How To Roast the Planet with Good Intentions: The Climate Equity Act

Yves here. This post illustrates that both good policy and good legislation are hard, particularly on complex and high-staked issues like climate change. Unfortunately, it appears that progressives’ propensity to punt on doing the work will play into the hands of the opposition.

By Eric Kramer. Originally published at Angry Bear

I have suggested (here and here) that idealism is leading progressives astray.  Unfortunately, climate policy offers many examples.

Consider the Climate Equity Act of 2019.  The CEA was, I believe, the first concrete piece of legislation proposed as part of the Green New Deal.  Unfortunately, it illustrates several of the problems with progressive idealism.  The CEA is moralistic rather than strategic.  It does not take policy analysis seriously; it assumes that Congress can simply write a law requiring justice and that justice will magically appear.  In practice, the CEA will do little to promote justice, but it will put a powerful weapon in the hands of opponents of a clean energy transition.

The purpose of the CEA is to ensure all people a right to a healthful environment, and to address systemic environmental injustices and inequities.  To achieve these goals, the CEA imposes extensive procedural and analysis requirements on federal rules that affect “frontline communities”, which the act defines as low income communities, indigenous communities, communities of color, deindustrialized communities, vulnerable elderly communities, unhoused populations, people with disabilities, and communities dependent on fossil fuel industries.

Protecting frontline communities is a worthy goal.  However, the federal rulemaking process is already too cumbersome to address a problem like climate change, which will require rapid, economy-wide changes.  The CEA will make the problems with the federal rulemaking process much worse.  The CEA 1) requires agencies to engage in a comprehensive review of proposed rules and possible alternatives to proposed rules that minimize negative economic, environmental, and health consequences on frontline communities, or maximize benefits to these communities, 2) fails to specify a clear standard for agencies to use when evaluating alternative rules, and does not explain how conflicts between or within frontline communities should be resolved by government agencies, and 3) gives members of any aggrieved frontline community the right to judicial review, including the right to block enforcement of agency rules.

If progressives care about preventing climate change, this is insane.  Requiring agencies to evaluate multiple options using vague standards and giving a wide array of groups easy access to the courts will turn the CEA into a powerful weapon against all federal rulemaking, including rules that are essential for stopping climate change.

For example, creating a renewable energy system may require construction of a new network of high voltage power lines to shift electricity from areas where the wind is blowing and the sun is shining to areas where it is calm or cloudy.  It is far from clear that our political system will be able to overcome the NIMBY forces that will predictably resist every power line location decision.

Instead of helping to solve this problem, the CEA will make it far worse.  The government will have to investigate the impact of multiple power line routes on different frontline communities.  There will be conflicts between frontline communities and within such communities.  The law is silent on how these conflicts should be resolved, but everyone gets to go to court.  Fossil fuel producers resisting clean energy growth will have no trouble creating “astroturf” organizations to challenge rules they dislike.  The same problems will arise with siting decisions for wind and solar farms and the location of dams for hydro power.  Stalemate rather than progress will be the order of the day.

Even rules limiting the burning of fossil fuels will be snarled in lawsuits.  Suppose EPA tries to limit the burning of coal to generate electricity.  Such a rule would be vulnerable to attack by coal producers (recall that communities dependent on fossil fuels are frontline communities).  Coal producers or their allies would not have to argue that regulation is impermissible, they would just have to argue that the agency failed to consider an alternative rule that would be less economically harmful to communities dependent on fossil fuels – say, a rule with a somewhat slower timetable for reducing coal use.  On the other hand, children with asthma could sue the agency for not reducing coal use fast enough.  (Are children with asthma covered by the CEA?  This question seems to turn on whether asthma counts as a “disability” under the law, because people with disabilities are a frontline community.  No matter how an agency decides this question, it will be vulnerable to a lawsuit.  The possibilities for legal wrangling and delay are literally endless.)

Decarbonizing the United States economy will be a massive undertaking, and even progressives who care about a just transition to a carbon-free world should think twice about turning administrative procedure into an all-purpose weapon at the disposal of anyone seeking to block change.  This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the very real burdens imposed on disadvantaged groups.  But instead of adding more veto-points to our already creaky environmental rulemaking system, we need to figure out what types of assistance different communities need and get it to them directly.  Fossil fuel workers and communities need job training, relocation assistance, pensions and other forms of assistance.  Unhoused populations need housing.  Giving people the assistance that they actually need will do far more to alleviate hardship than suffocating the rulemaking process in a blanket of CEA lawsuits.

