Hats Off to the Green New Dealers

Posted on August 10, 2020 by Leslie Carothers

Watching the U.S. government botch the response to the pandemic may deepen pessimism about our prospects for meaningful action to prevent catastrophic climate change. But multiple failures in foresight and management of a simpler crisis may well help make the case for serious national climate protection policies. In fact, strategies for climate action are gaining momentum. And environmental lawyers are stepping up to help.

Two developments in late 2018 created new pressure for action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C (October 2018) warned that avoiding increasingly severe impacts requires achieving net zero emissions by 2050 and reductions of 45% by 2030. Soon after, young activists led by the Sunrise Movement announced the Green New Deal. Proposed House Resolution 109 (Feb. 7, 2019) calls for a 10 year “national mobilization” to meet 100% of the U.S. power demand through “clean, renewable, and zero emission sources,” and to establish a host of programs to address economic weakness and inequality through investments in priorities like infrastructure, universal health insurance, and even a jobs guarantee. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was cool to the “Green Dream,“ and Republicans dismissed the Green New Deal as a socialist takeover. But despite its many critics and its daunting ambition, the Green New Deal has spurred an emerging climate policy consensus on the left and beyond.

Many civil society organizations representing environmental groups, the labor movement, and front-line environmental justice communities harmed by pollution have produced new reports and platforms influenced by the Green New Deal. For example, the U.S. Climate Action Network, a coalition of environmental organizations, issued a Vision for Equitable Climate Action that presents a concise statement of climate policy solutions from a consensus building initiative involving 100 groups. An analysis of this agenda and others by David Roberts in Vox stresses their common focus on achieving the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 by similar means: stringent sector-based energy standards; large scale public investments in efficiency, technology, and infrastructure to reduce emissions and create good jobs; and environmental justice, a commitment not only to protect disadvantaged communities from excess pollution but also to support a just transition for fossil fuel industry workers displaced by the transition to a clean energy economy.

The Democratic members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis established by the Speaker issued a 540-page report in June with comprehensive recommendations for legislative committees. That report sets the same major priorities of setting sector standards, public investment, and environmental justice, with much more elaboration of the details. Neither the Climate Action Network report nor the House Committee Democrats reject the use of market mechanisms to set a price on carbon, but market tools are not central to their agendas. What is clear is that climate strategies combining energy use standards with big public investment to rebuild our infrastructure, generate good jobs, and protect vulnerable communities have won wide acceptance by environmental organizations and the broader Democratic Party, now including the Biden campaign.

The Biden plan announced in July would set technology neutral clean energy standards for the power sector that could allow trading of credits among sources, while pledging major infrastructure investments and greater monitoring of pollution sources to protect disadvantaged communities. His plan calls for a transition to 100% green energy in the power sector by 2035, a national net zero emissions goal by 2050, and $2 trillion in federal investments in clean energy infrastructure, procurement, and research over 4 years. The Democrats’ call for massive federal spending on decarbonization of the economy akin to the original New Deal looks less extreme following a Democratic primary campaign spotlighting decades of wage stagnation amid exploding health and housing costs for the majority of Americans. Today’s pandemic and the resulting economic damage and unemployment have only strengthened the case for more federal spending to revive a long underperforming economy.

In another important policy development, the Climate Leadership Council, the leading proponent of a revenue neutral carbon tax with revenue returned to citizens to offset higher energy costs, issued a Bipartisan Climate Roadmap in February, 2020. The updated plan, narrowed from earlier versions to focus on stationary sources of carbon dioxide and stripped of non-starters like liability protection for fossil fuel companies, estimated that it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 57% by 2035, “unlock” $1.4 trillion in capital investment, presumably private, and create 1.6 million jobs. Initially developed by respected Republican elders James Baker and George Shultz, the plan has many high-powered endorsers from diverse sectors and retired public officials from both political parties. Thorny issues like how this plan can intersect with existing state emission trading and renewable energy portfolio standards remain. But the bigger question is whether this ambitious market-oriented plan would finally bring many congressional Republicans to the table to work on a national law. It is noteworthy that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, mirabile dictu, issued a new statement of climate policy priorities last year, concluding in bold type that “inaction is not an option.” Can the Republican Party be far behind? We shall see.

