Lawmakers who are less aggressive about advancing renewable energy are under pressure. Ohio's Republicans just voted to make the state's program optional and not only has Gov. John Kasich objected but the solar panel manufacturer, First Solar, which has a research laboratory in Ohio, is threatening to leave, taking with it the $100 million it spends in the state, according to Cleveland.com.

Most of the ways that states would reform the mix of their energy generation do not depend on the federal government, though tax credits for wind and solar energy are helpful, Gerrard said. The principal regulation that does require federal okay, though not money, is tighter fuel-economy standards for motor vehicles, he said. If the federal government were to back off those standards, California could pass its own but only with EPA approval. Other states could then adopt California's standards. There also are limitations on a state's ability to control the sources of electricity that flow into the state, he said.

Even states that are politically hostile to national efforts to fight climate change are taking action, often for economic reasons. Texas, for example, with the most proven oil reserves, is among the states that sued and temporarily blocked President Barack Obama's signature Clean Power Plan, the first to set a national limit on carbon pollution. At the same time, it is leading the country in the development of wind energy, which provided nearly 12 percent of the energy used in the state last year.

Gerrard said he was apprehensive about Trump's planned environmental program. The announced agenda calls for backpedalling on many of the country's most important environmental laws, he said.

"If Congress starts pre-empting state laws, then we're in wholly new territory,” Gerrard said. "Hopefully they won't be that aggressive in trying to kill environmental protection."

There are some areas where the federal government does pre-empt state regulations such as those governing nuclear power, but not many, Gerrard said. And even if laws are not repealed, Trump could starve the EPA of the money it needs and slow enforcement dramatically, he said. It's also not clear if Congress will act to overturn Obama's recent protection of the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic Ocean from future oil and gas leasing.

The United Nations warns that climate change is already affecting every country on every continent with severe weather and rising seas. And if left unchecked, the effects will likely be "severe, pervasive and irreversible."

During the campaign Trump pledged to "cancel" U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement, though he later told The New York Times he had “an open mind to it.” Bailing on the agreement could leave the planet in peril, scientists say.

The Paris deal, which officially went into effect last month, aims to avert the most dangerous effects of global warming by limiting the rise in the global average temperature to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That's the tipping point beyond which many believe the effects of climate change will become irreversible, according to Climate Interactive, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The United States, the world’s second-largest polluter, has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below the 2005 levels by the year 2025. That accounts for about 20 percent of the expected reductions, Climate Interactive found.

What Trump believes about climate change isn’t clear. During the campaign, he tweeted that it was a Chinese hoax meant to make U.S. manufacturing less competitive, though later he said his comment was a joke. In a video detailing his agenda for his first 100 days in office, he said, "I will cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy – including shale energy and clean coal – creating many millions of high-paying jobs."

Then there are his nominees, proponents of fossil fuel and climate change skeptics. Environmentalists panned all of them.

The Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, who would lead the EPA, questions how much effect human activity is having on global warming and is among the state attorneys general to sue over Obama's Clean Power Plan, a case that is pending. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, picked to head the Energy Department, has said he would eliminate the department and has mocked "the secular carbon cult." Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, Trump's choice for the Interior Department, has claimed climate change is not "proven science" and supports ending a moratorium on federal coal leases on public lands.

Finally, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who would become secretary of state, leads a company under investigation into whether it withheld information from investors showing man-made emissions were changing the climate. Under Tillerson's leadership Exxon Mobil has endorsed the Paris agreement and shifted its stance on climate change, though Tillerson has continued to question predictions about its effect. 

"This is an administration that is dead set on putting polluters ahead of people every single time," said May Boeve, the executive director of the environmental group, 350.org.

Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in San Francisco, said that it was an important time to focus on the private sector and on government other than at the federal level.

"I would agree that states are absolutely in the driver's seat,” he said. "And I think that goes to some really interesting opportunities to do things right, albeit maybe at a small scale.”

States should focus not just on decreasing their own emissions but also on models that can be adapted to other places — ones with smaller regulatory agencies, for example, that need simpler policies to adopt.

