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2019 marked with states upping climate efforts amid federal rollbacks

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2019 marked with states upping climate efforts amid federal rollbacks

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Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, signs into law three energy and climate bills in June 2019.
Source: State of Maine via Twitter

New 100% clean electricity supply mandates are among the climate-friendly measures a number of states and one territory adopted in 2019 while most of the climate-related actions taken by federal agencies and the White House during the year focused on rolling back environmental protections and efforts to address climate change.

New York, Washington, Maine, and Puerto Rico passed mandates for utilities to provide carbon-free or 100% renewable power over the next decade or two while Maryland, Nevada, and New Mexico increased their renewable portfolio standards to 50% by 2030. Elsewhere, California passed emergency wildfire legislation and Oregon set a target to have 90% of new car sales by 2035 be zero-emissions vehicles. And a raft of new governors from both sides of the political aisle took actions related to climate change in 2019 or raised the topic in their state-of-the-union speeches.

But the states' actions "cannot do enough to reduce U.S. emissions" at the scale the U.S. would need to achieve under the Paris Agreement on climate change, said Kevin Rennert, a fellow and director of the Social Cost of Carbon Initiative at Resources for the Future. "That being said, this is not really a sprint. It's a marathon," and if enough states pursue aggressive targets opposition at the federal level could diminish, he said in an interview. Moreover, states that are successful in their efforts can show other states the roadmap forward and "that they don't have to bankrupt their economy to do it," he said.

However, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued an order in late December 2019 that will make competing in the PJM Interconnection's wholesale capacity markets — spanning 13 different states and the District of Columbia — far more difficult for state-subsidized resources, such as renewables and nuclear power. As such, the sole Democrat on the commission warned that the order would entrench PJM's existing resource mix and put the agency on a collision course with PJM states trying to promote clean energy.

Mixed results regarding carbon markets, pipeline protests

Some states stumbled when it came to establishing or joining a carbon market.

After Oregon's Republican senators staged a walkout over pending greenhouse gas legislation, the Legislature ended its session in June 2019 without passing a cap-and-trade bill. But Oregon Gov. Kate Brown vowed to try again in the future.

On the other side of the country, even as a number of states in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast took initial steps toward creating a regional carbon market for transportation-related emissions, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced his state will not participate in the program. Sununu suggested in a tweet that the program "if enacted, would institute a new gas tax by up to 17 cents per gallon while only achieving minimal results."

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And while Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, in 2019 launched the process for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for power plant emissions, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam did not stop the legislature from hitting the pause button on his plan to link the state's emissions reductions to RGGI. However, Northam may have more success in 2020 when Democrats will control both legislative chambers.

Three states addressed the increase in protests within their borders related to proposed pipeline projects. South Dakota agreed to scale back enforcement of laws aimed at pipeline protests even as Texas and Wisconsin passed bills to make those kinds of protests a felony.

Agencies roll back environmental protections

FERC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Securities and Exchange Commission, Congress and the White House took steps that, with some exceptions, weakened environmental protections or climate-related efforts.

Key actions by the EPA include its finalization of the Affordable Clean Energy, or ACE, rule, which the agency's own calculations show would do little to reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants. The rule replaced the more stringent Clean Power Plan. The EPA also formally repealed the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, which now allows the agency to finalize an alternative rule proposal that is expected to significantly diminish federal protections for wetlands and waterways.

As part of the Trump administration's efforts to relax fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revoked a waiver that allows California and other states to set their own strict clean car rules. Many of the EPA's actions, including the ACE rule and the waiver revocation, are being litigated in the courts.

In addition to the rulemaking on PJM, FERC also remained divided over its obligation to consider upstream or downstream emissions in natural gas pipeline reviews, which was most recently on display when FERC approved a long-delayed expansion project proposed by El Paso Natural Gas Co. LLC.

But in a move that could pave the way for more hydropower projects and aid in the transition to a low-carbon economy, the commission in April 2019 finalized a rule that would expedite the licensing process for such facilities at existing non-powered dams and for closed-loop pumped storage projects.

Another set of agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service in August finalized a rule revamping requirements under the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups worry the changes will make it harder to protect species, including those that face longer-term risks such as from climate change.

On Capitol Hill, most of the climate-related measures the Democrat-controlled House passed, such as the Green New Deal resolution, died in the Republican-controlled Senate. Climate-related measures that did make it through both chambers were largely limited to spending packages such as the tax extenders deal lawmakers passed in December. In the hopes that a Democrat wins the White House in 2020, Democratic lawmakers in the House are now crafting a bill that would aim to have the U.S. achieve a 100% clean economy by 2050.

Trump starts clock on pulling US from Paris accord

President Donald Trump issued executive orders limiting federal agencies' use of guidance documents to interpret and implement regulations but also one addressing electric transmission rights that electric utilities said could help them address wildfire risks. The White House's Council on Environmental Quality issued watered-down draft guidance on how agencies should consider greenhouse gas emissions in their environmental reviews for major decisions and project permits.

The White House also formally started the process of pulling the U.S. from the Paris accord, a move Trump could finalize the day after the coming November elections, which would mean the U.S. would no longer participate in international negotiations related to implementing the Paris agreement.

But countries are showing signs of having trouble agreeing on the path forward. Delegates from more than 190 countries went home empty-handed in December 2019 when they failed to reach an agreement on how to account for carbon reductions and markets under the accord. As a result, that issue has been bumped to the next meeting, called COP26, to be held in November 2020 in the U.K. A number of countries have a deadline to pledge more ambitious targets by the end of 2020, which is sure to be a key topic at the COP26 gathering.