New Dem governors eye power-sector cuts. What about cars?

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 19, 2018

Climate hawks are cheering after Democrats wrested control of governors’ mansions in key states last week.

There’s just one problem.

While many of the new Democratic governors have ambitious plans for curbing emissions from the power sector, they haven’t said much about emissions from the transportation sector — an increasingly important part of the climate puzzle.

Emissions from cars, trucks and other mobile sources are on the rise nationally. Between 2012 and 2017, they increased 7 percent while emissions from power plants took a nosedive, dropping 14 percent over that same period.

“Transportation sector emissions are continuing to rise, while in the electric sector, emissions are coming down,” said Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The transportation sector now represents the largest single source of carbon emissions in the country. And with President Trump rolling back fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and trucks, the stakes for state action on transportation have never been higher.

Yet plans to tackle automobile emissions remain in their infancy outside of California, which has implemented an economywide cap-and-trade program and a low-carbon fuel standard. And newly elected Democratic governors in several states have proposed few policy solutions.

In Illinois, Democrat J.B. Pritzker ousted incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner (R). Pritzker campaigned on a promise to secure 100 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2050. He also pledged to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of mayors committed to upholding the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

But on transportation, Pritzker has said little, even though data show cars and trucks are spewing even more carbon than power plants in his coal-burning state.

Power-sector emissions in Illinois fell 26 percent from 1990 to 2016, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But those gains were partly offset by a 16 percent increase in transportation-sector emissions.

In New Mexico, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham trounced Republican Rep. Steve Pearce by 14 points. She campaigned on a promise to push the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030 and to mitigate methane emissions from the state’s prolific oil and gas fields. But like Pritzker, her energy planmakes few mentions of transportation, save for a passing plug for electric vehicles.

And in Michigan, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette by nearly 10 points. Whitmer promised to clean up the state’s drinking water, protect the Great Lakes and shut down Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 pipeline. But even in a state known for auto manufacturing, Whitmer, too, has been silent on transportation’s carbon footprint.

Transportation-sector emissions are “such a difficult, multifaceted problem,” said Carol Lee Rawn, who leads the transportation program at Ceres, a nonprofit that works with businesses and investors to promote sustainability. “And now we’re facing the weakening of the standards, so the availability of clean vehicles is in question.”

She added, “It’s just difficult to address on a statewide basis. California has had success with a low-carbon fuel standard, but it’s in an easier position to do that because it’s such a huge state.”

Political challenges and market forces

The newly elected governors face no shortage of challenges when it comes to tackling transportation-sector emissions.

For one thing, clean energy is a talking point that resonates with consumers. Transportation, on the other hand, isn’t always the most exciting topic.

“With the renewables stuff, it’s nice to have a really clear, easy talking point,” said Kate Larsen, a director at the Rhodium Group, an economic research firm. “With transportation, it’s harder.”

For another, market forces aren’t on the new governors’ sides.

Power-sector emissions have plummeted as cheap natural gas and renewables have spurred the retirements of coal-fired power plants. But similar forces aren’t spurring people to drive their cars or trucks less. If anything, many Americans continue to view driving as an essential part of everyday life (Climatewire, Sept. 5).

“When it comes to the power sector, the market is driving a lot of it without need for policy pressure,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Finally, ballot initiatives illustrate the challenge of winning popular support for measures to curb transportation-sector emissions. Missouri voters rejected a gas tax increase, while Washington state voters rejected a historic carbon fee ballot initiative. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) could have used revenue from the tax to fund investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

“One of the scary things about trying to increase gasoline prices with a fuel or carbon tax is that everybody immediately sees how it affects them. That’s the big political challenge of getting policies through,” Mehling said.

Still, the new governors have a willing partner in utilities that are investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, said Anup Bandivadekar, program director with the International Council on Clean Transportation.

“There are some things that are more easily available in the toolkit of state-level regulators,” Bandivadekar said. “One thing is working with the state-level utilities to invest in charging infrastructure. That’s an action that state governments could take to move the ball forward.”

In the Northeast, greens are also hoping that governors create the Transportation and Climate Initiative. Many want the initiative to adopt a model similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program where power generators buy carbon allowances and the proceeds are used to finance state energy programs (Climatewire, April 17).

The efforts around the Transportation and Climate Initiative are ongoing, with a listening session held this week, Lee said.

Reason for optimism

Environmentalists have a big reason for optimism: the potential for the new Democratic governors to put in place California’s tougher clean car rules within their borders.

Governors have the unique authority to adopt California’s more stringent tailpipe pollution rules for cars and trucks. The rules are linked to California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program, which encourages automakers to sell a certain percentage of battery electric or plug-in vehicles.

Their authority comes from a special provision of a landmark environmental law.

Under Section 209 of the Clean Air Act, California can set more stringent tailpipe pollution standards than the federal government. And under Section 177, other states can choose to adopt those tougher rules. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have already done so. Colorado is set to become the 14th state (Climatewire, Nov. 15).

Jen Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, said her group put together a report for Pritzker that recommends a host of environmental initiatives, including the adoption of California’s rules.

Pritzker “hasn’t made any specific commitments to it,” Walling said. “I know that we have given him some info and made that ask.”

But, she added, “our real ask has been for 100 percent clean energy, which he supports.”

Environmental advocates in New Mexico, meanwhile, have to reckon with the state’s checkered history as the two major parties traded control of the governor’s mansion.

New Mexico did originally adopt the tougher car rules in 2007. But current Gov. Susana Martinez (R), a staunch ally of the oil and gas industry, moved to repeal that initiative. In a 2013 petition, the Martinez administration concluded that “the administrative burdens of implementing the Clean Cars regulation now outweigh the potential benefits of the State program.”

The governor-elect says she would reverse her predecessor’s decision.

“Ten years ago, New Mexico was a leader in fighting climate change when it adopted tougher emissions standards for cars that would have brought cleaner cars to our roads,” Grisham says in her energy plan. “But the Martinez Administration repealed that initiative, leaving the state behind other states in driving widespread market adoption of technologies to reduce tailpipe emissions.”

Sanders Moore, director of Environment New Mexico, said her group will be pushing for Grisham to sign an executive order that directs the New Mexico Environment Department to study the feasibility of adopting the tougher car rules.

At a victory party on Election Night, Moore said she had a brief conversation with Grisham, during which she mentioned increasing the state’s renewable portfolio standard.

“It was a very short conversation, so I did not specifically mention the car standards,” she said. “But I’m confident we’ll be able to work together on those.”