Froma Harrop | EPA to California: Go for It

Has the recent Republican sweep of the House doomed President Obama’s clean-energy agenda? Possibly. Has it doomed America’s? Hardly.

It’s simply moved the center for enlightened environmental policy 2,840 miles to the west — to California, where it’s been before. That’s why the thumping Californians gave to Proposition 23 is so globally important. Its passage would have frozen a groundbreaking law that requires a sharp drop in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and stymied less dramatic efforts elsewhere.

The two-to-one defeat of Proposition 23 showed a surprisingly broad support for addressing global warming. The measure even lost in counties that gave majorities to Republican candidates for governor and senator.

And it went down despite an expensive pro-passage campaign stoked by oilmen from Texas and Kansas. That propaganda blitz fixed on the false but potent argument, especially in a state suffering 12.4 percent unemployment, that laws promoting clean energy “kill jobs.”

But Californians didn’t rise to the bait. After all, their state is already home to 12,000 clean energy companies and 500,000 green jobs. Over $9 billion in venture capital has poured into their clean-tech startups since passage of the law.

George Gilder explains his disappointment with California voters in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. A founder of the Discovery Institute (they don’t believe in evolution, either), Gilder accuses them of voting for “a medieval system of windmills and solar collectors.” (Actually, William the Conqueror would have made more sense of our coal-burning power plants than Google’s massive 1.6 megawatt solar panel installation in Mountain View, Calif.)

Gilder goes on to charge the green campaign with “debauching America’s most precious venture assets.” Yeah, like the venture capitalists don’t know what they’re doing.

So the states are the fallback if Republicans hobble environmental progress in Washington. It was no coincidence that right after the vote, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that states would enjoy greater authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from big power plants, refineries and factories.

“What they are saying is, ‘California, go for it,'” Craig Thomas, an environmental policy expert at the University of Washington, told me.

Indeed, California has been running de facto U.S. environmental policy for decades. For example, its curbs on tailpipe emissions (1966) and on greenhouse gas emissions for automobiles (2004) eventually set the standards for the nation.

Passage of Proposition 23 would have marked a grievous setback for regional programs to curb emissions of greenhouse gases: the Western Climate Initiative, the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (covering the Northeast and mid-Atlantic). Some 23 states belong.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other foreign leaders personally campaigned against the measure in California. It was that massively important. This is a serious effort to replace fossil fuels with clean energy. And that’s why oil interests with little business in California were so desperate to kill it.

Back in Washington, Texas Rep. Joe Barton — he who apologized to BP during the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster — is pushing to become the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Part of his campaign involves sending dispatches to K Street lobbyists touting his excellence in fighting environmental rules. (Having previously reached his term limit in that job under GOP rules, Barton is seeking a waiver to get around them.)

But this may not matter much when the tech magnates and hedge-fund billionaires in California are placing their chips on clean energy — and other states are prepared to follow.

Responding to the defeat of Proposition 23, the head of California’s Air Resources Board announced, “It’s full speed ahead.” The rest of America can hitch a ride.

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