As States Thwart Climate Progress, Progressives Pitch A Lifeline To Green Cities

The Biden administration has started laying the groundwork for the most substantive federal policies to slash planet-heating emissions ever. And at the city level, mayors and lawmakers are making plans to zero-out carbon pollution through renewable power and better building codes. 

But conservative lawmakers bent on preserving fossil fuels’ grip on the economy have been busy erecting new barriers at the state level. Texas is considering bills to curb renewables. West Virginia is advancing legislation to force power plants to keep burning coal. A dozen states are considering legislation that would bar cities from enacting building codes that ban natural gas hookups in new buildings.

Two House progressives want to throw those local governments a lifeline. 

On Monday, Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) plan to introduce legislation that would provide $1 trillion in federal spending directly to cities, towns and tribes seeking to slash carbon emissions and clean up pollution, circumventing state governments. Nearly two dozen other progressives are co-sponsoring the bill.

The proposal to target local governments, shared first with HuffPost, is modeled on funding provisions in the two COVID-19 relief bills Congress passed over the past year. But the bill allows for money to be spent on a long list of climate-related issues, ranging from projects to cut emissions with electric vehicles and energy efficiency retrofits to those that would remediate toxic water and soil pollutants and help communities adapt to more extreme weather. 

While eligible projects listed in the legislation include standard green infrastructure, such as bike lanes and geothermal heating systems, it also allows for funding “to support reparations programs for Black and Indigenous people and communities.” 

“We’re making sure that every city, every town, every county and every tribe can have a fully funded Green New Deal,” Bush said by phone last week. “This is going to bring climate justice right to your neighborhood, and to do that, we’re going to have to use this funding structure.” 

Anti-Climate Bills Proliferating

The proposal will likely face a steep uphill climb to become law, as the Democrats’ narrow majorities grant more power to conservative members who are less enthusiastic about left-wing priorities. 

Yet it could serve as a model for how to limit the effect of state-level efforts to  slow the transition away from fossil fuels and delay pollution cleanups. 

A solar farm produces electricity near Bakersfield, Texas, earlier this month.

A solar farm produces electricity near Bakersfield, Texas, earlier this month.

Last year, Arizona, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Tennessee all passed state laws barring their cities from banning renovations or new constructions from using natural gas for cooking and heating. The legislation, which came in response to a growing number of cities enacting such bans as a way to eliminate a top source of climate pollution and reach decarbonization goals, now looks set to spread.

Another 12 states ― Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas and Utah ― are now considering preemption bills of their own, prodded by industry lobbying and advertising campaigns from gas utilities that see the hookup bans as an existential threat. 

After Texas suffered deadly rolling blackouts amid a freak February cold snap, Republicans in the state introduced a set of bills to impose new costs on solar and wind generators. Renewables actually overperformed during the Arctic temperatures, and the outages were largely fueled by freezing natural gas pipes and halted nuclear reactors. Still, state Republicans advanced the bill known as HB 4466, which would require renewable firms to pay for backup resources to account for fluctuations in the grid, a mandate from which fossil fuel generators would be free. The state Senate already passed a similar measure. 

The push has drawn national outcry, but other states aren’t far behind.

Arizona’s GOP-controlled legislature advanced four bills aimed at undercutting the state utility commission’s legal authority to require private power companies to stop emitting carbon dioxide. 

In February, Missouri lawmakers overwhelmingly voted for a bill that would ban a transmission line needed to carry wind energy into the state from using eminent domain to complete its construction. 

Last month, West Virginia’s Republican-leaning Senate unanimously passed a bill that would require coal-fired power generators owned by public electric utilities in the state to maintain a supply of least 30 days’ worth of coal for the lifespan of the plants.

You have these extreme right-wing state legislators adopting packages of bills that just a few years ago would have seemed utterly over-the-top and outlandish, yet they’ve become mainstream for that wing of the Republican Party.
Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law

In Indiana, the Republican chairman of the House Environmental Affairs Committee, state Rep. Doug Gutwein, said he would not hold hearings on any of the 13 environmental bills assigned to his panel this session, including legislation prohibiting utilities from dumping toxic coal ash and requiring preschools and daycares to test for lead.  

“All of this is a sign of the extreme polarization in the American political system,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “You have these extreme right-wing state legislators adopting packages of bills that just a few years ago would have seemed utterly over-the-top and outlandish, yet they’ve become mainstream for that wing of the Republican Party.” 

Progressive Activists’ Wish List

The vaguely defined reparations provision is hardly the only proposal likely to raise eyebrows among less progressive lawmakers. The measure doesn’t give specifics about how reparations might work or who within those communities might qualify. The bill does, however, offer explicit language about the kind of projects the money is barred from supporting. The legislation clearly bans spending on new fossil fuel infrastructure. But it also bars funding for the procurement of nuclear power, any kind of research, or technology to capture carbon emissions at existing plants or remove carbon molecules from the atmosphere.

Such measures are a clear nod to the left-wing activist groups whom Bush said helped shape the bill, and who take an ideological stance against such technologies and energy sources they consider “false solutions” that threaten to create more pollution or jeopardize the deployment of favored policy measures like more renewables. The bill also bars money from going to “investments or projects supporting law enforcement, immigration detention centers, and prisons, including buildings and vehicles under the control of law enforcement or a prison.” So the legislation can’t fund electric police vehicles or energy-efficient upgrades for the local jail. 

“The list of eligible projects is far longer than the list of exclusions,” Bush said. “That says something.” 

Kaniela Ing, the climate justice campaign director for the nonprofit People’s Action, said compromising on activists’ priorities posed significant risks to the constituents who helped elect lawmakers like Bush, many of whom have struggled from poverty made worse by high electricity bills and health problems stemming from dirty air and unsafe water. 

“Often compromise means death,” Ing said. “If you want to cut this bill for things that are less than what the community needs, you better make the case for it, and know that you might have blood on your hands.” 

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