The Biden administration is ramping up federal climate action after this month’s watershed legislation, but California is showing no signs of surrendering its position leading on the issue.
Two months ago, the Biden administration’s efforts to pass a sweeping climate bill seemed doomed to failure, and much of the momentum was relegated to the state level, fueling presidential chatter about Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). Now, with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), California is once again poised to take sweeping steps on climate, albeit this time against the backdrop of a newly empowered White House.
The passage of the IRA “created an important opening for California to really step off and step back into sort of the frontrunner [role] among the states in terms of climate ambitions,” Katelyn Roedner Sutter, the Environmental Defense Fund’s climate policy lead for the state, told The Hill.
Last week, California’s Air Resources Board announced new rules that would phase out the sales of all gas-powered vehicles in the state by 2035. Almost immediately, officials in New York, Oregon, Washington state and Rhode Island announced plans to adopt the rule as well.
One of the reasons the Golden State has led the way on air pollution in particular is because the issue is quite literally close to home, according to Steve Cohen, director of the Master of Public Administration Program in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University.
“They objectively have had some of the worst smog in the country, so the political basis for environmental policy has been there for half a century,” Cohen said.
The state, like much of the Western U.S., has also seen an increasing drought crisis that has moved climate change well beyond the theoretical for residents.
With the state’s legislative session set to end Wednesday, lawmakers have teed up a broad swathe of climate-related bills.
One Newsom-backed measure would increase the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals from 40 percent to 55 percent, relative to 1990 levels, by the end of the decade. The legislation, which has passed the State Assembly, also passed the state Senate last week but was referred back to its Appropriations Committee.
“Part of the reason that this really is an achievable thing to do is because of the Inflation Reduction Act and the influx of investment and support, California and other states will get from the federal government,” Sutter said. “So it’s a unique moment for California to take that next step in leadership and for other states to follow.”
California has historically played the first domino when it comes to state-level climate regulations, most notably with its waiver allowing tougher car emissions standards than the national standard. While the waiver was specifically granted due to the above-average air pollution in the Los Angeles area, 16 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the standards as of this year.
The state-level provisions of the IRA, Sutter said, are likely to speed up California’s pace rather than slow it down.
“I think the focus on the transportation sector [in the IRA] is really exciting because traditionally, that’s a pretty hard sector to deal with,” she said. “And so the more resources that go into zero-emission vehicles with light and heavy duty vehicles, that is going to have a pretty significant impact on our greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution.”
Another major opportunity for state-level work is the IRA funds for grid modernization, Cohen said.
“A million households in California already have solar energy in their own homes,” he said, adding that “California’s utilities are looking into beginning to build commercial-grade solar and wind farms.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) told The Hill in an interview that his state “has been leading in this space, usually five, 10, 20 years ahead when it comes to environmental policy.” Bonta added that he hopes the IRA will “level up national action in other states where we think California has been leading and will continue to lead.”
Bonta’s office, meanwhile, is spearheading a number of state-level legal efforts concerning climate, notably a multistate lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service. A coalition of Democratic attorneys general is suing over the Postal Service order of a new fleet of vans that is majority gas-powered, arguing that an environmental assessment that formed the basis of the order was based on erroneous calculations.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has announced the percentage of electric vehicles in the order will be increased, which Postal Service officials have maintained was always an option, but Bonta confirmed the lawsuit is ongoing.
“The Postal Service seems to be backtracking, and we’re heartened by the stated commitment, [but] they should have the cleanest, most environmentally friendly fleet they’ve ever had, and that is possible given current technology,” Bonta said. “And that’s what we’re pushing for.”
The Hill has reached out to the Postal Service for comment.
Another way the IRA changes the calculus is for President Biden himself, who has seen his approval ratings climb from an all-time low since signing the measure into law.
But Biden’s reinvigoration does not reduce Newsom’s position as a national leader on climate issues, Sutter told The Hill.
“The modeling shows [the IRA] will get us within spitting distance of the 2030 nationally determined contribution [on emissions reductions], but it doesn’t get us all the way there,” she said. “So we still need states to take ambitious actions and Governor Newsom does that, and I think that’s why he’s laid out this plan to hopefully get across the finish line before the end of session.”