Governors across the nation are making it clear that 2019 will be the year they will fight harder against climate change by advocating for bolder policies that will boost renewable energy resources and cut greenhouse gas emissions in their states.
The governors — both newly elected and reelected — can clearly see that the federal government will continue to drag its feet on climate action for as long as President Donald Trump is in office and the Republicans control at least one chamber of Congress.
Elections for governor were held in 36 states last November. Republicans won 20 governor seats and Democrats captured 16.
And many state leaders are heeding the warnings of climate scientists who in 2018 issued their strongest warnings to date about the importance of climate action. Delaying the implementation of greenhouse gas-reduction policies is no longer an option, the scientists emphasized, if the United States and other countries around the world are serious about taking steps to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Over the past two weeks, governors in five states have stood out in their strong commitments to climate action.
In their New Year’s Day inaugural addresses, Andrew Cuomo (D), who is beginning his third term as New York’s governor, and New Mexico’s new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), addressed climate change head-on by advocating new policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions and spur clean energy.
On January 2, Maine’s new governor, Janet Mills (D), took the oath of office. Her administration, which she vows will make climate change a top priority, is likely to offer the greatest contrast with its predecessor — former Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) — among the newly elected governors.
In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis (D) has pledged to move the state to 100 percent renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2040. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who won reelection to a second term, has vowed to make 2019 the year that Pennsylvania makes curtailing greenhouse gas emissions a top priority.
In his inaugural address on New Year’s Day, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that within the first 100 days of his new term in office, he will propose “the most progressive agenda this state has ever seen, period,” including the promotion of a New York-style Green New Deal.
Cuomo’s Green New Deal differs from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-NY) proposal in its scope and timeline. Cuomo’s proposal would make the state’s electricity 100-percent carbon neutral by 2040. The Green New Deal promoted by Ocasio-Cortez and others would aim to make the entire U.S. economy — not just the electricity sector — carbon-free by 2030.
“From voting reforms, to Roe v. Wade for New York, to protecting a woman’s right to choose. To better gun laws, to healthcare protection, to legalizing marijuana, to protecting the labor movement, to a Green New Deal, to real criminal justice reform — we will make history and New York will move forward,” Cuomo said in his inaugural address.
All of these proposals are part of what Cuomo is calling his “2019 Justice Agenda.” On January 15, the Cuomo administration provided more details about the Justice Agenda.
The agenda calls for a “globally unprecedented” ramp-up in renewable energy deployments as New York seeks to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040, and ultimately to eliminate its entire carbon footprint.
“Amidst the Trump administration’s assault on the environment and in order to continue New York’s progress in the fight against climate change,” the agenda states. “Governor Cuomo is announcing New York’s Green New Deal, a nation-leading clean energy and jobs agenda that will put the state on a path to carbon neutrality across all sectors of New York’s economy.”
For years, environmental groups have pushed the Cuomo administration to embrace clean energy and take action against fossil fuel extraction. In 2014, for instance, after years of grass-roots lobbying, Cuomo banned fracking in the state.
“There is no doubt that the grassroots climate movement has successfully pushed Gov. Cuomo to stake out more aggressive policies to confront the climate crisis,” Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director of environmental group Food & Water Watch, said in a statement responding to Cuomo’s proposed Green New Deal.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in her January 1 inaugural address, insisted she and fellow state leaders “have to be aggressive and act to address a global warming crisis that will have an effect on this world and this state within our lifetime.”
Prior to her election as governor, Lujan Grisham served in Congress, where her 2017 voting record on environmental issues garnered her a 100 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
In her successful bid for the governor’s seat, Lujan Grisham vowed to increase clean energy jobs in wind and solar by investing in transmission lines. She also wants to boost New Mexico’s renewable portfolio standard so that a much larger percentage of power generation comes from clean energy sources.
— MichelleLujanGrisham (@Michelle4NM) November 7, 2018
“A dramatic increase in our clean energy production insulates us from future oil busts and makes good on our promise to leave our great outdoors greater than we found them,” she said in her inaugural address. “That means we will produce 50 percent of our energy from renewable sources by 2030 and set the course for 80 percent 10 years after that. We can achieve this, and I will not relent until it is done.”
The goals are an ambitious move for New Mexico, where coal and natural gas still fuel a large majority of the state’s power plants. Currently, the state’s renewable portfolio standard sets a target of 20 percent of renewable electricity generation by 2020 for the state’s investor-owned utilities.
Lujan Grisham’s first budget, released on January 10, includes more staff to regulate the state’s oil and gas companies. She also has proposed statewide rules to cut methane emissions from the drilling industry.
Gov. Janet Mills, the first female governor of Maine, succeeded former Gov. Paul LePage (R), one of the most anti-environment governors in the nation. During her campaign, and since getting sworn in as governor, Mills has made expanding wind and solar energy resources in Maine one of her top agenda items.
In her inaugural address on January 2, Mills offered promises to protect lobsters and forests endangered by climate change in her state; the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any other saltwater body in the world.
“Climate change is threatening our jobs, damaging our health and attacking our historic relationship to the land and sea,” Mills said in her speech. “Tonight I say, enough. Enough with studies, talk, and debate. It is time to act.”
Mills, who previously served two terms as Maine attorney general, also promised to embrace clean energy, address transportation emissions, and “reach a goal of 50 percent of electricity coming from Maine renewable resources” like wind and solar energy. To demonstrate her commitment to clean energy, the new governor announced she will install solar panels on the roof of the governor’s home.
The new direction for main comes as a dramatic shift from LePage, who had one of the worst environmental records in the nation. His two terms in office marked eight years of inaction on climate change.
In early 2018, for example, LePage issued an executive order that placed a moratorium on new wind turbine development. He has also vetoed multiple bipartisan bills to promote solar energy and was also the only Atlantic Coast governor to support President Trump’s proposal to open up the offshore area to oil and gas exploration.
Under Mills, the future of both land-based and offshore wind energy, as well as solar resources, could change.
The state currently has a two-tiered renewable portfolio standard. Its class II requirement is that 30 percent of electricity consumed in the state must come from renewable energy resources. That target was put in decades ago and was easily met at the time by the state’s hydroelectric resources.
Maine also has a class I requirement that requires 10 percent of power sold in the state come from new renewable energy resources. That target was reached in 2017 and is currently being met almost entirely by existing biomass plants under a controversial loophole that allowed these biomass plants to be defined as new because they had undergone refurbishments.
Mills wants to increase that 10-percent standard to 50 percent by 2030. That would mean 50 percent of all electricity consumed in Maine would need to come from new renewable energy resources. If her proposal gets implemented, a total of 80 percent of power sold by electric utilities and independent electricity providers in Maine would be coming from renewable energy resources, including wind, solar, biomass, and hydro, by 2030.
“Eighty percent by 2030 is a very positive step toward a renewable-based economy and electricity sector,” Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director for nonprofit environmental group Natural Resources Council of Maine, told ThinkProgress. “That would be very good news if it can be put into place.”
Despite LePage’s animosity toward wind energy, Maine remains New England’s top wind producer. But most of the power produced in Maine is sold outside the state since companies can charge more for wind elsewhere across New England.
Under Mills’ administration, though, policies could change that would allow land-based wind developers to enter into long-term contracts with Maine utilities at prices that would be comparable to what they are getting for their power from out-of-state buyers.
“We found consistently that Gov. LePage was really out of step with overwhelming bipartisan majorities of the public in Maine as well as bipartisan majorities of the state legislature,” Voorhees said. “It’s likely that Gov. Mills is better reflecting the general sentiment of Maine people, which is climate change is real and it’s an issue that we’re concerned about it. And that Maine is a renewable energy-rich state where we see economic opportunities.”
Generally speaking, Mills’s victory at the polls in November represented “a pent-up political correction that reflects the fact that LePage was just disconnected from the direction for the state that Maine people want,” he explained.
Gov. Jared Polis, who was sworn into office on January 8, has promised the state will run only on renewable power by 2040. That would phase out fossil fuel generation in Colorado even faster than in California and Hawaii, which both recently introduced a 2045 goal.
Under his leadership, Polis in his inaugural address said that the state will “get to work protecting our precious air, water, and land — and making sure that every Colorado family can live a great Colorado life with clean air and cheap, abundant renewable energy.”
