As Washington waffles, Western states go green

Legislatures boost wildlife and clean energy, while bucking the nuclear and oil industries

  • California Energy

    David Horsey

Flush with oil and gas revenues, Wyoming set up a $15 million trust fund to preserve wildlife and open space. Idaho finally got realistic about the risks of cyanide heap-leach gold mines. And Utah banned the importation of the most dangerous nuclear wastes.

Those are some of the notable environmental laws that Western legislatures have passed so far this year.

But among the variety of actions from New Mexico to Washington, a single issue stands out: energy.

Nine out of the 11 Western legislatures passed new energy-related laws, to encourage renewable energy production, promote energy conservation, and make the fossil fuels industry more accountable for its impacts.

And the states’ actions go well beyond partisanship. Republicans now run both chambers of the legislatures in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona; Democrats run both chambers in Washington, California, Colorado and New Mexico; and the parties split control in Oregon, Montana and Nevada.

This burst of lawmaking runs counter to energy policy in Washington, D.C., where the Bush administration and Congress have emphasized fossil fuels since 2001. "These are localized efforts to meet what’s happening on the ground," says Mark Ruzzin, program associate for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, based in Boulder, Colo.

"There’s a very active movement (around the West) to address these issues on the demand side and the supply side," Ruzzin says. In the face of increased pressure for natural gas drilling and coal- and gas-fired power plants, the states are trying to reduce energy consumption and increase the production of clean, renewable power.

Green buildings and efficient appliances

Washington’s Legislature, which concluded in April, took the most aggressive stand for renewable energy and efficiency, creating tax incentives for the installation of wind, solar and anaerobic-digester power-generation systems, and for companies that make solar-energy equipment. It gave local governments a way to finance energy conservation efforts. And it passed a "High Performance Green Building" law that requires all new major state buildings and school buildings to be energy-efficient.

The green-building law is "government leading by example," says Craig Engelking, legislative director of the Sierra Club’s Cascade chapter. Builders will see the government’s push for energy efficiency, and learn how to bid and contract such jobs, he says. Then they’ll adopt the standards voluntarily in other kinds of new construction: "They’ll see it’s not some crazy thing, and it’ll spread."

Moreover, Washington adopted energy-efficiency standards for 12 appliances not covered by federal standards, including traffic signals and commercial clothes washers, refrigerators and space heaters. The law is expected to save enough electricity to power 90,000 homes by 2020, while reducing power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide — the key cause of global warming — by 14 billion pounds.

Similar appliance-efficiency laws were passed by the legislatures of Oregon, Arizona, and Colorado, although Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, R, no fan of regulations, vetoed his state’s law.

Nevada’s Legislature passed a "green-building" law, which requires all new state buildings to meet a minimum standard for energy efficiency, creates incentives for efficiency in all kinds of new buildings, and makes it easier to finance renewable-energy projects. Legislatures in New Mexico and Idaho also passed laws to encourage renewable energy and conservation.

Montana took a big step, becoming the sixth Western state to adopt a renewable energy standard (HCN, 5/2/05: Renewable Energy Standards: How do states match up?). The state now requires investor-owned utility companies to get 15 percent of their power from renewable-energy projects by 2015. "We haven’t had a Legislature sensitive to environmental concerns in more than a decade," says Anne Hedges, a lobbyist for the Montana Environmental Information Center. This time, legislators, including many Republicans, "were listening. They didn’t dismiss our ideas out of hand."

And California’s Legislature, which is still in session, seems determined to hold on to its role as a national leader on energy policy. The state Senate passed the "Million Solar Roofs" bill in June. That bill seeks to outfit a million California homes with solar power, by requiring large-scale developers to offer $15,000 solar systems as an option on new homes. The cost would be partly covered by tax credits and rebates.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, supports the bill, which is now being considered in the state’s General Assembly, where the members of the key Utilities and Commerce Committee have already given it unanimous approval.

Only Utah’s Legislature sent mixed signals on energy policy. It abolished the state’s energy policy office, handing off many of its responsibilities to three other agencies. At the same time, it created a new energy czar in the office of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. That job is not yet filled, but both the governor and the Legislature are setting up advisory groups to develop new energy policies by 2006.

Green laws gain ground

With bipartisan support, the states passed other environmental laws, on issues ranging from air pollution to new subdivisions.

Heading off efforts by a nuclear waste-disposal company to expand its operations, Utah’s Legislature banned the importation of "Class B" and "Class C" nuclear wastes, which include parts of demolished nuclear reactors. The company, Envirocare, already handles less-dangerous "Class A" waste (HCN, 12/8/03: Utahns beat back radioactive waste). But the public didn’t want it to handle more dangerous materials, and that swayed the Legislature, says Mark Clemens, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s Utah chapter.

