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State Looks to Lead Pollution Fight

Breaking with the Bush administration, officials from California propose new fees on greenhouse gas emitters and call for use of alternative fuels.

December 06, 2005|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

MONTREAL — As diplomats from 189 nations meet here this week to discuss the world's response to global warming, California is unveiling a new set of initiatives to control greenhouse gases that would put it in the forefront of a burgeoning campaign by state and local officials to begin regulating the root causes of climate change.

California's action plan -- which includes proposals to cap greenhouse gases and force industries to report emissions of carbon dioxide -- sharply contradicts the official position of the Bush administration, which has dispatched a delegation to Montreal to reiterate its message that the United States opposes all mandatory limits on heat-trapping gases because, the administration says, such limits would hamstring the economy.

"We can't control what the national government is doing, but we can control what California is doing," said Alan Lloyd, the state's environmental protection secretary, who is leading a California delegation in Montreal. "We are big enough to effect change, and we are still looked upon as a leader on these issues due to our decades of work on air pollution."

Indeed, the United Nations' Montreal conference on climate change -- the largest gathering of its kind since most of the world's nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases in 1997 -- is attracting state and local officials eager to share the message that some parts of the U.S. have begun to address global warming.

Among the state officials scheduled to attend the Montreal talks are Vermont Gov. James H. Douglas, Connecticut's top environmental official, Gina McCarthy, and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has pledged to reduce his state's emissions, plans to address the conference by videophone.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, who has organized a grass-roots campaign to tackle global warming that has enlisted the mayors of more than 180 cities, including Los Angeles, plans to meet today with a coalition of international mayors.

He said the goal of his campaign is not just to place pressure on the federal government but to show U.S. politicians that global warming can be good politics. Opinion polls in many states, including California, have shown strong public support for action against global warming, Nickels said.

"Our ultimate goal is to make it impossible for the federal government to continue ignoring this issue," Nickels said. "We want to show that it can be done without devastating impacts on our local economies ... and we want to show other politicians that this is safe."

Earlier this year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to slash California's greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Schwarzenegger has yet to endorse the ideas that state officials have outlined to reach his target, however, making it uncertain whether the proposals set to be officially released Thursday will translate into real policies.

At the same time that Schwarzenegger was promising to lead the world's fight against global warming at a U.N. event in San Francisco earlier this year, his top energy advisor was working on an equally ambitious proposal to build an electricity highway that would move coal-fired power from Wyoming to California.

Coal-burning power plants are the leading emitters of carbon dioxide, which is the most abundant greenhouse gas.

California already receives more than a fifth of its electricity from out-of-state coal-fired power plants in the West. The state's demand for coal power has grown in the last decade despite a state law requiring investment in renewable energy, environmental groups said in a report released last week.

In response to criticism that the Schwarzenegger administration appeared to be contradicting itself, state officials have acknowledged that better coordination -- and stricter electricity-buying policies -- will be needed to achieve the governor's goals.

The California Public Utilities Commission and Energy Commission have adopted policies that make it more difficult for in-state utilities to purchase new coal power, citing coal's contribution to global warming. The policies have led to legal threats from officials and power plant operators in other Western states, who contend that California is violating constitutional provisions on interstate commerce.

Environmentalists said it remained to be seen whether California's ambitious proposals -- which include a new fee on major greenhouse gas emitters to fund state global warming programs, and a renewed push to produce cleaner-burning ethanol as an alternative to gasoline -- would survive what is expected to be a fierce lobbying push by oil refiners and other affected industries.

A highly publicized plan by eight Northeastern states to set a ceiling on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants was recently thrown into turmoil when Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised concerns about electricity costs and asked that the proposal be delayed.

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