Why the West will continue to green even as Trump rolls back climate policy

Even without the Clean Power Plan, the region is poised for more renewable energy and less coal.

 

The West likely will continue greening its electricity supply despite President Donald Trump’s expected executive order today aimed at wiping out much of former President Barack Obama’s consequential actions to rein in climate change. But progress will be slower and spottier than it would have been.

The president will order agencies to rewrite rules that were intended to slash greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas drilling, lift a moratorium on leasing coal from federal lands and stop considering impacts on climate change when making major government decisions. But perhaps most significantly,  he would order the Environmental Protection Agency to undo the Clean Power Plan, which was designed to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Among Western states, the Clean Power Plan would have required the most significant reductions in Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and Montana, where coal still provides large shares of the electricity. So its absence likely will make the biggest difference in those states. Other Western states already have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector by shifting from coal to renewable energy and natural gas. The three West Coast states vow to keep pushing forward, despite Trump’s revanche.

“Through expanded climate policies, we have grown jobs and expanded our economies while cleaning our air,” the governors of California, Washington and Oregon and mayors of their largest cities said in a statement. “Too much is at stake – from our health and safety to our jobs and livelihoods – for us to move backwards.”

Unquestionably, by cancelling Obama’s signature policy, the new administration makes it very difficult for the United States to meet its international commitments to reduce the greenhouse gas pollution that contributes to a warming planet. Without U.S. action, it becomes much harder for the rest of the world to mitigate a range of climate change impacts around the globe and in the American West, including intensified wildfire, deeper droughts, greater flooding, impacts to human health and reduced snowpack, which cuts drinking water supplies.

California has long been a leader on environmental action and is determined to remain so in the absence of the Clean Power Plan. The question now is how and whether the rest of the West will continue to green its electricity supply without federal mandates to do so. 

Employees gather at the Elk Creek mine in Somerset, Colorado, during the 2012 Coal Mine Methane Press Conference, where Aspen Skiing announced it would invest in a system that captures methane emissions.
Jeremy Swanson/Flickr
  1. California leads the way

California will continue to drive action to mitigate climate change in the region. The state uses 40 percent of the West’s electricity. It also has the West’s most ambitious renewable energy mandate —50 percent by 2030—and its electricity sector is part of a cap-and-trade program that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and another 40 percent by 2030. These programs will persist and keep spurring the transition to cleaner energy across the state and the region despite rollbacks from the Trump administration.

California’s climate change programs force the adoption of cleaner electricity across the West, because the state imports 20 percent of its electricity from states like Nevada and Wyoming and requires that power to meet its clean energy standards. This encourages the growth of large-scale renewable energy and the closure of dirty coal-fired power plants.

California is determined to keep leading on climate policy “because we have to,” Dave Clegern, a public information officer at the California Air Resources Board wrote High Country News in an email. Decreasing snowpacks in the mountains, increasingly intense storms, worsening air quality and more severe wildfires are just a few of the impacts related to climate change that the state already is experiencing. 

  1. What are other states doing?

State mandates for renewable energy also will keep greening the region’s electricity in the absence of the Clean Power Plan. Like California, Oregon last year committed to 50 percent renewable electricity, but has until 2040 to meet that goal. Oregon’s legislation also committed to stop using coal for electricity by 2030. Other Western states also have renewable energy mandates: Colorado requires investor-owned utilities to get 30 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020. New Mexico requires 20 percent by 2020, and Washington 15 percent by 2020, both also for investor-owned utilities. States with 2025 targets include: Nevada (25 percent), Utah (20 percent), and Arizona (15 percent). These policies, combined with plummeting prices for wind power and photovoltaic solar panels and a decision by Congress in 2015 to extend tax credits for renewable energy to 2019 and beyond, will continue to prod the region towards cleaner electricity. (So far, renewable energy tax credits have escaped the broad assault on clean energy programs and incentives by Trump and the GOP-led Congress.)

Energy efficiency resource standards that encourage adoption of appliances and air conditioners that use less power are another type of policy on the books in several Western states that likely will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in coming years. These polices require electric utilities to undertake programs to reduce electricity consumption.

  1. Closing coal plants

Coal-fired power plants have been and likely will continue to shut down despite Trump’s vow to revive the coal industry. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions because coal-fired power plants pump out more greenhouse gases than other sources of electricity. Low-priced natural gas and plummeting prices for solar and wind have soured the economics of coal-fired power plants, most of which are aging and expensive to keep running. These market forces and air pollution rules other than the Clean Power Plan have led to closures. Just last month, the owners of the West’s largest coal plant, the Navajo Generating Station, announced plans to close it in 2019.

The only remaining coal plants in Oregon and Washington are slated to shut down. Montana’s Colstrip is due to close two of its oldest units by 2022. Even before the Navajo Generating Station announcement, the Western Utility Coordinating Council projected last year that by 2026, less than 19 percent of the region’s electricity will come from coal.

California’s climate change policies are a big factor in the closures. In most cases, coal-fired power plants across the West that have shut down or plan to close in coming years were owned at least in part by California utilities or were big suppliers into the California market. For instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power owned 21 percent of the Navajo Generating Station but divested its ownership in that plant last July. “They’ve had a huge impact on all coal retirements that have already occurred and the ones planned in the coming years,” said Patrick Cummins, senior policy advisor for the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

What’s the hitch?

Progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions likely will vary greatly from state to state without the Clean Power Plan. Several Western states—California, Washington, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah — were likely to meet or exceed their climate reduction targets under the Clean Power Plan based on other policies and market forces, according to an analysis by New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

Most Western states do not seem eager to step into the void created by the Clean Power Plan. Apart from California, progress on state climate change policy has been difficult, even in heavily Democratic states. Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee, who has prioritized fighting climate change, is facing resistance. Last year, the state legislature balked at his cap-and-trade proposal, so his administration adopted the Clean Air Rule to slowly reduce carbon emissions from refineries and other big polluting facilities. The governor now is promoting a carbon tax after voters in November defeated a ballot initiative to create a carbon tax. In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper dropped plans for an executive order that would have called on the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector by 35 percent. He told reporters before his state of the state address in January that backlash from Republicans forced him to drop his plan to push ahead.

For now, the political environment in many Western states doesn’t seem ripe for explicit climate action, but greenhouse gas emissions still likely will keep coming down. “Many states may do things that will have the effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, who has monitored state climate change efforts for many years. “But they’re just not going to talk about it in terms of climate change because the politics are difficult.” 

 

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes HCN’s DC Dispatches from Washington.

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