Feds dive into climate fight, but California still leads

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The Biden administration is stepping up federal climate action after this month’s watershed legislation, but California shows no sign of giving up its leadership position on the issue.

Two months ago, the Biden administration’s efforts to pass a sweeping climate bill seemed doomed, and much of the momentum was relegated to the state level, fueling the presidential chatter about Governor Gavin Newsom (D). Now, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), California is once again poised to take sweeping climate action, but this time against the backdrop of a newly empowered White House.

The passage of the IRA “created a significant opening for California to really pull away and back into some sort of favorite [role] among states in terms of climate ambitions,” Katelyn Roedner Sutter, Environmental Defense Fund climate policy manager for the state, told The Hill.

Last week, California’s Air Resources Board announced new rules that would phase out sales of all gasoline-powered vehicles in the state by 2035. Almost immediately, officials in New York, Oregon, Washington and Rhode Island have announced plans to adopt the rule as well.

One of the reasons the Golden State has led the way on air pollution in particular is that the problem is literally close to home, according to Steve Cohen, director of the Master of Science in Public Administration program and Environmental Policy at Columbia University.

“They objectively had one of the worst smogs in the country, so the political basis for environmental policy has been there for half a century,” Cohen said.

The state, like much of the western United States, has also experienced a growing drought crisis that has moved climate change far beyond theory for residents.

With the state’s legislative session slated to end on Wednesday, lawmakers prepared a wide array of climate-related bills.

A Newsom-backed measure would increase the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets by 40% to 55%, from 1990 levels, by the end of the decade. The legislation, which passed the state Assembly, also passed the state Senate last week, but was referred to its appropriations committee.

“Part of why this is really an achievable thing to do is because of the Cut Inflation Act and the influx of investment and support California and other states will get of the federal government,” Sutter said. “So this is a unique moment for California to take this next step in leadership and for other states to follow.”

California has historically taken the lead in climate regulation at the state level, including its waiver allowing stricter automotive emissions standards than the national standard. While the waiver was specifically granted due to above-average air pollution in the Los Angeles area, 16 other states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards starting this year.

The state-level provisions of the IRA, Sutter said, are likely to speed up California’s pace rather than slow it down.

“I think the focus on the transport sector [in the IRA] is really exciting because traditionally it’s a pretty tough industry to deal with,” she said. “And so more resources are being put into zero-emission vehicles with light-duty and heavy-duty vehicles, that’s going to have a pretty big impact on our greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution.”

Another major opportunity for work at the state level is IRA funds for grid modernization, Cohen said.

“One million homes in California already have solar power in their homes,” he said, adding that “California utilities plan to begin building commercial-grade solar and wind farms.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) told The Hill in an interview that his state “leads in this space, typically five, 10, 20 years ahead when it comes to environmental policy.” Bonta added that he hopes the IRA will “intensify national action in other states where we believe California has led and will continue to lead.”

Bonta’s office, meanwhile, is spearheading a number of state-level climate legal efforts, including a multi-state lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service. A coalition of Democratic attorneys general is suing the Postal Service’s order of a new fleet of mostly gas-powered vans, arguing that an environmental assessment that formed the basis of the order was based on flawed calculations.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that the percentage of electric vehicles in the order will be increased, which Postal Service officials have always maintained as an option, but Bonta confirmed the lawsuit is ongoing.

“The Postal Service appears to be backtracking, and we are encouraged by the stated commitment, [but] they should have the cleanest, most environmentally friendly fleet they’ve ever had, and that’s possible given current technology,” Bonta said. “And that’s what we’re looking for.”

The Hill has contacted the Postal Service for comment.

Another way the IRA is changing the calculus is for President Biden himself, who has seen his approval rating soar by an all-time high since the measure was signed.

But Biden’s revitalization doesn’t diminish Newsom’s standing as a national leader on climate issues, Sutter told The Hill.

“The modeling shows [the IRA] will put us within reach of the 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution [on emissions reductions], but that doesn’t take us all the way,” she said. “So we still need states to take ambitious action and Governor Newsom is doing that, and I think that’s why he’s presented this plan to hopefully get to the finish line before the end of the session.”

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