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  1. Grumpy Engineer

    And in parallel, we have proposed laws that would target CO2 emissions. Alas, “they do not take policy analysis seriously; they assume that Congress or state legislatures can simply write laws requiring CO2 emission reductions and that reductions will magically appear.

    We have far too much magical thinking going on these days.

    1. notabanktoadie

      Otoh, we need a Miracle (or many) and mere pragmatism is not, imntho, likely to elicit one.

      But that’s not magic anymore than most people, if desperate enough, will pray – it’s logic.

      But eventually God gets tired of relenting (Jeremiah 15:6) so we’d best discover what justice IS and apply it diligently, I’d say.

      1. Wukchumni

        I can’t see a relic such as the God Standard really coming through for us via praying, but suit yourself.

    2. Ian Ollmann

      Yes. The outcome of the EV tax credits seem a little ill considered. While I think many viewed the per-company caps on number of vehicles that can claim the credit as a means to keep the spending under control, the outcome has been quite opposed to what I think most were hoping for. Now that the companies that are serious about EVs have exhausted their share, the credit serves only to enrich the companies who are not making EVs and are doing compliance PHEVs instead. In this way, the EV tax credit going forward will mostly be used to provide subsidies for gasoline vehicles for the companies that have been dragging their feet at the competitive disadvantage of those who have not.

      Talk about face-palm!

  2. Anon

    Well, I agree that climate change will wait for no man, but the political/institutional machinations needed to implement a GND and sustainable energy production (solar, wind, etc.) will require some consensus of the population. (Doesn’t appear we’re there yet.)

    The regulations outlined in the CEA appear to be similar to those used by the Env. Prot. Act (EPA). Often the rapid implementation of new ideas (GND) doesn’t always respect the needs of the politically marginalized. The US was initially swarmed over by folks who had a “new” idea; leaving the natives in despair.

    Finding appropriate, equitable, and economic solutions for rapid implementation of a Green New Deal to mitigate climate change and spread economic prosperity more broadly will always be a fraught political process.

    Let’s get to work.

    1. Ian Ollmann

      There are some infrastructure items that could probably win easy approval. A high voltage smart grid to allow California to sell excess electricity to New England would enable us to spread around local renewable energy surpluses and deficits better. Fixing the EV credit to no longer disadvantage domestic EV makers seems common sense. Some sort of jumbo low cost loans for large battery manufacturing plants is needed, and probably won’t cost much in the end if the loans are paid back. Something needs to be done to bring life to geothermal, which is dying on the vine due to excessive drilling costs. Also, I think some legislation, where permissible by constitutional guarantees for states rights, to render the nations laws about solar+storage installations more uniform and get rid of HOA objections would no doubt be welcome. Also, California could use some help getting the electrical lines insulated to reduce fire risk.

      It is a huge mistake in my opinion is to tie green issues to century old social justice problems. The poor would prefer jobs to handouts for the most part, assuming they are good jobs. Focussing on green infrastructure seems like one way to get there.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    These well-intentioned initiatives also frustratingly underestimate the impact of population growth on locating infrastructure — there are no longer quite so many open spaces near our population centers through which to run overhead lines or to trench underground, let alone to cover with wind and solar farms.

    AstroTurf aside, there’s a NIMBY in every right-of-way, and there are 20 under-employed lawyers lining-up to represent her.

    Meanwhile, the 80 percent of the human species who live in South Asia, East Asia, and Africa continue belching-out carbon in their search for a developed standard of living.

  4. Susan the other

    It might be productive to have every community come up with their own proposal to mitigate what they anticipate locally due to climate change. Some communities will simply have to pack up and move if their town is swamped with 20 feet of water. It seems like there are no places that are not front-line communities. We’ll probably all be on lock down. If eliminating fossil fuel pushes rural life into the cities – same thing because both places are stressed. It might be easier to pass legislation about decision protocols – how to organize yourselves and how to maintain by burden sharing. The Federal and State governments are going to be subsidizing agriculture and essential services. But this looks like a time for common sense, cooperation and learn as you go. Emissions are complex because everyone knows we need the high energy output from fossil fuels to create new adaptations to that very pollution. The Germans just decided to do the Nordstream pipeline with Russia instead of toughing it out with wind and solar, and justified it because changing over to sustainable civilization quickly (we can’t do this at our leisure) required more dirty energy. That could well explain why the oil rush now – everybody knows that fossil fuel will be critical to the change-over and there’s a rush on to control it. The CEA sounds like a gesture to say that we will all behave in a manner that is fair. Because it really sounds unenforceable otherwise. I think we are going to have massive dislocations along our coasts – people moving inland to other towns – and why nobody is planning for temporary housing is pretty strange.

