Emissions

Evening rush hour traffic is pictured on Interstate 495, also known as the Capital Beltway.

A bipartisan group of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, and the District of Columbia, have released a draft plan to curb emissions from gasoline and diesel over the next decade and beyond.

More than a year in the making, the plan released this month marks a key step in an ambitious but fraught effort to cut the emissions that pour from vehicles and are believed to cause climate change.

Backers of the plan, which could launch as early as two years from now, cited health and economic analyses showing broad benefits — even beyond preventing the burning of fossil fuels that would release millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“Transportation issues are regional in their very nature, so it makes sense to act regionally to address them,” said Kathleen Theoharides, secretary of Massachusetts’ executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

A dozen states — New Hampshire, Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont — and D.C. have been involved in the planning effort, but that doesn’t mean they will necessarily join the eventual pact.

In fact, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, released a statement after the plan was announced, saying the state would not join. It will not be until next spring that states would sign as full members of the regional agreement.

“I will not force Granite Staters to pay more for their gas just to subsidize other states’ crumbling infrastructure,” Sununu said. “New Hampshire is already taking substantial steps to curb our carbon emissions, and this initiative, if enacted, would institute a new gas tax by up to 17 cents per gallon while only achieving minimal results. This program is a financial boondoggle and the people of New Hampshire will never support it.”

New Hampshire critics of the initiative insist it’s a cleverly-disguised and regressive gasoline tax that would hurt working families.

Purported objectives

Under the plan, the jurisdictions would agree on how much emissions must be cut over a decade. Among the options being considered are 20%, 22% and 25%. That would be overseen on the state level through a system requiring large fuel distributors to pay varying amounts to support a transportation investment fund, depending on how much pollution their fuels would produce.

Initial annual proceeds from the so-called “cap and invest” plan would range from $1.4 billion for a 20% cut to $5.6 billion for a 25% cut, organizers said.

States could spend the money on cleaner transportation options, such as buying electric buses, expanding transit and making deliveries more efficient.

“More stringent caps result in greater emissions cuts and more proceeds for investments,” according to a draft presentation released as part of the effort, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative.

How much those costs would be paid by drivers themselves would depend on the approach of fuel distributors, backers of the initiative said.

The new requirements could prompt distributors to use cleaner-burning biofuels or innovate with new technologies, backers said.

Or the gas and diesel distributors could potentially hike prices, adding perhaps 5 cents to 17 cents per gallon at the pump in 2022, organizers said, citing modeling done as part of the initiative.

A project website set up to bring in diverse views on the effort shows signs of broad support and vehement opposition, with critics assailing what one resident said was “Just another money grab for MA,” and another called it “the straw that finally breaks the financial back of many retirees in Rhode Island.”

Market forces

But by using market forces to spur innovation and prevent pollution, positive “changes will happen that we can’t even envision,” said Vicki Arroyo, the executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, which is supporting the multistate effort with the backing of major foundations.

Some costs could potentially be passed to consumers, but “fuel prices fluctuate wildly, and any of those numbers are less than fuel prices have fluctuated just over the last couple years,” Arroyo said.

Those projections and others are subject to a range of potential changes.

Officials involved with the project said that under Obama-era tailpipe emissions standards and other assumptions, the region’s emissions from gas and diesel would shrink by 19% between 2022 and 2032, even without the “cap and invest” plan.

“However, it’s very uncertain when you’re modeling what could happen in the future,” said Chris Hoagland, an economist in the Climate Change Division of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

“So we could see smaller reductions in emissions than that 19% over time, if in particular gas prices are lower or the federal government rolls back vehicle efficiency standards, as has been proposed.”

With those rollbacks and low oil prices, emissions may only fall by 6% during that same period, Hoagland said.

In that case, the Transportation and Climate Initiative signatories would have to do more locally to make up the difference if they still wanted to achieve the same goal of reducing emissions by 20% or 25% overall, he said.

Transportation has become an even larger piece of the pollution pie as efforts to reduce emissions from power plants have shown some progress, aided by a shift to cleaner fuels and a separate cooperative effort by many of the same states.

Experiences with the power-sector emissions reduction effort, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, have helped inform the newer efforts on gas and diesel, participants said.

Arroyo said setting up a mechanism to begin dealing with transportation-related emissions marks a significant step in addressing the causes and perils of climate change.

“No other region in the country really has joined hands and said they will tackle transportation emissions, as a region,” she said. “That’s just never been done before.”

Thursday, April 02, 2020