7 states explore cutting carbon from cars

Source: Camille von Kaenel and Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporters • Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Northeastern Republicans and Democrats agree it’s time to bring down emissions from transportation.

They’re just not sure how to do it.

This week, seven states and the District of Columbia announced a new series of public listening sessions to get ideas about curbing car emissions — including, maybe, some sort of regional policy like a “cap and invest” program or a tax.

The announcement, made on the sidelines of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, was meant to show how U.S. states, cities and businesses are stepping up their emission-cutting efforts following the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

It’s an expansion of efforts by the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional collaboration launched by the Georgetown Climate Center six years ago with 11 Northeastern states and the District of Columbia. Of those, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and D.C. have signed onto the new round of talks.

“We’re all doing important work in our own states,” said Rob Klee, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “In Connecticut, we’re doing things on vehicle rebates, and we’re doing things to develop transit. But the transportation challenge is just so much larger than one state … it’s time for a new innovative look.”

The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions nationally, but efforts to curtail pollution from the sector have consistently frustrated advocates of climate action.

Where emissions from the power sector fell by 46 percent in the states that signed onto the new talks between 2005 and 2015, emissions from transportation were down 8 percent, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. Even that decrease might be something of an anomaly. Since the recession, transportation emissions have seen a slight uptick.

In seeking a regional solution to their transportation conundrum, Northeastern states are hoping to build upon their success with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which targets emissions from the power sector.

But whereas the power sector represents a relatively simple target — power plants — transportation is more complex.

“This is a process, because it’s such a multifaceted sector,” said Vicki Arroyo, president of the Georgetown Climate Center. “It involves land use, it involves behavioral changes, it involves investment in transit and in electric vehicles.”

Environmentalists said they hope states will adopt the same basic principles applied by RGGI, under which revenue for energy efficiency and clean energy programs is raised through a quarterly auction of carbon allowances. In the case of transportation, the money could be used to raise money for investments in electric vehicles, biking and public transportation.

The proposal for transportation would cover distributors of fuels, similar to how California’s carbon cap-and-trade program covers transportation fuels. The Georgetown Climate Center outlined considerations in an accompanying white paper.

“This is the first time they’ve collectively decided to have the conversation and solicit stakeholder input,” said Ken Kimmell, former commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and chairman of the RGGI board, and now president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They’re taking it seriously.”

Yesterday’s announcement brought to light some of the difficulties ahead. Two years ago, five TCI states committed to studying joint action on a market mechanism to bring down transportation emissions. A proposal has not yet emerged.

Yesterday’s plan was noticeably lacking in policy details. For now, the states are simply committed to listening, with hearings scheduled for 2018.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it does not have a policy position. Greens acknowledged the challenges facing the initiative, but applauded the announcement.

“I think there’s clearly an interest in developing policy, but they want to hear from people across the region first,” said Jordan Stutt, a policy analyst at the Acadia Center, a Boston-based environmental group. “To me, it suggests they’re serious about addressing transportation emissions.”

The seven states involved in the effort are led in almost equal measure by Republican and Democratic governors. Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont all have Republican chief executives. Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island are all led by Democrats.

Arroyo said the buy-in from Republican-led states marks a shift. Maryland and Massachusetts stayed off the preliminary announcement two years ago.

Massachusetts has since passed legislation requiring reductions in transportation emissions and has already started gathering public feedback on policy ideas.