It’s great to see lawyers advancing concrete climate response actions, too. The report on Legal Pathways for Deep Decarbonization in the United States (2018) edited by ACOEL members and climate experts John Dernbach and Michael Gerrard offers 25 chapters by lawyers who donated their time. (The report and a short summary document are available from the publisher, the Environmental Law Institute). The editors have now recruited 24 law firms and legal clinics to draft model laws implementing the ideas or serve as peer reviewers. More volunteers are still needed. Here is the link to the recently launched website on the project where the work will be published. If readers have interest and time to contribute your skills to this fine project, check it out.

Nearly 30 years ago, the U.S. Senate ratified the 1992 United Nations Framework Climate Convention calling for national efforts to work toward stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels. Those of us dismayed by our national failures since then should applaud young activists for transforming the debate with the Green New Deal’s call for urgency, equity, and economic revival to meet the challenge of the climate crisis. It’s about time.

Some Labor Principles for Climate Change Legislation

Posted on May 20, 2019 by Eugene Trisko

The Democratic takeover of the House has rekindled hopes for climate change legislation, notwithstanding major hurdles in the Senate and the White House. While little but incremental progress is likely over the foreseeable future, the legislative concepts now being developed may gain greater traction after the 2020 general election.

Labor unions have participated in all major climate legislative developments since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and were involved in the drafting of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and other provisions of the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate bill. Labor has consistently advocated for a comprehensive, economy-wide legislative solution to climate change. However, it is essential that any such legislation also be crafted to provide for worker adjustment assistance programs to address job displacement impacting families and communities.

Unions in the energy space are concerned about the adverse job implications of potential carbon tax legislation. Carbon taxes create uncertainties about market responses and lack assurance that advanced emission mitigation technologies such as CCS could be deployed in time to avert massive dislocation of workers in the petroleum, coal, rail, and mining sectors.

Any carbon tax legislation necessarily must include significant revenue set-asides for worker adjustment and community redevelopment assistance. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that more than two million workers are directly employed in 14 vulnerable fossil fuel-related industries, with annual wages and benefits of some $180 billion. An additional seven million indirect jobs are in support industries and communities.

Major energy unions also are concerned about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the “Green New Deal” and by proponents of “Keep It in the Ground.” Legislation addressing the complex issues of carbon emission reduction must address: a) the tremendous impact such legislation will have on millions of fossil fuel-reliant jobs across America; and b) the costs and full recompense required to mitigate the effects of the loss of those jobs on workers, families and communities.

Speaker Pelosi has indicated that an emission allowance trading program such as that developed in the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill is a good starting point for discussions about future climate legislation. Updating and improving that bill could offer strong technology incentives while delivering significant longer-term emission reductions. A revamped allowance-based program could reflect the following principles:

1) All major emitting sectors (utilities, industrial, transportation) should be covered by a national trading program based on an upstream allocation of allowances  - i.e., to utility generating units, gas pipelines, oil refineries, etc.;

2) The rate of decline for any cap (sectoral or national) should to be assessed in light of the cost and availability of technologies for reducing CO2. In the case of electric utilities, a longer time frame for reductions can be justified based on lengthy engineering and construction lead-times - the transportation sector similarly requires long lead-times due to the gradual rollover of vehicle fleets;

3) A bonus allowance program for technology retrofits at utility and industrial units, similar to that employed in Waxman-Markey and the 1990 acid rain program, would complement the CCS incentives that Congress recently enacted in 45Q tax credit legislation;

4) Allowance auctions should be avoided as they constitute a form of double taxation on emitting sectors: first, compliance must be achieved through investments in control measures, and second, allowances must be purchased through an auction system;

5) Any economy-wide legislation should seek to maintain fuel diversity among "clean" fossil, nuclear, and renewable resources, with adequate 24/7 baseload generating capabilities. Reliance on large-scale battery storage to back up renewable power sources cannot provide assurance of grid stability over prolonged episodes of severe weather; and

6) Minimal limitations should be placed on emission allowance banking and borrowing to reduce overall compliance costs. Similarly, a broad variety of domestic and international offsets should be available, including initiatives to help reduce deforestation.

Legislation reflecting these principles may face fewer political hurdles than some of the more extreme proposals being advocated today. While current science informs a commitment to large-scale global reductions to meet aggressive climate targets, the U.S. should act in a manner consistent with the preservation and expansion of highly-paid skilled jobs in the energy and transport sectors. A technology-oriented path for achieving significant long-term reductions appears more politically and economically feasible than calls to eliminate all fossil fuel use within the next decade or two.


NOTE: The writer is an adviser to several energy-related labor unions concerned about climate change legislation and regulation.

What Happens When the Green New Deal Meets the Old Green Laws?

