Western States, Provinces To Set 'Green' Region

Six Western states and two Canadian provinces have agreed to develop their own regional system to combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gases. While their approach has its detractors, it has political advantages for Western governors who'd like to burnish their "green" credentials and set the course for a national program.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

President Bush has pledged to do more about controlling climate change, but it's still not clear the U.S. is any closer to adopting a national plan to cut greenhouse gases. Congress is not likely to pass a national plan this year. And now, some states say they're tired of waiting.

NPR's Martin Kaste has the story from Seattle.

Unidentified Man: And that's why things are absolutely crawling from Lake City way down to the Ship Canal. And that takes care of I-5 in the southbound direction.

MARTIN KASTE: Welcome to Arnold Schwarzenegger's hydrogen highway, where clean cars dribble nothing but distilled water from their tailpipes. Okay, not really. Schwarzenegger's grand vision of hydrogen filling stations from San Diego clear up to Vancouver is still at least a couple decades off.

The reality is, I-5, the big West Coast freeway - on which I'm currently fighting traffic - is still bumper-to-bumper greenhouse gases. Schwarzenegger still talks about hydrogen, but these days, the governator is pushing what maybe a more achievable plan.

Governor ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (Republican, California): And I tell you, it is great to be back again in Vancouver.

KASTE: Here he is just a couple of weeks ago upon the northern end of this freeway.

Gov. SCHWARZENEGGER: When I said during my movie promotion that I'll be back, that it would be as governor of the great state of California - that I didn't know. So it is great to be here as governor.

KASTE: Schwarzenegger has been taking his show on the road lately, going all around the West and signing up governors and, in this case, one premiere, for something he calls the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative. British Columbia, California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah are all onboard. They've agreed to create a kind of regional Kyoto Protocol, a plan to cut greenhouse gases in the West. A similar group has already formed on the East Coast. It's a region-by-region approach, and it has its critics.

Mr. ROBERT STAVINS (Director, Environmental Economics Program, Harvard University): The important thing to remember about global climate change is that fist word, global.

KASTE: Robert Stavins directs the Environmental Economics Program at Harvard. He says, state laws cutting global warming gases are, in his words, a political slide of hand.

Mr. STAVINS: There will be actions that will be taken if they follow through on it. But those benefits are going to be spread worldwide. The benefits are not going to be received by the people of California, who will be incurring the costs.

KASTE: In other words, these Western states are volunteering to spend a lot of their own money doing something that will probably help the rest of the planet more than it will help them. It sounds awfully noble, but there is also some self-interest at work here. Stavins says if the states get their plan up and running soon, they may avoid getting stuck with a national plan that they don't like.

Mr. STAVINS: It's possible that the federal government, then, will feel at that point, what they need to do is to weave the program together. And rather than building the better mousetrap from the ground up, they're going to be forced to cobble these programs together in ways that are less than desirable.

KASTE: Congress is already showing some signs of pushback. A bill in the House would prohibit California and its allied states from setting their own carbon emission standards for cars. And as you can guess just by looking at the situation here on I-5, traffic is the biggest source of greenhouse gases on the West Coast. And the states would rather be the ones regulating what comes out of all these tailpipes.

Some members of Congress also don't like the way the West Coast policies have targeted so-called dirty electricity, especially power generated from coal, which is mined in other states.

Ms. JANICE ADAIR (Special Assistant for Regulatory Improvement, Washington State Department of Ecology): Martin?

KASTE: Yeah. Hi.

Ms. ADAIR: Janice Adair. Come on in.

KASTE: Thanks. Sorry, I'm late.

Ms. ADAIR: Oh, it's okay. I've driven the freeway. I know.

KASTE: After an hour and a half on I-5, I finally get to where I'm going: the Washington State Department of Ecology. Janice Adair is the coordinator of the state's participation in the Western climate change group. She readily admits that Washington State is going along with California and the others, in part, to have more influence on the future national plan. But what if there's never a national plan?

Ms. ADAIR: If we worked together as a collective of states, yes, I think we could make tremendous difference. I don't - I think it's more complicated not having the federal overlay, but it's not impossible.

KASTE: The Western states say they'll set their carbon-cutting goal this summer, and then they'll start negotiating their methods, whether it'll be a regional fuel standard, a carbon tax, or maybe even a pollution trading system. They want their plan ready by next summer, which gives Congress a little over a year to try to beat them to the punch.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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