Blumenauer On New President and Congress’ Plans for Climate Change, Public Investment

Rep. Earl Blumenauer

ss=float-left>Earl Blumenauer
Rep. Earl BlumenauerLong considered an unofficial member of the California Congressional delegation, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) has a unique view of the resonance that California’s actions have at the regional and federal level. A member of the Budget Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, and the Special Committee on Energy Independence and Climate Change, Congressman Blumenauer, in the following VerdeXchange News interview, opines on historic events such as CARB’s adoption of the AB 32 Scoping Plan, a new president, and a new Congress.=caption>


ss=teaserPhoto>VXN: This winter, California’s Air Resources Board approved a Scoping Plan for implementing the state’s proactive climate change initiative, AB 32. The adopted plan contains the main strategies California will use to reduce the greenhouse gases (GHG) that cause climate change. The Scoping Plan has a range of GHG reduction actions, which include direct regulations, alternative compliance mechanisms, monetary and non-monetary incentives, voluntary actions, and market-based mechanisms, such as a cap-and-trade system. How much influence will California’s initiatives have on the new Congress and Obama Administration?

Rep. Earl Blumenauer: What is happening in California is critical on two levels. First, what happens in California is important in and of itself; you are famously somewhere between the seventh and the tenth largest economy in the world. Secondly, California sets trends that are then magnified and developed throughout our entire nation.=photocaption>


Your Scoping Plan is coming at a critical time on the federal level. I anticipate that Congress will be making $1 trillion worth of commitments in the year ahead to rebuild and renew America. This commitment will include efforts to stabilize the economy and spread an economic recovery with an eye towards sustainable initiatives. There is every indication that the new administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress are committed to investments that reduce our carbon footprint, enhance energy efficiency and independence, and point us toward an economy focused on the future. This combination of national events and California policies gives a significant boost to those of us who hope to get maximum benefit out of today’s economic and environmental challenges.

VXN: You’re on the House Budget Committee, Ways and Means Committee, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Special Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence. You’ve long been a champion of smart transportation and federal water policy. For you especially, it must be an incredible moment as the incoming Obama Administration commences translating your long-held ambitions into reality. What are your expectations?

Blumenauer: My service on the Budget Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, and the Special Committee on Energy Independence and Climate Change has put me in the middle of conversations that have actually been the foundation of my entire public service career. The feeling after this election is indescribable. But we still have obviously dire economic circumstances, the worst since the Great Depression. We still have unprecedented international tension, as we saw from the recent tragedy in Mumbai, India. We’ve got this challenge to save the planet. With that as a backdrop, the pieces are coming together; there is enthusiasm with the new administration. As I campaigned in a number of cities across the country this fall, I was pleased to find so much interest in the environment, global warming, and the revitalization of communities. This convergence is extraordinarily exciting. When we first began having these conversations, David, we were working on things that would help improve communities. Today, the focus has moved from improvements to the things that are necessary for communities to thrive. Now the simultaneous economic, strategic, and environmental threats have made our agenda even more urgent. There is great expectation and great enthusiasm, notwithstanding the seriousness of the challenges ahead. It’s unlike anything I’ve experienced in my public service career.

VXN: At the heart of the California Air Resources Board action this winter was the creation of a carbon credit market designed to give the state’s major air polluters cheaper ways to cut GHG emissions. Is a trade mechanism a concept that resonates with Congress and with other western states?

Blumenauer: The California actions certainly add momentum to the cap-and-trade movement. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), made up of ten states in the Northeast, is not waiting for the federal government; they are moving forward with this next year. We’ve got the governors of western states hard at work on the Western Climate Initiative for our region. But the California action will be the biggest effort and will provide a punctuation point that is so important for the next Congress.

Personally, I am agnostic; we can accomplish these goals with a carbon tax or with a cap-and-trade program. But what is important is that we attach a cost to carbon pollution and that we use the resources generated from this cost to help people comply and to minimize the impacts, especially on those who are least able to afford them.

VXN: President Obama has promised $15 billion a year in funding for climate change initiatives related to infrastructure and energy independence. You will be speaking at the Verdexchange Green Marketmakers Conference in L.A. January 26th. What policies and signals do you foresee coming from Washington through the budget, climate change legislation, the reauthorization of transit or water funding, or the stimulus package?

Blumenauer: Notwithstanding the economic difficulties, this year we will far exceed campaign trail promises for investments in the electric power grid upgrades, in new technologies, and in using the federal government as a prime market for energy- efficient innovations. I suspect that we may double or triple the amount of money promised for these various energy innovations. We have long neglected just the transmission capacity of this country. We need more redundancy; we need system upgrades. We need to be able to access parts of the country, especially in the West and Midwest, where there is a surplus of renewable energy opportunities but a deficit in transmission capacity.

PG&E is installing their first million Smart Meters. If we accelerate that process, we can create tens of thousands of jobs across California and throughout the West. If governments are going to place orders for the vehicles of the future -- be they plug-in hybrids, compressed natural gas, or biofuels —we’ll need to build the fueling station infrastructure. After the first Gulf War, Congress appropriately directed the federal government to purchase flex-fuel vehicles. Today, we have 100,000 flex-fuel vehicles in the federal fleet, but since the directive didn’t include a mandate to use the flex fuel, a lot of them are running on gasoline. If you think about the electric grids, the federal facilities, the fueling stations, and the need for strategic investment in research and development, now is the time. As you have demonstrated with your conference in Southern California, state and international parties of interest are eager to fine-tune and start a vast economic engine to take advantage of these changes.