Posted on March 27, 2019 by JB Ruhl

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey made headlines when introducing the Green New Deal resolution to Congress. Within milliseconds, contesting waves of support and opposition flooded the news wires, social media, and blogs. Critics focused on the proposal’s perhaps overly hopeful (some say, delusional) absence of any accounting for the funding, political feasibility, and technological capacity needed to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the Green New Deal’s target date of 2050 (some Green New Dealers advocate an even earlier date), especially under the other conditions they demand. After all, the Green New Deal movement is basically asking our nation to replace one national energy infrastructure with another, plus demanding that government also ensure social justice for present and future generations, provide millions of new jobs, install an awesomely sustainable economy, extend free health care, and the list goes on.

But let’s put all that aside. Let’s say we had a blueprint for the Green New Deal’s carbon goal and a whole lot of money to spend. The stark reality is that the Green New Deal is going to run smack dab into the wall of the Old Green Laws. I’m talking about the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Air Act, the…do I really need to keep going, because the list is really long.

What the Green New Deal movement simply does not seem to appreciate is that the nation’s existing energy infrastructure is a vast physical, social, and economic entity that has been defined in its geographic, technological, and economic dimensions largely by decades upon decades of lawsuits brought under those Old Green Laws by many of the interest groups now behind the Green New Deal. The infrastructure the New Green Deal envisions—particularly if it rules out hydropower and nuclear power—can’t just land where the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure is located, as if we are just changing car tires. Wind power has to follow wind, and solar power has to follow the sun, and neither of those geographic footprints has much overlap with where the fossil fuel infrastructure is currently located. So, making the Green New Deal happen means putting vast new renewable energy production facilities on the landscape. And then, because our existing transmission grid is based on where fossil fuel generation occurs, which is generally not where solar and wind generation will occur, we’ll need to put new transmission lines on the landscape. Just looking at NEPA alone, it would take 25 years just to get the Environmental Impact Statements done and through the courts before the first shovel of dirt is moved!

To put it bluntly, this is going to be ugly. Environmental protection special interest groups already are attacking wind and solar energy projects around the nation, claiming they will kill too many bats, birds, and desert creatures. Yet, if you were to map out what would be needed to implement the Green New Deal, we’ll need to locate new wind and solar power generation infrastructure, and their transmission line infrastructure, on the landscape at a pace and scale unprecedented in our nation’s history. Believing that everyone will be behind that is naïve. Wherever this Green New Deal landscape transformation machine goes, it will face opposition by narrow-interest environmental groups, not-in-my-backyard landowners, states, local governments, and companies threatened by the new regime, and so on. To think otherwise is delusional. And their first weapon of choice is going to be the Old Green Laws. After all, look around and ask, what has for decades impeded and often stopped new fossil fuel infrastructure such as pipelines, processing facilities, and port facilities. It’s the Old Green Laws.

Looking into the Law 2050 future, the “green” interests that are promoting the New Green Deal sooner or later will have to come up with a convincing soundbite explanation for how they propose to comply with the Old Green Laws in a way and time frame that meets their 2050 deadline. Doing so without in some substantial ways relaxing the current Old Green Laws seems implausible, but relaxing any current regulations seems a nonstarter for Green New Deal politicians. In other words, the Green New Deal is between a rock and a hard place, and they can blame their predecessor “green” generations who designed and implemented the Old Green Laws that must be satisfied regardless of the climate virtues of the Green New Deal.

One can easily imagine that many industry and landowner special interest groups long pitted against the environmental protection special interest groups have grins on their faces, as the latter will seem to have been hoisted by their own petard. It is not hard to envision how the Green New Deal will splinter the environmental interest group universe—indeed, more than 600 groups recently signed a letter to Congress supporting the Green New Deal agenda, but a good number of leading national groups such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society did not sign on.

There is perhaps a third path, however. To make its agenda complete, the Green New Deal could propose a new environmental law regime as well, one that does not tinker with the Old Green Laws and thus face the claim of “deregulation” or “backsliding.” The Green New Deal must acknowledge the environmental disruptions its infrastructure proposal will cause and design an environmental planning, assessment, permitting, and regulatory regime (perhaps even with--gasp!--market mechanisms like trading and taxes) built from scratch around concepts of resilience, adaptive management, and collaborative adaptive governance. This will mean dispensing with the Old Green Laws’ morass of comprehensive pre-decision studies and rounds of lawsuits. In short, the New Green Deal needs New Green Laws.