  5. JTMcPhee

    Has Bernie lined up the kinds of Brain Trusters who can line up the likely draconian rules and policies and agency leaders that might give us mopes a snowball’s chance of mitigating the Jackpot?

    If he’s really an FDR Democrat, I sure hope so.

    At least Trump, by showing the extent of the unitary executive’s power, is pointing the way. He’s going to need a huge groundswell of public support to rollover the entrenched interests. Not that there’s any hard consensus about what needs to be done to address climate and biosphere destruction, Big Bank/MegaSupranational Corporations, the War and Hegemony Machines and the rest. Though as I recall, FDR did a lot of shooting in the dark on the way to such remedies for enormous problems as he did.

    This New Liberal/progressive flip-chart consensus —special “rights-based” legislation is a bad omen

  6. Jeremy Grimm

    I have been skeptical of the Green New Deal since it first surfaced. The Climate Equity Act as described in this post confirms — for me — my initial assessment of the the Green New Deal. It reminds me of the great idea for dealing with overpopulation, in place of more conventional means like providing birth control — educate women and raise everyone’s standard of living and they will choose to have two children or less. I am not against educating women or raising the standard of living for the poor all around the Earth and I believe most people probably would then choose to have two children or less … but I am not holding my breath in anticipation of these great events. Similarly I am in favor of making the response to Climate Chaos “equitable” ….

    The Climate Equity Act review processes — as described further sour my initial opinions about the Climate Equity Act, and about the Green New Deal. I have to wonder whether this is a case of idealism “gone wild” or more darkly indicate that the Green New Deal includes some — ‘supporters’ — who make use of useful idiots in the Green New Deal to include what amount to poison pill policies and who serve as clandestine operatives from the disreputable opposition.

  7. Jeremy Grimm

    I have my own ideas for the first act of Congress which should kickoff the Green New Real Deal. How about the Federal Public Utilities Modernization and Improvements Act? The Federal Government could nationalize the utilities from sea to shining sea [compensating the stock holders for fair … NOT market value … of their stock, and retiring all outstanding bonds at their discounted face and no premiums. The new national utility would retain the basic structures of each of the many utility company companies BUT after shredding golden parachutes and flushing poison pills down the toilet … give all upper level management the opportunity — like it or not — to find wonderful new careers … somewhere else … or receive 6 months training as programmers. The new government utility would hire more support and maintenance personnel and hold company-by-company hearings to elicit information from the existing personnel as to what problems they see and how they believe those problems might best be addressed.

    A further portion of the Federal Public Utilities Modernization and Improvements Act should act to repair all the problems identified in the company-by-company hearings and proceed with further hearing and investigations to identify outstanding short and long term threats to the Grid. I believe this would include a review of the maintenance inventories of equipment ready to support repairs as well as a review of the larger maintenance issues related to the lack of domestic capability to build some of the key elements of the Grid — for example some of the large high voltage transformers in the backbone. National Security funds must be allocated to create multiples of domestic producers for each of the key components of the Grid. If necessary, producers should be protected by special trade regulations or perhaps by special purchasing regulations which assure multi-source domestic production of Grid components both ‘key’ and ‘common’.

    Once the Grid is somewhat better maintained the next acts under the Green New Deal umbrella should address how to tie solar and wind and ‘what-ever’ sources for electricity into the Grid. Further, using National Security Funding these acts should fund domestic production of solar and wind power generation equipment, including solar cell and wind turbines. These acts should also provide funding for research GRANTS in solar and ‘other’ sources for energy. These acts should augment anti-trust regulations and their enforcement to dismantle any existing or nascent efforts to establish monopoly control over these vital national interests.

    With a better operating and maintained Grid … THEN … the U.S. could work on the resilience of generation … AND look at how, where, and why power is used. For example much electric power is used to heat water. I believe solar water heaters are a more effective use of solar power.

    When the Grid is well and our power sources are more resilient we MUST look at how to operate … were the Grid to fail. Solar and Wind and other power sources could be local to the uses of the power. The next acts of the Green New Deal should deal with how to better provide and use local power sources. I would add the use of human leg-power to augment/replace/supplement existing remote and local power sources. In a home, many uses of electric power could be dealt with using human power instead. Consider dishwashers, or washing machines — a human could power most of these increasingly ‘necessary’ appliances.

    It should be clear that what I am proposing is mere shell of what can and should constitute a Green New Deal.

