After eight years of watching their environmental work hamstrung by Washington, the nation's governors got a strong signal over the weekend that they finally have a partner in the White House willing to listen to their expertise on clean energy and climate change.
President Obama's energy and environment team traveled to California on Saturday to meet with a dozen state governors and begin building a state-federal partnership capable of moving the entire country toward a clean energy future.
The president's commitment to the partnership was clear from the attendance list. The White House didn't send department deputies – it sent the Cabinet-level officials themselves: Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the president's energy and climate change adviser, Carol Browner.
Jackson and two of the governors will also be speaking Monday at the opening of a new State-Federal Climate Resource Center in Washington designed to keep that policy conversation going.
California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger described the weekend meeting this way:
States have been leading the way on clean energy and climate change, and we are thrilled to now have a willing partner in the White House to promote these policies on a national stage. We hope that our efforts will now act as a model for change at the federal level.
States like California have long been the nation's proving grounds for innovative climate policies and programs.
California's tough emissions rules have been pushing automotive developments since the 1970s. With its solar, wind and geothermal resources and technological innovations, the state has also set one of the most ambitious renewable portfolio standards in the country – 20 percent of its retail electricity from renewable sources by next year, and 33 percent by 2020.
But California has also had to fight the White House and Congress to keep its high standards on off-shore drilling, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
In the meeting with Obama administration officials, Schwarzenegger and the governors of Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington discussed those challenges and their states' initiatives for developing clean energy and mitigating climate change.
The governors are looking for leadership from the federal government to set national, science-based greenhouse gas reduction targets, both to protect the planet and to level the economic playing field across the nation. To get there, they envision a combination of market mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade, performance standards and incentives. They see future carbon allowances supporting a faster transition to clean, efficient energy production and use.
The governors stressed, though, that any federal action should consider the work the states are already doing to reduce emissions. They don't want new federal programs to get in the way of their efforts. They've asked that future federal plans recognize the investments already made in existing cap and trade programs and ensure state energy programs funded by those allowances are preserved.
In their letter requesting the meeting, the governors – including Jodi Rell of Connecticut and Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who didn't attend on Saturday – laid out their argument:
In the absence of federal leadership, we led the way in building an American climate change and clean energy policy from the ground up. We believe a successful national program will build on the work our states have done so far, and will follow the same principles that guided our efforts.
Ever since the Obama administration took over in Washington, the governors have been seeing positive signs.
In its first month, Obama's EPA dropped a Bush-era appeal of a ruling in New Jersey v. EPA, in which 15 states sued over the EPA's decision to exempt coal-fired power plants from strict mercury emission controls.
The EPA also began reconsidering a waiver request – denied by the Bush administration – to let California and other states to set higher auto emissions rules than the federal government. Schwarzenegger estimates the curb on tailpipe emissions in California will have the effect on emissions of taking 6.5 million cars off the road.
Following a request from 15 state attorneys general, the agency also says it will act soon on the long-ignored Supreme Court ruling in Masschusetts v. EPA that required a determination under the Clean Air Act that greenhouse gases are endangering the public health and welfare, a move that would the door to more regulation. In the same vein, Jackson said she would review a last-minute Bush-era memo that put the EPA on record stating that CO2 is not a pollutant regulated by the Clean Air Act.
The new State-Federal Climate Resource Center that is being launched at Georgetown Law Center on Monday will help facilitate a stronger understanding of all those issues from both the state and federal perspectives. By monitoring legislative and regulatory developments, it's goal is to assist all levels of government seeking to protect and promote their climate policy roles.
(Map of states with climate action plans courtesy of the Center for Climate Strategies.)