The U.S. Climate Alliance is en vogue among America’s new crop of Democratic governors.
Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico have all joined the alliance in the last month. Wisconsin joined its ranks yesterday, bringing the total number of states committed to the targets of the Paris climate accord to 21.
The question facing the newly minted climate states is whether their governors can actually cut emissions.
Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, faces a Republican-held Legislature in Madison. It’s a similar situation in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) immediately discovered the limits of executive action after Republican lawmakers pushed back against her move to reorganize the Department of Environmental Quality.
Democrats run the table in Illinois, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker has committed to 100 percent renewables (Climatewire, Jan. 24). But, as the rollout of clean energy bills showed last week, there are divisions among greens and renewable interests over how to proceed (Energywire, Feb. 11).
In New Mexico, where Democrats control the Legislature, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has announced a suite of policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gases (Climatewire, Jan. 30).
Yet greens there face a ticking clock. The state’s 60-day legislative session is already half over, and it’s not clear a bill that would boost the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50 percent by 2030 will be voted on before lawmakers leave Santa Fe.
“As the issue of climate change has become more partisan, it is not surprising in swing states that when they shift from Republican to Democrat, some tangible commitment to climate follows,” said Barry Rabe, a professor who tracks climate policy at the University of Michigan.
But Rabe said it is unclear how much the new Climate Alliance governors can achieve without the help of their respective legislatures. Strengthening renewable portfolio standards, for instance, almost certainly requires legislative support.
Some might be tempted to see their states partner with an existing cap-and-trade program, like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which covers the power sector in nine Northeastern states. Yet as the failed attempt to create a Midwestern cap-and-trade program a decade ago shows, those commitments can crumble if they are not backed by legislative support.
“There is little a governor can do that is enduring and impactful if the goal is not action, but a policy that is sustained over time and can demonstrate an ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Rabe said.
Each of the four new Climate Alliance states faces a different path to meeting the Paris Agreement’s goal: a 26 to 28 percent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2025.
Michigan, which has seen a wave of coal plant closures, is furthest along, having cut carbon emissions 20 percent through 2016, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data. New Mexico has cut emissions 18 percent over that time.
Illinois and Wisconsin, by contrast, are further afield. The pair posted emissions declines of 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively, according to EIA data.
Governors have considerable power over their states’ energy sectors, even in the absence of legislative support. They can mandate upgrades to vehicle fleets and order public universities and agencies to purchase renewable energy. Most importantly, they can appoint agency heads and members of state utility commissions, which hold broad sway over the power sector.
Whitmer recently appointed Dan Scripps, a policy director at a clean energy group, to the Michigan Public Service Commission. It came at a critical time. The Michigan PSC will be reviewing the long-term plans of the two largest utilities in the state this year.
In Wisconsin, Evers has already made one appointment to his state’s Public Service Commission, a board that was not particularly friendly to renewables under former Gov. Scott Walker (R).
“You can do a lot through regulations and rulemakings that can have a big impact,” said Ben Inskeep, an analyst at EQ Research. “Maybe it doesn’t get you all the way there, but it can slow down fossil fuel build-out and accelerate clean energy development.”
The falling costs of renewables have opened the door for potential bipartisan cooperation for their use, said Tyler Huebner, executive director of Renew Wisconsin. WEC Energy Group and Alliant Energy Corp., two of the state’s leading utilities, have committed to an 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050 (Climatewire, Sept. 21, 2018). In the near term, power companies’ ability to bring on renewables will drive much of the states’ emission reductions.
But clean energy advocates are working to build bipartisan support for more ambitious action, Huebner said.
“We’re a purple state, and we’re probably always going to be one,” he said. “If you want to build out wind, solar, bioenergy, hydropower to meet these goals over the long term, we have to find bipartisan victories.”
In Michigan, Whitmer’s decision to join the Climate Alliance was accompanied by an executive order to overhaul the Department of Environmental Quality and rebrand it the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The department would include an Office of Climate and Energy, as well as clean water and environmental justice advocates.
The order drew stiff opposition from Republicans over Whitmer’s call to eliminate a series of panels that oversee changes in state environmental regulations. Yet few lawmakers seem to have taken issue with Whitmer’s desire to act on climate, said Liesl Clark, Michigan DEQ director.
“Folks understand we’re seeing changes. We’re seeing weather pattern changes. It’s becoming real for folks,” Clark said. She pointed to moves by General Motors Co. and other large corporations in the state to buy renewable energy as evidence of a wider shift underway.
“I think there are strides to be made in the states. Michigan is lining up to be part of the change,” she said.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding