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The Climate 202

Three state-level climate fights to watch this year

The Climate 202

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Good morning! As a reminder, Maxine is writing The Climate 202 without assistance from a researcher this week, so the newsletter will be a little bit shorter. Thanks for understanding. 🙏

State-level climate fights to watch: Andrew Wheeler in Va., natural gas in N.Y., solar in Calif.

Climate policy discussions often center on Washington institutions such as Congress and the White House. But outside the nation's capital, leaders in three states are thrusting themselves into major debates over the future of climate action and clean energy.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) this month tapped Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who led the Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump, as his secretary of natural resources. Current and former EPA employees are calling on the state Senate, which remains under narrow Democratic control, to reject the nomination.

In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) last week endorsed a ban on natural gas appliances in new buildings by 2027. Although environmentalists cheered Hochul for supporting the first statewide ban of this kind, they argued that her timeline is too slow.

And in California, the state Public Utilities Commission ​​​​​​has proposed major cuts​ to a program that incentivizes rooftop solar panels. A slew of solar advocates — including some Hollywood celebrities — are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to preserve the program.

Here's what to know:

Virginia lawmakers weigh Wheeler nomination

Current and former EPA employees are calling on the Virginia Senate to oppose their former boss's nomination, citing his past work to repeal regulations aimed at cutting emissions from cars, power plants, and oil and gas wells.

  • In a Jan. 14 letter, former senior EPA officials including John A. Moore, who served as acting deputy administrator under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, wrote that Wheeler had “pursued an extremist approach, methodically weakening EPA’s ability to protect public health and the environment."
  • In a subsequent Jan. 19 letter to the state Senate, Marie Owens Powell, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, a union that represents 7,500 EPA employees, wrote that Wheeler would “provide industry with more ways to dump pollutants into your state's air and water.”

Owens Powell told The Climate 202 that Virginians should be especially concerned that Wheeler had proposed a 90 percent cut in federal funding for cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay ​​​​​​—​ a steep cut that Congress rejected.

“I was surprised that anyone would think that Mr. Wheeler would be a good person for the job,” Owens Powell said in a phone interview on Sunday.

Ask for comment, Macaulay Porter, a spokesman for Youngkin, pointed to the governor's interview with local TV station WTVR this month. Youngkin told the TV station that Wheeler is the "most qualified person for this job," adding, "we're going to make sure the Chesapeake Bay is protected."

New York looks to ditch fossil fuels in new buildings

Hochul, who became New York's first female governor after Andrew Cuomo resigned amid sexual assault allegations, included a ban on natural gas connections in new construction in her executive budget for the next fiscal year.

  • The move comes after the New York City Council voted to pass landmark legislation that requires new buildings under seven stories to use electric appliances such as heat pumps and induction cooktops by December 2023. Taller new buildings will have until 2027 to ditch gas appliances such as furnaces and stoves.
  • Fossil fuels burned for space and water heating account for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in New York, according to RMI, a think tank focused on renewable energy.

“Governor Hochul has committed to achieve two million electrified and efficient homes by 2030, while prohibiting new buildings from emitting greenhouse gas emissions onsite by 2027 through improved building codes,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, a spokeswoman for Hochul, said in an email to The Climate 202. “These commitments represent the most ambitious building decarbonization strategy in the nation.”

Rachel Rivera, a member of New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to social and climate justice, applauded Hochul while calling for a faster timeline.

“It’s a good news, bad news scenario: Governor Hochul put a gas ban in her proposed budget, which is vital to create jobs, cut air pollution and fight climate change. But her proposal would be implemented too slowly, leaving too many years before new buildings went fossil-free," Rivera said in a statement. “There’s no time to waste with the climate crisis: delay equals death.”

California could slash rooftop solar incentives

The California Public Utilities Commission last month proposed major changes to net metering, the mechanism that credits owners of rooftop solar panels for the excess electricity they sell back to the grid.

On the Hill

Wind, solar and storage companies urge passage of Build Back Better Act

Members of the American Clean Power Association, a trade group that represents wind, solar, transmission and storage companies, today sent a letter to congressional leadership calling for the swift passage of the Build Back Better Act.

The letter asserts that each month of delay on Build Back Better means an estimated $2 billion in lost economic activity. It adds that the legislation will help the United States reach 750 gigawatts of wind, solar and battery storage by 2030, which would cut power-sector emissions by nearly 70 percent below 2005 levels.

The legislation includes a $320 billion package of tax credits for clean energy and clean vehicles that Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has called the “linchpin” of the bill's $555 billion in overall climate spending.

After ​​​​​​President Biden said last week that Democrats can pass “big chunks” of Build Back Better, several climate hawks in the Senate called for the swift passage of any climate provisions that can meet the 50-vote threshold in the chamber.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday that Biden cannot count on him to support “almost any” climate compromise that Democrats strike with holdout Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.).

“You're going to have to look at what that so-called compromise is,” Sanders said. “If it's strong, if it protects the needs of working people, if it deals with climate, I'm there. But we have to look at the details of any proposal.”

Extreme events

Wildfire near California's Highway 1 forces evacuations

The Colorado Fire on Saturday prompted evacuations in California’s Big Sur and shut down part of Highway 1, The Washington Post's Timothy Bella and María Luisa Paúl report. Wildfires in the cooler months are rare in California.

Vice President Harris connected the dots on climate change:

Pressure points

Florida is making an urgent effort to save manatees

Rescue teams are racing to protect Florida's iconic marine mammals, which are starving to death as sea grass beds, their primary food source, are destroyed by pollution and toxic algae blooms fueled by climate change, The Post's Lori Rozsa reports. Last year alone saw the deaths of 1,110 manatees — about 15 percent of the total population in the state.

International climate

Biden officials talk to Qatar about supplying Europe with gas

Biden administration officials are talking with Qatar about supplying liquefied natural gas to Europe if Russian President Vladimir Putin ​​​​​​invades Ukraine, potentially triggering shortages, Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs and Annemarie Hordern report.​

Biden plans to ask Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to meet at the White House this month. Some European countries have expressed concern that sanctioning Russia over a Ukraine invasion could prompt Putin to curb gas supplies, preventing people from heating their homes in the middle of winter.

In memoriam

Lisa Goddard remembered as ‘authoritative’ voice on climate science

Lisa Goddard, a climate scientist at Columbia University who used cutting-edge computer models to bring people information about upcoming floods, heat waves and other climate disasters, died Jan. 13 at age 55. The cause was breast cancer, the New York Times's Clay Risen reports.

Goddard, who ran Columbia’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society from 2012 to 2020, worked to predict climate-fueled extreme weather events with weeks or months of lead time. That marked a shift from the way climate prediction models were used in the early 2000s to predict disasters in 50 to 100 years, according to John Furlow, who succeeded Goddard as director of the institute.

“Lisa was a very loud and authoritative voice saying, ‘Look, people aren’t making decisions now for things that will be relevant at the end of the century,'" Furlow told the Times.

Joseph Majkut, director of energy security and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

Viral

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