The state’s largest electric utility, Xcel Energy, is already moving toward renewable energy. The company announced in December that it will seek to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent of 2005 levels by 2030 and that its power generation would become completely carbon-free by 2050.
On January 10, two days after his inauguration, Polis gave a State of the State speech in the Colorado House chambers. He emphasized there’s no doubting the effects of climate change.
“Climate change is a scientific reality. It’s real. There’s no pretending otherwise for farmers and ranchers who are facing historic water shortages,” said Polis, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives prior to winning Colorado’s governor’s seat in November. “There’s no pretending otherwise for the 46,000 men and women who work in Colorado’s ski industry and see their jobs threatened by decreased snowpack.”
Efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado won’t be easy. The fossil fuel industry holds great power in the state. During the 2018 midterm elections, oil and gas companies and their supporters spent about $40 million on a campaign to successfully defeat Proposition 112, a ballot initiative that would have created a larger buffer zone between drilling sites and homes and schools.
And on Monday, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that state regulators cannot make public health and the environment their top priority when making permitting decisions. Polis, who has expressed support for giving localities greater control over oil and gas drilling, said he was disappointed with the court’s ruling.
As part of his clean energy agenda, Polis on Thursday issued an executive order to spur the sale of electric vehicles. The executive order directs the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish a zero emission vehicle program. The order also directs state officials to use funds provided by Volkswagen from its emissions scandal to build vehicle-charging infrastructure and expand use of zero-greenhouse gas-emitting buses and trucks.
“The action by Polis is among the most important actions to date by a Mountain West leader to cut carbon pollution from transportation, the biggest source of those emissions nationally,” the NRDC said Thursday in a blog post. “While much remains to be done in the coming months, this direction from the top in the governor’s first days underscores the importance of this issue.”
Even before he was sworn into office for a second term as governor, Gov. Tom Wolf began the year with a major climate action announcement.
On January 8, Wolf signed an executive order calling on Pennsylvania to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. By 2050, the Democratic governor said he wants to see an 80-percent reduction in emissions.
“In the absence of leadership from the federal government, states and cities are stepping up and doing their part to reduce emissions,” Wolf said in a statement. “Today I am proud to declare the commonwealth’s intention to address climate change, the most critical environmental threat facing the world.”
Pennsylvania’s draft Climate Action Plan, released in November by the state Department of Environmental Protection, states that if every state and nation met comparable goals, global temperature rise could be kept below the 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) threshold that experts say is necessary to mitigate the catastrophic consequences of climate change.
Wolf’s executive order also establishes a new GreenGov Council to boost green and sustainable practices in state government. The GreenGov Council will serve as a coordinating body to oversee the implementation of the provisions in the executive order.
The executive order calls for the state government to reduce overall energy consumption by 3 percent per year, and 21 percent by 2025, as compared to 2017 levels, replace 25 percent of the state passenger car fleet with battery electric and plug-in electric hybrid cars by 2025, and purchase renewable energy to offset at least 40 percent of the state government’s annual electricity use.
During his first term as governor, Wolf was a strong supporter of the state’s natural gas industry. In fact, Wolf made his climate announcement at a joint press conference with officials from Peoples Natural Gas, a local Pittsburgh gas utility.
At the press conference, Peoples Natural Gas announced a goal of reducing methane emissions from its underground pipeline system by 50 percent in 2019.
The NRDC welcomed the greenhouse gas-reduction goals included in Wolf’s executive order.
“His bold agenda is the first in state history to slash greenhouse gas emissions and align with the Paris Agreement, capture new clean energy growth in electric vehicles and put Pennsylvanians to work while leading the way forward for a clean energy future,” Jackson Morris, NRDC’s director for the eastern region of their climate and energy program, said in a statement.
A week later, on January 15, Wolf was sworn into office for a second term. In his inaugural address, though, Wolf only briefly mentioned the environment — in conjunction with jobs creation. There was no reference to his climate initiative.
Pennsylvania should be a place “where the business community recognizes the value of an energy policy that protects our environment and creates good jobs,” Wolf said in the speech.