VXN: Are there Federal Water Policies that our readers should be made aware of as Congress convenes?

Blumenauer: I’m afraid water issues have been below the radar screen, not in California and many parts of the West, but on a national level. Water has not been given the same attention accorded the need for energy upgrades, for repairing fallen bridges and roads, or for improving public transit. Water, if anything, is a more serious short-term and immediate-term problem. Our water supply is immediately affected by climate change-related events like flooding and drought, which place great stress on aging sewer and water systems. We have 72,000 miles of city water pipes and sewer mains that are over 80 years of age—and virtually no community is prepared to deal with the water stress brought about by climate change. In addition, water and sewer systems consume a significant amount of energy. A tremendous amount of electricity and natural gas is used to transport and purify water. Outside of a few headlines about too much or not enough water, the media hasn’t paid much attention to this issue. The long-term systematic problems have been under-reported, and frankly, the federal government has not been nearly as engaged as it should be. We have, in fact, enough water in the West even in times of water stress. We have also made, as you well know, too many demands on resources like the Colorado River; we still have people growing subsidized cotton in the desert between Tucson and Phoenix. We need to rationalize the use and the pricing of water and work collaboratively to balance our interests. Tragically, the last Farm Bill continued inappropriate subsidies for water-intensive commodities, often grown in the wrong locations, and under-invested in ways that could help farmers be more water efficient or reward them for maintaining water quality and quantity. This is something that I sincerely hope will get more attention as we move through these series of challenges.

VXN: Turning your attention to land use and comprehensive infrastructure planning and investment, could you comment on how significant California’s SB 375, authored by new Senate President Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg, is, given that it ties the allocation of state transportation funds with a demonstrated reduction of vehicle miles traveled in local and regional governments?

Blumenauer: Yes, it’s an exciting development. California has been sort of schizophrenic about land use. You have some landmark achievements, like the California Coastal Commission, which demonstrated foresight and toughness in protecting an invaluable resource against tremendous economic and political pressure. The connection between transportation and land use, however, has always been wanting. SB 375 is extraordinarily significant to California, which has long been one of the “driving forces” of American car culture. We never could have this kind of impact in Oregon. People come and visit our little West Coast state to see what we’ve done for livability, but our policies are often regarded in some quarters as idiosyncratic—interesting, maybe, but not broadly applicable. When California does something like this, it’s huge. For years, the inability to reconcile California’s land uses with transportation capacity has fueled massive land consumption; it’s been the one dark spot on your otherwise very strong record of energy efficiency. It has created some serious air quality problems and has made your housing market more susceptible to a precipitous drop in value. Now, a policy that links land use and transportation is going to help you provide more stable housing values. Although these values may not increase as spectacularly in the future, this is probably a good thing; it will enable more people to participate in the housing market. Creating more stable housing prices that people can count on also reduces the cost of roads and utilities. Linking land use and transportation policies in California can lead to a revolution if there is the political will to implement them properly.

VXN: President Obama has announced his environmental team. Could you comment on President-elect Obama’s Cabinet selections to date? How do they fit in with the environmental and economic agenda we have been discussing in this interview?

Blumenauer: The energy and environmental team unveiled this week has been universally heralded by the environmental community—and by people in industry and business that are not always enthusiastic about environmental protections. Many of us recognize that these appointments are people of experience and quality; they fit the general pattern of this administration as people of extraordinary capability. Commentators across the political spectrum are impressed that President-elect Obama has been able to enlist extraordinarily talented people, sometimes in surprising positions. These appointments speak both to the commitment people have to this new administration and the urgency of the times. People recognize that this is an unprecedented opportunity to make a contribution; things are going to happen. So I am, to this point, extraordinarily pleased and impressed. I have worked with a number of the appointees, and am confident they will be sympathetic to many of our solutions for the challenges ahead.

VXN: Lastly, you have said that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is “the most powerful Italian elected official since Julius Caesar.” Since you and she are working collaboratively on a plan to “renew and rebuild” America, please share the status of federal infrastructure planning by the new Congress and Obama Administration.

Blumenauer: Speaker Pelosi is the daughter of a three-term mayor of Baltimore, who himself was deeply involved in infrastructure. She grew up watching ribbon cutting ceremonies. She instinctively understands that rebuilding and renewing America needs to be the centerpiece of restoring our economy and protecting our planet. Her Speakership has been focused, in a way unlike perhaps any Speaker since Henry Clay, on dealing with crumbling infrastructure and our future needs. She has been outspoken about issues of energy and transportation. She is from the Bay Area, the home—along with Southern California—of some remarkable transportation and regional planning agencies. It’s been delightful watching her zero in on this, even before the economic crisis. For her, these issues are good policy, they are good politics, and they are good common sense. Under her leadership, aided by the very able Democratic team she has put together, I suspect that we are going to see a very ambitious reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act. Congressman Henry Waxman from Southern California now chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee; recent appointments to that committee are of all-star quality. This very active, powerful committee is going to play a key role in transportation, water, and energy policy. •••