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As momentum for new climate change legislation stalls in Washington, states look to pick up the slack

States are building on federal climate action by instituting renewable energy standards and new clean car rules.

A climate protest in NYC
Climate activists in New York City, Oct. 29, 2022. (Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

With Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, new federal climate change legislation is unlikely to come out of Washington, D.C., this year. But buoyed by the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last fall, a number of large states are currently working on ambitious actions designed to address rising global temperatures.

“We’re excited by the progress that we’ve seen so far in the year,” Justin Balik, state program director of Evergreen Action, told Yahoo News.

The flurry of activity has been led by governors, many of whom issue their proposed annual budgets in the early months of the year.

Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking in New York City last month. (NDZ/Star Max/IPx 2023 via AP)

New York is fighting climate change on multiple fronts

On Feb. 1, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, proposed several initiatives to boost clean energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The most significant measure Hochul took was directing state agencies to set a cap on greenhouse gas emissions that will gradually decline, reaching an 85% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. Large polluters like oil companies would have to buy permission, in the form of credits, to create their emissions. The plan could generate $3 billion per year in revenue, with two-thirds going to New Yorkers as rebates and the rest being spent on state climate programs.

Hochul also asked the state Legislature to pass a raft of investments aimed at reducing emissions, including $400 million to help low-income residents with utility bills, in part through helping them retrofit their homes for energy efficiency and helping them switch from gas or oil burners to electric heating systems. The governor also embraced a proposal in the Legislature that would require the New York Power Authority, a publicly owned utility, to expand its renewable energy production.

“We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation to be able to do anything about it,” Hochul said in a statement that accompanied the announcement.

The governor is also offering billions of dollars in aid to the state’s struggling mass transit system, a move New York environmentalists praised for helping to reduce the number of gasoline-burning vehicles on the road.

“We cannot drive our way out of the climate crisis, which means we need a fiscally stable mass transit system,” said Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, in a statement on Hochul’s budget.

However, one of Hochul’s ideas has already triggered significant backlash from conservatives — and chefs: banning fossil fuel infrastructure, including lines that power gas stoves and furnaces, in new buildings. According to a Siena College poll, 53% of New Yorkers oppose the proposal and just 39% support it. Even though Hochul, a Democrat, proposed the same policy last year without generating much controversy, it has been caught up in the current culture war over gas stoves. While some high-profile eco-conscious chefs support switching to electric stoves, other restaurateurs have complained that they cannot cook certain dishes on electric ranges, with one telling the New York Post the gas ban “is just a total farce to appease the woke movement.”

A climate change protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City
A climate change protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Clean energy standards

States are the primary regulators of energy utilities, and 36 of them, plus Washington, D.C., already have some goal for making a portion of their electricity from clean sources such as wind, solar, nuclear or hydropower.

Now, with the cost of renewables like wind and solar steadily dropping, some states are considering moving up their timeline or increasing the percentage of their power that comes from clean sources.

In a Feb. 15 address, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, also a Democrat, laid out a set of steps the state will take to cut its climate pollution. The most significant is an executive order moving up New Jersey’s target of relying 100% on clean energy from 2050 to 2035. Other executive orders speed the installation of high-efficiency electric heating and cooling systems in 400,000 homes and 20,000 commercial properties by 2030 and enhance flood protection in coastal and riverside areas.

In Minnesota, where Democrats regained control of the state Senate in 2022, Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill in February that mandates that the state use only clean energy by 2040.

Also in mid-February, Maine’s Democratic Gov. Janet Mills proposed a bill to move up her state’s 100% clean energy target from 2050 to 2040. Mills’s administration argues that it is economically sensible as wind and solar costs are dropping while natural gas prices have become more volatile due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the increase in exportation of gas from the U.S.

“The time has come to be bolder,” Mills said in a speech to the Legislature. “By accelerating our pace toward 100% clean energy, we will reduce costs for Maine people, create new jobs and career opportunities that strengthen our economy and protect us from the ravages of climate change.”

Maine, like New Jersey, currently gets about half of its electricity from low-carbon sources. And, like New Jersey, Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, giving the bill a good chance of passing. But Maine Republicans argue that it will increase costs for consumers.

“I think it’s a great idea if you hate poor people,” House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham quipped to the Portland Press Herald. “Otherwise coming up with arbitrary goals before affordable alternatives exist is dangerous.”

Similar divides are seen in states with split partisan control. In Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has proposed new spending on clean energy, but Republicans — who control the state Legislature — say that a state budget surplus should be returned to taxpayers instead of new spending.

Phil Murphy
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, right. (Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Putting the Inflation Reduction Act into practice

States are also building out the climate provisions the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the bipartisan infrastructure law that Biden signed in 2021. Both laws included significant funding for deploying clean energy and electric vehicles, but implementation of many components is being left up to states. So, for example, states are still required to apply for funding allocated for creating a national network of 500,000 EV chargers.

Despite the often polarized politics of climate change, Republican governors are working with the Biden administration to build up EV infrastructure. Every state submitted a plan for an EV charging network to the Department of Transportation.

“Even if they’re not using the words ‘climate change’ when they are showing up at the ribbon cuttings, we've seen a number of Republican governors welcome the investment,” Balik said.

And some states are layering extra incentives on top of those already passed by Congress. Murphy, for instance, is creating a state program that will add $70 million in subsidies for EV purchases.

A host of states also are adopting California’s newest set of “Clean Car Rules.” So far, New York, Oregon, Washington and Vermont have signed on, and Massachusetts, Colorado and Delaware are in the process of doing so. The rules would require that by 2035, 100% of new-vehicle sales are zero-emissions — EVs, in other words, effectively banning the internal combustion engine.

“We see this as a generational opportunity,” Balik said. “For states, they have to both implement all these federal investments that are coming down from the infrastructure law and the IRA, and then build on the federal victories that we secured last year, and look at what state policy opportunities the federal funding and the new landscape of the IRA opens up. And the economics of clean energy look more favorable every day, especially with the new incentives in the IRA.”