JUICE: Come Senators, Congressmen

By Published On: February 6, 2014

“The times they are a changin’.” Bob Dylan sang it. Now, he advertises Chryslers on the Super Bowl. In Congress, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) tossed in his jersey just days after the State of the Union. Waxman’s exit couldn’t have been timelier. That’s because the President, despite his accomplishments on mileage standards, clearly belied any notion there’s a big distinction between the Democrats and Republicans on energy and climate change policy. Obama proclaimed he’s proud the nation is producing more oil under his watch than it has in decades. Days later his State Department arguably moved toward green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline to tap oil from Canada’s tar sands, a project as big as the extra-large uniforms sported by the Seattle Seahawks. In Washington, D.C., the ground for staunchly pro-environmental politicians to stand on seems to be disappearing as quickly as the Seattle Seahawks scored touchdowns. California increasingly stands alone on climate policy. The state ends reliance on coal as use of the mineral grows around the world. California is busy putting a price on carbon while Virginia lowers its gasoline tax. As the divide between California and the rest of the nation expands, Waxman’s influence has waned. Like the Broncos’ Peyton Manning on the sidelines, the great legislative leader from California has effectively been reduced to handwringing since his ill-fated attempt to move federal cap-and-trade legislation to Obama’s desk when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress (Current, June 26, 2009). With Congress in gridlock, it’s creating a problem for California as it carries out its climate change law. The state spends more and more to reduce greenhouse gases for no real results. Unless the nation—indeed the world—join in, California inexorably moves toward the fate it fears—ghastly heat, snowless mountains, dust bowl farms, and flooded beaches. California can’t save itself. It’s either figure out how to go forward with the nation and others around the world or build a lifeboat here to adapt to the coming changes. Voters will have a chance to replace Waxman, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), and others in the House this fall with a new generation of lawmakers. Whoever wins will have a new chance to figure out how to advance the state’s goals in Washington. For California, new faces could bring new approaches in place of the righteous indignation, scientific arguments, and macroeconomic studies that have proven ineffective, along with grand strategies, like carbon cap-and-trade. Here’s where the successors to Waxman’s generation might begin:  Get out of the California echo chamber and listen. There is truth to what the Republicans say about the “war on coal.” As coal power plants shut down in response to policy in California and do the same if Obama’s power plant emissions standards go forward, people in states and communities that have built their livelihoods around the fossil fuel will suffer. A successful political strategy will provide and build an alternative economic pathway for them.  Make progress on climate change by concentrating on small things rather than grand strategies like cap-and-trade. Arguably, California’s renewable portfolio and energy efficiency standards have done more to curtail greenhouse gases than the state’s climate protection law will do anytime soon. Advancing these smaller goals—if legislation is written modestly and broad enough to allow entrepreneurs to build projects in every state—could pass through Congress.  Revise the tax code to provide long-term certainty when it comes to incentives for renewable energy. This may be possible, as long as it’s not tied to phasing out tax breaks for fossil fuels. Instead, just level the playing field.  Pave the way to build transmission lines connecting renewable resource areas in states without much of a market for power to states that need a lot of power. One example is running a line from windy Wyoming to California. That idea was broached almost ten years ago. It never went anywhere because of fear here that coal power could come down the line.  Enthusiastically support increasing the royalties drillers and coal mining companies must pay to the federal government to fully cover the public cost of drilling booms on federal lands. Wind and solar companies too. For instance, trucks delivering heavy equipment and supplies destroy roads. Boomtowns burden local public services, like police protection and sanitation. These proceeds should be shared with states and municipalities and the additional money spent to build up other parts of their economy so they can escape the boom and bust cycle of what are today called “plays” in the oil and gas industry. The list of such small initiatives that just might be politically acceptable could go on, but achieving even a few breakthroughs could change the economics in other states and lay the groundwork needed to achieve real progress. It also could build new relationships in Congress that foster cooperation instead of divisiveness. As alternative economies grow, seeing will become believing in today’s fossil fuel-based states. Down the road, this could make a grand climate change strategy politically feasible. Until then, despite its mighty effort, California will be just as subject to climate change as the coal miners in West Virginia or Wyoming. The message to California politicians: “You better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. . .”

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