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Races Put Climate Pacts In Jeopardy

States have set the pace over the past decade as the nation?s leaders in implementing climate change policy, but much of their work could be on the line this fall.

Races Put Climate Pacts In Jeopardy

August 11, 2010


States have set the pace over the past decade as the nation’s leaders in implementing climate change policy, but much of their work could be on the line this fall.

Nineteen gubernatorial races involve states that participate in the regional climate initiatives that have emerged as important alternatives to federal policy, given Congress’s failure to pass a cap-and-trade system to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Nowhere is the battle more intense than in California , where Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman are at odds over the state’s landmark law to reduce heat-trapping emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Whitman favors a one-year suspension of the law, known as AB 32, to give the state’s economy time to recover from the recession. The former eBay chief executive said last fall that the climate law, which Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed in 2006, “may have been well-intentioned, but it is wrong for these challenging times.”

Brown’s campaign has seized on Whitman’s rightward shift during her heated GOP primary, which waded into doubts on the science of global warming. And his campaign said Whitman is waffling when it comes to her views on a separate ballot initiative — funded by out-of-state oil company interests — that would halt AB 32 unless there’s a dramatic economic turnaround.

“We’re opposed to climate change, and Meg Whitman isn’t sure it’s real,” said Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford. “That’s the critical distinction on that issue.”

Given California ’s long-standing leadership role on environmental issues, the gubernatorial and ballot initiative races could have major repercussions beyond the state’s borders.

“A loss would be devastating in so many ways,” said state Sen. Fran Pavley, a Los Angeles-area Democrat and a lead co-author of the climate law. The defeat of AB 32 would prompt businesses to pass on spending billions of dollars for a variety of low-carbon technologies, she said.

Industry interests said the California election is an important signal of the prospects for climate policies that are not compatible with the current economy.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute. “Who would have predicted two or three years ago that the repeal of AB 32 would have even been an issue in California ? But today, it is.”

Sources tracking state climate policies insist the candidates’ positions may not be reflective of the work they would do if elected. 

For example, both Schwarzenegger and Florida independent Gov. Charlie Crist surprised outsiders when they stepped into their roles as leaders in the climate debate.

“Neither, when coming into office, was planning to do this,” said Judi Greenwald at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “We’re hoping there are other folks who are surprising and come to the issue when they come to office.”

But the rhetoric from several candidates in key states for climate pacts shows little wiggle room.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who steps down in January after two terms, signed up for the Western Climate Initiative — a regional plan to cap carbon dioxide emissions in 2012. But whoever replaces the Democrat might be inclined to drop out.

Arizona , Nevada and Utah already have opted out of the pact, and New Mexico could be a loser if it doesn’t follow, said Ryan Cangiolosi, campaign manager for GOP nominee Susana Martinez. “This threatens the economic competitiveness of our state even further relative to our neighbors’ and is simply unsustainable,” he said.

Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Diane Denish is also hedging her bets on a state-focused climate law. “She does not support state-level emission caps because she does not believe a checkerboard approach solves the problem or creates a level playing field for states,” said spokesman Chris Cervini.

In Massachusetts , former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney pulled out of what was then still a budding regional climate pact for power plants in the Northeast. His replacement, Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, brought the Bay State back to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Patrick, who is seeking a second term, is reminding voters of his decision and is touting endorsements from local chapters of the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters.

By contrast, Republican front-runner Charlie Baker “has great concerns” with the results of the regional compact, including some estimates that the program increased electricity costs by $50 million for consumers and businesses in 2009, according to Amy Goodrich, a spokeswoman for Baker. “Charlie is committed to undertaking a review of all of the laws and regulations in Massachusetts that make us less competitive and thwart job creation, and RGGI is certainly something that needs to be looked at,” she said.

In Maine , Paul LePage won the GOP gubernatorial nomination at the same time the state party changed its platform. He dubbed global warming science a “scam.”

The Democratic nominee, state Sen. Libby Mitchell, is supportive of the Northeastern compact and the funding it provides for home weatherization, an important issue in a state reliant on heating oil for old homes, said spokesman David Loughran. On her website, Mitchell also pledges she will make “reducing our dependence on foreign oil the centerpiece of my economic strategy.”