California gambles

by Ari van Schilfgaarde

All this semester, I’ve hammered on the idea of collaborative conservation as the best way to approach environmental problems. Last week I showed how collaboration becomes collusion. Here is another example where collaboration isn’t fast enough and unilateral action by one actor is setting a national precedent. California is betting that as the 800 pound gorilla in the Western electricity grid, what it says, goes.

In September, California told all the suppliers that ship power from coal and natural gas into the state that their power wasn’t wanted unless it was produced at facilities that had been produced in the most environmentally sustainable way possible.

It gets better, California is now demanding that your cell phone charger, VCR, TV and even your computer monitor stop sucking power when they’re off. This might be as much as 10 percent of the total energy use in the state, but it comes from small incremental sources, and replacing all the cell phone charger technology comes at a huge cost.

It’s a lot of people—38 million to be exact—that are now demanding cleaner technologies coming into their home state. California has long been the best conservationist in the country—real energy use has stayed flat since 1970, while incomes are up at least 50% percent. The California Air Resources Board is the envy of airheads around the country. But the question at stake is has this greenhouse gamble gone too far or not far enough?

The strategy, according to the President of the Public Utilities Commission Michael Peevey, is to deal with greenhouse gases “across the board.”

So, the Golden State has begun regulating tailpipe emissions of CO2 from larger cars. And this time other states are following suit. Industry is fighting back; it’s sued to dismiss the case and is hoping that by tying it up in court for year, it can avoid the most onerous of the provisions.

California, though, is undeterred. It’s decided that it has an example to set as the single largest state. It has what economists dismally refer to as “market power”; when combined with a social conscience, it makes for a powerful combination. While this is not collaboration in the sense that two opposing parties have come to the negotiating table, and certainly not collusion, it may be the best news coming out of the West in a long time. Let’s hope that California can retain her resolve until even Texas catches up.

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