"A lot of the regulation in the energy sector has traditionally been at the state rather than at the federal level," he said. "So states that want to change the way their energy systems, particularly their electricity systems, are operated have a lot of authority to do that."

A federal government determined to roll back environmental regulations could do real damage, environmentalists say. The GOP-led Congress has tried to pass almost 150 measures to reverse environmental regulations, including working against ones that set limits on mercury and ozone, said Jeremy Symons an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund. The conservative House Freedom Caucus has provided Trump with a recommended list of regulations to eliminate, 43 of which are aimed at undermining the country’s progress on clean energy, while others would go after environmental protections, he wrote.

"It might be nice to think that things will just move forward but you can’t ignore Washington and the potential move in the opposite direction,” Symons said.

And although progress will be made outside of Washington, a lack of federal backing will hurt, Symons said. Not only is time running out to combat climate change, but with renewable energy affordable and creating jobs, this is when the country should be accelerating the transition, he said.

"If Washington is a drag pulling us backwards instead of propelling us forwards, there is an enormous missed opportunity there," he said.

A too ambitious agenda could backfire as happened to President Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, said Symons and Steven Cohen, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. Reagan's choice of Anne Gorsuch Burford for the EPA resigned after 22 months after she cut the agency's budget by 22 percent and came under fire over mismanagement of hazardous waste cleanup. The Bush administration had to reverse itself on plans to withdraw rules limiting arsenic in drinking water.

Regulations often force an improvement on an industry, and people's expectations are raised, whether for health and safety or clean water and air, Cohen said. Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile," published in 1965, eventually led to safety advances such as seat belts, airbags and antilock brakes — despite resistance from automobile manufacturers concerned about cost. Today, customers pay more for vehicles with higher safety ratings, Cohen said.

Climate change is more difficult an issue to tackle, because it is occurring everywhere and its effects are still largely in the future, he said. He would reframe the issue as one of air pollution.

"Air pollution, water pollution and particularly toxic waste, these are issues that people see and feel and smell," he said. 

The EPA has been one of the most successful agencies, its regulations curbing pollution that had been rising in concert with an expanding economy, Cohen said. By the 1980s, the GDP kept growing but absolute pollution levels started to fall, he said. Some businesses might be harmed by regulation but society as a whole benefits, he said.

"The idea that you have to choose between protecting and growing the economy is simply untrue," he said.

Google announced this month that it would be powered 100 percent by wind and solar power next year — meaning that the amount it buys from renewable sources each year will match the electricity it uses. It signed its first agreement to buy all of the electricity from a wind farm in Iowa in 2010. In the six years since, the cost of producing wind power has come down 60 percent and that of solar power, 80 percent, the company said. Going forward, Google will be focused on signing agreements for low-carbon power that is not intermittent such as hydro and biomass.

"Many corporations realize they can save large amounts of money, energy efficiency of operations by lowering electricity and natural gas bills," Gerrard said.

Ceres, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainable business practices, has found that more than 60 percent of the Fortune 500 companies have set goals for the use of renewable energy or the most efficient use of energy, said Anne Kelly, a senior program director. States as a result are diversifying their energy sources to attract those businesses and the tax base and jobs they provide.

"There's really something to be said to the unstoppable momentum of the private sector, particularly in the area of procuring renewable energy," said Anne Kelly, a non-profit organization advocating for sustainable business practices.

Ceres will continue to make a clear business case for clean energy, for listening to the demands of power purchases not just power suppliers and the oil lobby, she said. Regulations such as the CAFE or corporate average fuel economy standards — first enacted by Congress in 1975 to increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks — are sending the right market signals and spurring the changes needed to transition to a low-carbon economy, Kelley said. Companies are locking into long-term power purchase agreements to try to avoid the volatility of natural gas prices.

"Given the momentum that I see in terms of private-sector leadership and state action makes me very optimistic,” she said. “I am certainly concerned about what could happen at the federal level but I’m optimistic about the states and all of our environmental laws have originated at the state level."

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