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What the Fed Can Learn from California’s Energy Policy

The chair of the Air Resources Board has some advice for the new administration.
February 24, 2009

In 2006, the state of California passed landmark legislation aimed at limiting green-house gas emissions. Under the Bush administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected the state’s request to regulate vehicular emissions. Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced it would reconsider this ruling–most likely in order to reverse it.

Mary D. Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, will be responsible for implementing the state’s climate change legislation. In a speech at the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative annual Energy Symposium yesterday, Nichols had some advice for a new presidential administration with the will to act on climate change: follow California’s lead on energy efficiency because it’s been an economic boon for the state. Nichols mentioned a report by Next 10 that claims cutting energy usage over the past 30 years has created 1.5 million jobs in California. (Still, in a state characterized by suburban sprawl, carbon dioxide emissions are quite high, at 11 tons per capita per year.)

Nichols said the federal government has three things to learn from California’s success in curbing emissions and increasing efficiency. First, emissions policies must support a mixed bag of technologies and programs, from funding for public transportation to implementing cap and trade of carbon dioxide.

Second, Nichols strongly advocated that the fed let the states do much of the work. California and other states have been doing well, and the government should keep encouraging this while providing incentives to get other states going on clean-energy initiatives. “The states want to retain the authority to step in if the federal program doesn’t work,” she said.

Third, an important role for the federal government, Nichols says, will be to provide a central repository for emissions data. She points to the Clean Air Act as a successful state-federal partnership. “It’s not perfect, but it has worked effectively in a way that engages local and state governments.”

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