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Western climate initiative proposed

September 24, 2008|Margot Roosevelt | Times Staff Writer

Seven Western states and four Canadian provinces proposed a sweeping regional crackdown on global warming emissions Tuesday in the face of continuing reluctance by the Bush administration and Congress to pass comprehensive climate legislation.

The Western Climate Initiative, endorsed by the 11 governors and provincial premiers, aims to slash regional greenhouse gas pollutants by about 15% below 2005 levels in the next 12 years.

"We're sending a strong message to our federal governments that states and provinces are moving forward in the absence of federal action," said California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, adding that the effort would spur renewable energy development and create "green jobs."

California, which passed a landmark global warming law in 2006, is well on its way to curbing emissions. But other states and provinces will have to overcome opposition in legislatures and from influential businesses. And several states have yet to sign on, including Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and Wyoming. Nevada has the fastest-growing population in the nation, and Colorado and Wyoming are booming energy states.

The plan also relies on a complex trading system in which businesses can buy and barter their way out of trimming emissions. Europe has instituted a carbon market, but not without some controversy. And many economists say that a tax on carbon would be a more efficient way to reduce global warming.

The initiative comes as studies suggest that climate change is taking a toll on the Western region of the U.S. and Canada. Scientists say that without dramatic cuts in the global burning of fossil fuels, Western states will suffer disproportionately from water shortages, severe wildfires, coastal flooding and species die-offs.

The Western plan covers about 20% of the U.S. economy and more than 70% of the Canadian economy, affecting power plants, industrial facilities and transportation, among other economic sectors. The seven states are Arizona, California, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington. The Canadian provinces are British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

The initiative calls for a cap on carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and have been blamed for raising temperatures around the globe. Industries would be granted fixed numbers of permits to pollute under the cap, and they could trade the permits among themselves so that reductions would be achieved in the cheapest way.

The European Union employs a "cap and trade" program for industrial and electrical plants. Later this week, 10 East Coast states in the U.S. will auction permits under a more restricted version limited to power plants.

If the proposed Western carbon market materializes, it would be half the size of Europe's as U.S. financial markets are in turmoil. Some experts are predicting that the Wall Street meltdown will weaken support for a national cap and trade system because investment banks, which stand to profit from such trading, are among its strongest supporters.

By including transportation, the largest source of greenhouse gases in Western states, the initiative would be broader than any other carbon reduction program in the world. It offers a model for a national program, which both presidential candidates say they favor.

"This really ups the ante for Congress and the next administration," said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, which is in the final stages of designing California's climate program. "If all these states and provinces are saying they will actually cut emissions, where is the federal government?"

Utilities, cement companies, refiners and other industries hope to ward off state rules until a national program is adopted. A regional plan, suggested Britt Weygandt, executive director of the Colorado-based Western Business Roundtable, would "shift costs from ratepayers in states like California, Oregon and Washington, that don't rely as much on coal for low-cost electricity, to those states that do . . . Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico."

"If this plan gets painted as a proposal to 'Californicate' the rest of the West, it will have a very difficult time being sold to voters and consumers," he said.

Proponents, however, see the initiative as a way to discourage industries from relocating to avoid emissions rules. "It helps the competitive landscape," said Michael Gibbs, a California Environmental Protection Agency official.

Environmentalists applauded the initiative as a good start in addressing global warming, but expressed strong reservations about several key elements.

"We see no justification for handing out permits to pollute -- a valuable asset -- for free to big oil and power companies," said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California.

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