    1. Scott1

      I don’t know man, repair and regeneration of the nation’s Grid? Seems to me it is assured that the national grid will fail in the event of cyberwar attacks bound to occur since the nation has powerful enemies and is giving them more and more incentives to attack.
      Appears to me that we would be more secure with more micro grids designed to be independent of the national grid.
      The best bet overall is solar since it is more distributed in the first place and more mature due to that fact.
      What the Government can do is make a policy decision & provide money so that the best direction is enabled. I’d bet that the interests of commanders of our military bases track well with localized micro grid independence.
      In all cases now the key people are our engineers. Whatever engineering solutions are applied to military bases to achieve grid independence would be applicable to towns, cities and states.
      I am not saying that the Grid is to be junked but that repairs and renovations and innovations to it are long going to be applicable on a day to day year to year basis.
      I had a conversation with an astrophysicist who pointed me towards superconductors. It is too much to discuss for this comment. Superconductors fall into the Innovations category.
      To summate I’d say sure, maintain the grid & raise its defenses. At the same time more generally make military bases independent of that vulnerable grid & transfer that same engineering to cities and towns.
      The US Treasury can create the funding for all of this and tax later if there appears afterwards to be as a result too much money in the system.

      1. notabanktoadie

        The US Treasury can create the funding for all of this and tax later if there appears afterwards to be as a result too much money in the system. Scott1

        Except a government-privileged usury cartel can also create deposits and not for the general welfare bur for their own welfare and for the welfare of the rich, the most so-called credit worthy.

        And then what in the even of price inflation, tax the non-rich since the rich don’t consume enough to matter? Sound fair to you?

        How about instead we eliminate all privileges for the banks and thereby MAXIMIZE the amount of fiat that can be created for the general welfare? Or does genuine progress REQUIRE stealing from the poorer for the benefit of the richer?

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I see nothing wrong with getting the Grid fixed and building more micro grids. There is no reason why the Grid should be vulnerable to cyberwar attacks. Some things — like the Grid — have no business being tied to the web. Too much of our way of life is tied to electric power from the Grid. When power is shut down too much stuff fails to work and few provisions have been made for workarounds in the event of a failure.

        For the longer term — micro grids make sense as a way to make direct use of direct power sources. Some of the appliances we use in our homes like washing machines and dishwashers might be replaced by pedal powered devices and solar water heaters. In any case I do not see how Humankind can continue to use as much energy as it uses right now. Our primary energy source — fossil fuels — is not infinite and the replacements I am aware of cannot provide more than a small per cent of the energy we obtain from fossil fuels.

        The military has all sorts of heavy duty power generators that run on diesel and uses lots of expensive heavy duty batteries. I do not think the military’s solution is a good answer. [I would like to see a our police forces procure a bunch of military generators and water purification systems in place of the armored vehicles and drones they seem so fond of.]

        1. Titus

          Jeremy a lot of good ideas. As far as the grid a lot of it is bare copper wire and it is very easy to induce RF signals as in Wi-Fi, Ethernet, really whatever you want. At that point it’s just reverse engineer to take over the controls to the power stations. What I’m say is that it doesn’t matter if the grid is on the internet or not – any network can be put on it. Worse an EMF pulse can be induced as well and everything plugged into that part of the grid that’s electronic will blow. There are ways to stop all this, but they are not being employed. Why would they be? That would requiring utilities to care and they don’t.

  8. Pym of Nantucket

    The orderly or disorderly abrupt reduction in greenhouse gas emissions follow very different paths. I tend to believe we’ll split the difference: make a half hearted attempt at the orderly approach. As people naturally observe this leads to less consumption of luxury goods, there will be resistance to what is needed, thus causing more degradation of the biosphere because action isn’t serious enough. This will form a rock on one side and a hard place on the other. I’m assuming life will get way worse on the planet but some humans will survive. Not a prophet here, but most things turn out grey, as opposed to black or white.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Without some major change to our political and economic systems I believe any orderly reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely, unless you would count lip service “a halfhearted attempt at the orderly approach”. I also believe you are being optimistic in thinking luxury goods will be all we would need to consume less of. However, I agree that life will get way worse on the planet but some humans will survive. I am trying to figure out ways that the humans who survive might be able to keep and use some of the knowledge we built. I think mere survival would be a black outcome and hope for something more grey.

    2. Titus

      Disease certainty isn’t a ‘grey’ matter you either get better of die. That’s black and white. It helps to understand and think of things in terms of – ‘how much energy does it actually cost to make that or do that’. Way more then most people realize. Take skyscrapers, the energy just to maintain one is astronomical, as energy gets expensive and scarce those buildings will not get maintenance, become uninhabitable, and be left for salvage. And that’s a fact. amazon will not be delivering packages to the 128th floor of your condo in it’s flying cars. Not. Gonna. Happen.

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