In Wyoming, the Legislature passed a so-called "split-estate" law that gives landowners more power when they don’t own mineral rights. The new law requires oil and gas drillers to negotiate with landowners, and forces companies to pay landowners if they damage the land. Ranchers as well as environmentalists pushed for the law (HCN, 2/7/05: Split-estate rebellion: Ranchers take on energy developers).

But the "crown jewel" in Wyoming’s legislative session was the Wildlife and Natural Resources Funding Act, says Dave Gowdey, director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. Three previous attempts to establish a trust fund for preserving wildlife and habitat had failed. But this time, Gov. Dave Freudenthal, D, backed the idea, as did the state’s hunters and anglers. "Legislators said they’d never seen response like this," Gowdey says. "Some were getting 75 calls a day in favor of it."

Nonprofit groups and government agencies can apply for grants from the new trust fund, for projects like restoring streamside areas and saving migration corridors. Wyoming has a huge budget surplus from oil and gas revenues, so Gov. Freudenthal expects the state to follow its initial $15 million with additional funding. Oil and gas companies have also offered to kick in to help meet the goal of growing the trust fund to $200 million by 2010, Gowdey says.

The Idaho Mining Association took the surprising lead in Idaho’s decision to reduce the risks of cyanide-leach gold mining, perhaps in response to neighboring Montana’s 1998 ban on such mining.

Cyanide-leach mines have caused pollution disasters around the West and then gone bankrupt, sticking taxpayers with millions of dollars in cleanup costs. But Idaho had a $100,000 cap on the "financial assurance" — typically a bank deposit — that mine companies must provide to cover a cleanup. The new law eliminates that cap, and says companies must pay up front the full estimated cost of cleanup, plus 10 percent. That would mean about $1 million for a small mine and perhaps $10 million to $15 million for a large mine, says Jack Lyman, executive vice president of the Idaho Mining Association.

Several new gold mines are proposed in Idaho, and any disaster "would reflect badly" on the phosphate companies that do most of the mining in Idaho now, says Lyman. "I don’t want the taxpayers of Idaho saddled with a $2 million cleanup bill and have that translate into an anti-mining attitude in Idaho."

Idaho’s new law, hammered out in negotiations with the Idaho Conservation League, will be the primary tool for financial assurance for new gold mines on private land in the state. For mines on federal land, if federal agencies set a financial assurance that seems low, the state can require a higher dollar total, Lyman says.

And Washington’s Legislature took a couple of steps against air pollution. It adopted California’s strict auto-emission standards, and passed a sales-tax exemption for vehicles that use alternative fuels, including hybrids that run largely on battery power.

Not entirely smooth sailing

Many of the West’s legislatures are sending a clear signal at a time when lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are bitterly gridlocked over environmental issues. Drafts of a federal energy bill that have passed both the House and the Senate favor fossil fuels over clean, renewable sources (HCN, 5/16/05: Congress touts 'green energy,' but bill is black and blue).

This trend — the states moving forward in the face of national inertia — first surfaced in last November’s election results (HCN, 11/22/04: Election Day surprises in the schizophrenic West). But many of the new laws won’t bring immediate changes; their effects will be phased in over the next five to 10 years. And despite the victories, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for environmentalists.

For example, split-estate laws were also introduced in Montana, Colorado and New Mexico, but oil and gas industry lobbying and anti-regulation sentiments killed them. Arizona’s Legislature passed a "forest health" law that gives tax incentives for salvage logging after wildfires and for cutting old-growth forests. And Colorado’s Gov. Owens vetoed more than 50 bills passed by his state’s Democrat-controlled Legislature, many of them backed by environmentalists.

But Ed Zuckerman, director of the Federation of State Conservation Voter Leagues, a nationwide group based in Seattle, says the Western legislatures demonstrate that "there is a consensus, by and large, on environmental issues, especially energy issues."

The legislatures have become more responsive to public opinion than is Congress, Zuckerman says, because both parties have gerrymandered most congressional districts to ensure that incumbents get re-elected. Congressmen "don’t have to worry about their constituents anymore," he says, while state legislators "are closer to the ground, and still accountable to their constituents."

"Often in the past, the states have been complacent, thinking that Congress (and the White House) would take care of overarching policies," he adds. "But now they see (that) they have to take matters into their own hands."

The author is HCN’s editor in the field. HCN Assistant Editor Laura Paskus and HCN interns Patrick Farrell and Tony Barboza assisted with research.

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