Connecting state and local government leaders
As the Biden administration pursues an ambitious agenda to address climate change, lawmakers in a number of states are pushing ahead with proposals of their own.
State legislators are responding to the growing climate crisis with dozens of proposed laws this year. The potential changes include an effort to require more electric vehicle chargers on Massachusetts highways, an attempt to help cities protect themselves from rising oceans in Florida and proposals to give air pollution regulators more resources in coal-rich Colorado.
While advocates have been pushing climate change legislation at state capitols for years, their goals have become increasingly aggressive. For example, Hawaii was the first state to commit to getting 100% of its electric power from clean energy sources back in 2015. Now, it is one of eight states with such requirements.
Meanwhile, President Biden has promised to make climate change a major focus of the federal government, too.
He has already revoked a key permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline between Canada’s Alberta tar sands region and Nebraska and moved to rejoin the Paris climate agreement—which the Trump administration withdrew from. Biden is also pushing to electrify vehicles owned by the federal government, to reinstate auto pollution standards that the Trump White House had rolled back and to impose stricter pollution controls on power plants.
Having an administration that is focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions can help states achieve their own climate goals, said Rita Cliffton, a policy analyst for the Center for American Progress. “The states obviously can’t do it all, especially in transportation,” she said.
“The transportation sector is so broad and you need support, especially in making a comprehensive charging station [network] across the United States, to ensure that the switch to electric vehicles is actually feasible to most Americans,” Cliffton added.
State lawmakers and advocates, though, insist there’s still action needed at the state level.
In Colorado, the main focus on climate policy this year will be to follow up on a plan released by Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, last month for how the state can substantially reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
“Colorado is in the top 10 in oil, gas and coal producing states,” said Garrett Garner-Wells, a spokesperson for Conservation Colorado, an environmental advocacy group. “If we can lead the way on climate action here, that has important [implications] around the country.”
“That’s what climate leadership looks like regardless of who is in the White House,” he added.
Two years ago, Colorado lawmakers set out greenhouse gas reduction goals for the state to hit. They passed a law calling for a 26% reduction by 2025 (compared to 2005 levels). Those targets increase to 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
The legislature left it up to the governor’s office to chart a course for Colorado to achieve those goals.
“This is by far the most ambitious and expansive planning document that Colorado has ever produced on climate change,” Polis said when releasing the plan in January. “And as we pursue this work, we also must ensure that our efforts promote racial equity and economic justice.”
His administration’s framework relies heavily on power companies and other businesses voluntarily complying with new targets.
Some environmental groups contend that the plan is not aggressive enough and two have even sued the administration for failing to impose strict enough air pollution standards.
The Colorado Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, voiced concerns that the plan was too ambitious and that it might compromise the reliability of the state’s electric grid or result in unaffordable energy costs for consumers.
The legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, could tweak Polis’ plan. Lawmakers could also help with the roll-out by making sure the agency that regulates air pollution has enough people and other resources to take on extra work and that departments are incorporating the greenhouse gas reduction goals into their programs.
“We need to just keep moving forward on the governor’s roadmap as quickly as we can,” said Garner-Wells, the Conservation Colorado spokesperson.
In Massachusetts, state lawmakers are sticking to their guns in a fight with Gov. Charlie Baker over a sweeping climate change measure that aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions to half their 1990 levels by 2030, and practically eliminate them altogether by 2050.
The legislature, which is dominated by Democrats, passed the package at the tail end of its session in early January. But Baker, a Republican, vetoed the legislation. He said he agreed with the intent of the bill but disagreed with its approach. Baker argued that the proposal would be too costly, frustrate regional efforts to develop clean energy sources and harm the economy.
But legislators sent him back the same package, unchanged, a few weeks later once a new legislative session began. Now that Baker has more time, he can return the bill with suggestions if he chooses or can veto it again outright.
Baker released a separate plan to help the state eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, one which heavily emphasizes a switch to electric vehicles. He also agreed to have Massachusetts be one of the first three states (plus Washington, D.C.) to join the Transportation Climate Initiative, which seeks to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from vehicles.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis asked lawmakers to approve a plan to spend $1 billion over the next four years on infrastructure to protect cities from sea level rise and other effects of climate change.
Julie Wraithmell, the executive director of Audubon Florida, praised the idea.
“Bonding makes common sense for things like investments in resilience and land conservation where future prices are likely to be radically higher than they are today,” she said. “Locking in today’s costs, even with debt service payments, ends up being a better deal for taxpayers.”
The bonds for DeSantis’ “Resilient Florida” initiative would be paid back with money generated by a state tax on certain kinds of debt, including mortgage transactions. The governor included the measure in his budget proposal, but some lawmakers are skeptical about the amount of spending in that plan, given the economic toll the Covid-19 pandemic has had on state revenues.
In California, which already has some of the strictest greenhouse gas regulations in the country, state Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco is proposing legislation to require large companies that do business with the state to disclose the greenhouse gas emissions they generate.
Cliffton, the analyst from the Center for American Progress, said she anticipates “a lot more action” on climate policy from states, given the Biden administration’s emphasis on the issue. Shortly after Biden announced that the federal fleet would transition to electric power, she noted, General Motors set a goal of making all of its new cars, light trucks and SUVs run on electric power by 2035.
“It just sends a signal,” Cliffton said, “that this transition is coming.”
Daniel C. Vock is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., who covers public policy.