United States: West Coast Governors Announce Ambitious Plan To Coordinate Action On Climate Change

Last Updated: November 3 2013
Article by Jennifer A. Smokelin, Jamon L. Bollock and Todd O. Maiden

Most Read Contributor in United States, October 2017

Once again, the states prove to be the first movers on climate change issues and the incubators for novel climate change policies. On the federal level, climate change bills get stuck in congressional committees. But governors on the West Coast are trying to spur action.

On October 28, 2013, British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington signed the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate & Energy (the "Plan"), a "comprehensive and far-reaching strategic alignment to combat climate change and promote clean energy." (See Pacific Coast Collaborative, Press Release, October 28, 2013, p. 1). According to the statement released by Offices of the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington and the Office of the Premier of British Columbia, the "Action Plan represents the best of what Pacific Coast governments are already doing, and calls on each of us to do more—together—to create jobs by leading in the clean energy economy, and to meet our moral obligation to future generations." (Id.)

The Plan's broad goals include addressing climate change comprehensively across many segments of the economy. The Plan will touch on the transportation sector, for example, through expanding the use of zero-emission vehicles (with a goal of ten percent of public and private fleet purchases by as early as 2016), adopting low carbon fuel standards, and exploring the development of high-speed rail across the region. (See Plan, Sections II(1), II(2), and II(3).) The Plan will also impact the commercial and residential building sector by transforming the market for energy efficiency and leading the way to "net-zero" buildings. (See Section III(1).) Additionally, the Plan will address the energy sector by focusing on streamlining the permitting of renewable energy infrastructure, supporting strong federal policy on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, and supporting integration of the region's electricity grids. (See Sections III(2), III(4), and III(5).)

Although some have made it clear this is not yet a regional carbon emissions market – a better comparison might be to regional land-use planning – our clients should be aware that there is the potential for this Plan to eventually develop into a regional carbon emissions market, and this will affect the industrial sector. Specifically, the Plan states that each signatory jurisdiction will "account for the costs of carbon pollution in each jurisdiction," with specific mention that:

Oregon will build on existing programs to set a price on carbon emissions. Washington will set binding limits on carbon emissions and deploy market mechanisms to meet those limits. British Columbia and California will maintain their existing carbon pricing programs. Where possible, California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will link programs for consistency and predictability and to expand opportunities to grow the region's low-carbon economy. (Plan, Section I(1) (emphasis added).)

Is this the West Coast's version of the East Coast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative ("RGGI")? Not yet. But it could be. For now, the news is significant on multiple other fronts, mainly for the sheer size of the Plan's jurisdiction: three U.S. states and one Canadian province. This is fewer states in number than in RGGI, but the Plan covers a larger population and states with larger collective economic impact. The jurisdiction covered by the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate & Energy collectively represents 53 million people and a combined gross domestic product of $2.8 trillion – essentially the world's 5th largest economy, and potentially the world's largest green economy. Indeed, the Plan is more comprehensive than RGGI in that it seeks to cover more than just the energy sector, as described above. The signatories to the Pacific Coast Action Plan also have more ambitious plans for eventually an even more geographically diverse climate plan – they acknowledge that their efforts would be more powerful if other states and leaders get on board, and they encourage action in that regard. And it is no secret that some policymakers in California support linking other states and Canadian provinces to the Cap-and-Trade Program, as is already underway with Quebec.

At a press conference in San Francisco where the leaders simultaneously signed the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate & Energy, California Governor Jerry Brown said that "many, many steps need to be taken, and as we tie together all these initiatives, we begin to chip away at carbon emissions." To that end, the plan promises to "harmonize" efforts like expanding the use of zero-emission vehicles, supporting scientific research on climate change, and rewarding builders of energy-efficient buildings.

While the Pacific Coast Action Plan is certainly ambitious, the plan itself is actually quite vague and programmatic in nature. It remains to be seen how these diverse jurisdictions will harmonize their climate and energy policies, or whether they will actually be able to do so. Development and implementation of policies aimed at achieving the broad goals of the Plan will require a great deal of political cooperation. International and regional efforts to address greenhouse gas emissions provide important lessons that will caution many supporters of the Plan not to be too optimistic. Until these state and provincial governments begin to work on specific action items, the chances for the Plan's success will remain uncertain. Indeed, other climate initiatives have tried and failed to gain traction across the United States, even some (like the Western Climate Initiative) involving some of these same players. And we have seen the difficulties that other regional coalitions like RGGI have had in trying to come to agreement, passing compatible comprehensive laws and regulations, and even remaining a cohesive coalition. Nevertheless, this Pacific Coast Action Plan is an important step in addressing climate change. If the leaders of the governments implementing the Plan recognize that they stand on the shoulders of the giants of sub-national coalitions that have gone before them, build on the successes of those efforts and, most importantly, learn from an honest evaluation of those coalitions' mistakes, there is a high probability that this Plan will be seen by many as a model for future government action. 

The Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate & Energy is available at http://www.pacificcoastcollaborative.org/Documents/Pacific%20Coast%20Climate%20Action%20Plan.pdf.

The official press release issued by the Pacific Coast Collaborative on October 28, 2013 is available at: http://www.pacificcoastcollaborative.org/Documents/Pacific%20Coast%20Climate%20Action%20Plan.pdf.

This article is presented for informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal advice.

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