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Powering Forward: Energy and Conservation in a Carbon-Constrained World
Bill Ritter, 2015 Pinchot Distinguished Lecturer

Editor’s note: This article is based on the 2015 Pinchot Distinguished Lecture given by Bill Ritter on February 19, 2015 in Washington, DC. Mr. Ritter was awarded the Pinchot Medallion for his extraordinary leadership, while serving as the 41st Governor of Colorado, in addressing an unprecedented series of wildfires, floods, insect epidemics, and other natural resource challenges associated with ongoing climate change in the western US. Mr. Ritter currently serves as the founding Director of the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.
Pinchot Institute Board Chair Joyce Berry and Institute President Al Sample present the Pinchot Medallion to Governor Bill Ritter.

Those of us who ascribe to the conservation ethic in natural resource management need to reconsider it in the context of broad environmental, economic, and social terms espoused by Gifford Pinchot. In the modern age this means we must consider sustainable natural resource management in the context of ongoing climate change. Throughout the Rocky Mountain West, there are millions of acres of forests killed by mountain pine beetles, more than four million acres in Colorado alone. There are many variables and many factors at play, but the primary cause behind this is the steadily warmer and drier climate we are experiencing across the West. Milder winters and longer warm periods have actually enabled the bark beetles to have two life cycles in a single year, leading to a population explosion and increased infestation pressure on forests. Prolonged droughts have left the trees severely weakened in their ability to defend themselves against bark beetle attacks.

As Governor, I participated in a series of discussions at the Aspen Institute in which foresters and climatologists from around the world worked to understand what was going on and what we could do about it. It turns out that problems like this are occurring in forests around the globe, and that many of these problems can be tracked back to extraordinary environmental stresses associated with climate change. So, back to the way we think about our conservation ethic—if we care about the future of forests then we have to be part of the broader debate over what we do to address climate change.

Doing something about climate change leads quickly to questions of what to do about energy policy. Per capita CO2 emissions in the US are among the highest in the world—triple that of other industrialized nations like Germany or the UK, and many times that of most other countries in the world —so the US has a moral responsibility to address this issue. There are a variety of different areas in which there are opportunities to significantly reduce carbon emissions—in our industrial processes, in our agricultural practices, in the transportation sector, and especially in the electricity sector.

At the Center for a New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, we are working with numerous state governments on legislative and regulatory policies to advance the clean energy agenda and make substantial reductions in carbon emissions. State government leadership in this area is important, not just because of the lack of meaningful action by the US Congress, but because of the extent to which the electricity sector is regulated through state policy and not federal policy.

The US is currently on track to reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 below 2005 levels, largely because of state-level actions on energy policy—renewable energy standards, energy efficiency standards, and a variety of other actions to advance clean energy technology and applications. More than 220 million Americans live in states that have a renewable energy standard. About 240 million live in states with an energy efficiency standard. If these states taken together were to constitute a separate country— a Renewable Energy America— it would be the fourth largest nation in the world. So we are actually seeing some substantial progress in energy policy reform to reduce carbon emissions, and much of this has been accomplished at the state level.

Nevertheless, there are areas in which federal policy plays a critically important leadership role, and the Center for a New Energy Economy is working with the Obama Administration and leaders in the US Congress to facilitate reform in federal energy policy. In March 2013, eight weeks into President Obama’s term, I was among a group of 14 people invited to meet at the White House to discuss ideas for advancing a clean energy agenda in the country as a whole. This initial discussion, which included CEOs of major US companies and utilities, led to a series of six more meetings at the White House to consider policy options for advancing energy efficiency, renewable energy, alternative fuels for vehicles, natural gas development, and how to facilitate a shift in the business model for utilities in the 21st century. The White House wanted recommendations for how to move a clean energy agenda alongside the President’s proposed climate policy. The resulting report, Powering Forward: Presidential and Executive Agency Actions to Drive Clean Energy in America (http://pinchot.org/cnee), contains more than 200 recommendations in six separate areas.

As a follow-up to this process, we are currently convening a dialogue around the Clean Power Plan proposed by EPA, the so-called 111(d) rule aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric power generation. At the Center for a New Energy Economy, our analysis is primarily focused on states in the American West.

In June 2014, I approached the governors in the 13 Western states and asked them if they would be willing to convene around common issues and interests in implementing such a plan, and that process is now under way. The premise of the Clean Power Plan is that the President wants to reduce electric power sector carbon emissions in the country as a whole to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Since regulation of electric power utilities in the US has been done largely through state policy, several of the states contend that the EPA is exceeding its legal authority by using federal policy to force major changes in the electric power industry in their states.

In spite of the public opposition of some political leaders around the country, and in spite of lawsuits that have been or will be filed regarding 111(d), there is still a productive dialogue going on behind the scenes.That dialogue has been focused on ways to improve upon the rule when the final draft is published, but it is now shifting to studying models for implementing the rule should it be upheld in courts. The Nicholas Institute at Duke University, The Great Plains Institute in Minneapolis,MN, and the Georgetown Environmental Law Center in DC are all involved in efforts with state decision makers similar to ours at CSU.

When one reads about energy policy in America it’s all about the gridlock and inactivity in Congress, but quite frankly that’s not the full story. This Administration is advancing a clean energy agenda. Important advances in clean energy policy are already taking place in the states, even those states with very conservative governors. There is a perception that this has become a partisan fight, but that is not actually true, at least outside of Washington. Governor Sandoval in Nevada clearly understands the advantages to his state in advancing his clean energy agenda. Governor Snyder in Michigan has proposed an ambitious clean energy standard for his state and Governor Martinez in New Mexico has concluded that it is unlikely that there will be another coal-fired power plant built in her state any time soon. In Colorado we’ve done a lot to push the transition from coal to natural gas in electric power generation.

There are many other bright spots in climate and energy policy. Folks who just pay attention to Congress don’t have to be quite so depressed.There is a lot to be done, but there is a lot of good progress being made. Just as the energy sector is doing, the transportation sector, the industrial manufacturing sector and the agricultural sector are all starting to figure out how to limit their emissions. It is a part of an expanding conversation in the western states and all across America, and a variety of very positive and very constructive things are already happening.

So there is some good news out there.We have a lot of work still to do and certainly the Pinchot Institute should be congratulated for all that it is doing to promote rational public dialogue on policies relating to climate, energy and forests. Gifford Pinchot’s conservation ethic was based on the application of common sense to common problems, for the common good. Working together across the states and across partisan lines, we are finding solutions to today’s big conservation and environmental policy challenges—because we have to—and the Pinchot Institute is certainly helping to accomplish that.
 
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