With President Donald Trump's decision to backtrack on climate change — his announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord in June representing just the most high-profile element of what has been both a sweeping and ill-considered policy reversal — it's now up to states and local governments, private industry and advocacy groups to pick up the slack. As it happens, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has a well-timed opportunity to do just that by joining other Northeast states in strengthening the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, which regulates emissions from power plants.
In a matter of days, the nine states that participate in the cap-and-trade agreement are expected to set new goals for 2018 to 2030. They face several choices — maintain the current rate of pollution reduction at 2.5 percent per year, increase it to 3.5 percent per year or tighten it even further with a 3 percent cap but with a one-time 6.5 percent reduction in 2019. What should be clear to all involved is that a status quo approach is unacceptable. Maryland, Delaware, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont must choose the path that the president has abandoned and steer the U.S. toward a more rational and responsible course on climate policy.
RGGI has already been a success, and many Marylanders have experienced its benefits directly. Under the agreement, power plants buy carbon allowances at auctions four times per year. States then invest the revenue from those auctions in programs like EmPOWER Maryland, which promotes energy efficiency and conservation directly benefiting consumers. It's a beautiful relationship. Whatever the impact on higher utility rates, the money spent on carbon allowances goes straight into the pockets of consumers, lowering the price of energy-saving appliances, for example, or financing free home energy audits. Meanwhile, those same consumers benefit directly (in their own lowered demand for electricity) and indirectly (in jobs associated with renewable energy and other pollution-lowering technologies). And, of course, it also means less pollution in the air, not only in the form of carbon dioxide, which contributes heavily to climate change, but in sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases that represent a serious health hazard.
Since the initiative began eight years ago, power plant emissions have been reduced by about 40 percent, and there's been an estimated $5.7 billion boost to public health, according to advocates. There's no reason to believe that Maryland and other states can't continue further down this same path by ratcheting up the pollution-reduction goals.
Governor Hogan may be tempted to resist the more ambitious goals. Maryland's last Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., in whose cabinet Mr. Hogan served, initially opposed Maryland's participation in the greenhouse gas initiative. He argued a decade ago that it would harm the reliability of the electrical grid and drive up prices. Neither fear was realized. While prices have risen, they've also been offset in large measure by reduced demand. Maryland's average price per kilowatt hour is higher than the national average (12.07 cents compared to 10.41 cents, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration) but still lower than most of the other states participating in RGGI.
Politically, Mr. Hogan must see the issue as a winner as well. If he wants to distance himself from the White House in 2018, he could scarcely pick a better political talking point — and one that has resonance in Maryland. A poll conducted just one year ago for the Sierra Club found overwhelming support (79 percent) for RGGI. A majority also favored reducing further power plant emissions by 5 percent per year, a target even more ambitious that the scenarios currently on the table. It would also help offset one of the governor's larger environmental missteps, his veto of legislation mandating Marylanders be provided more renewable energy, which Mr. Hogan claimed would raise costs to consumers. Lawmakers easily overrode that veto in February.
Leading the way on a stricter RGGI standard shouldn't be a stretch for him; in a recent Sun op-ed, Mr. Hogan touted his opposition to President Trump's withdrawal from the Paris accord and his own "commitment to stringent clean air standards," including a reference to Maryalnd as a "proud member" of RGGI.
There is one other reasonable alternative, and that would be for Mr. Hogan and the General Assembly to embrace a carbon tax, which would extend far beyond power plants. That would be worth considering, but it's probably a non-starter politically and would work best on a national level anyway. With cap-and-trade Mr. Hogan has a proven winner and one that needs only an added, bipartisan boost to put the governor near the forefront of climate change leadership within the U.S.