News and analysis about renewable energy in California.

The Good and Bad of the West Coast Climate Pact

A fracking protest outside the signing ceremony | Photo: Californians Against Fracking

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a non-binding climate pact Monday with governors John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington, and Premier Christy Clark of British Columbia. Reaction to the pact is mixed, with the most negative reaction coming from activists opposed to the expansion of hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas in California.

And Brown didn't do much to reassure fracking opponents in his reaction to a protest outside the San Francisco headquarters of Cisco Systems, where the formal signing ceremony occurred.

"I think we ought to give science a chance before deciding on a ban on fracking," Brown told reporters after the ceremony, adding that fracking had allowed a more economical shift away from coal-fired power.

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"So this is a very complicated equation," Brown said. "You can be sure that California is doing everything it can to reduce greenhouse gases and support a sustainable economy."

Reaction was generally positive to other aspects of the climate pact, signed as part of the ongoing development of the five-year-old "Pacific Coast Collaborative" initiative.

California's corporate leaders applauded the possibility of expanding the state's carbon credit market to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Shelly Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the anti-cap-and-trade AB 32 Implementation Group, cautiously applauded the pact. "We have always believed that we need a broad market that includes not only other states but other countries, in order for it to function efficiently," Sullivan told the Los Angeles Times.

Reaction to the pact was less cautions from at least one mainstream green group. In a blog post on the Environmental Defense Fund's web site, Derek Walker -- EDF's Associate Vice President for the group's U.S. Climate and Energy Program -- fairly gushed about the pact, referring to the heads of state as the "Fab Four."

"Today's event is a beacon of hope for national and global action to fight climate change," wrote Walker. "While the four parties in this agreement are in different stages in putting a price on carbon, their combined commitment is a positive sign and further impetus for regional and international collaboration."

By signing the pact, the West Coast states and province do actually pledge to taking important steps to regulate carbon. Here's the language:

Oregon will build on existing programs to set a price on carbon emissions. Washington will set binding limits on carbon emissions and deploy market mechanisms to meet those limits. British Columbia and California will maintain their existing carbon-pricing programs. Where possible, California, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington will link programs for consistency and predictability and to expand opportunities to grow the region's low-carbon economy.

Washington's governor Inslee has expressed support for a cap and trade program in his state, and BC has had a $30 (Canadian) per ton tax on carbon emissions in place for the last five years.

The governments also commit to non-specific support of a number of initiatives from regional high speed rail to zero-net-energy buildings, coordination of the West Coast's electrical power grids, and supporting research on ocean acidification. The governments also agreed to push for a global climate summit in 2015.

And the last clause may be the most important one:

This Action Plan shall have no legal effect; impose no legally binding obligation enforceable in any court of law or other tribunal of any sort, nor create any funding expectation; nor shall our jurisdictions be responsible for the actions of third parties or associates.

Notable by its absence from Monday's signing was the fifth member of the Pacific Coast Collaborative: the state of Alaska. Alaska has the most to lose from climate change, which is already radically affecting the state's Arctic environment. Nonetheless, Alaska governor Sean Parnell has been resolutely silent on the climate issue, going so far as to quietly shut down the state's involvement in climate working groups launched by (of all people) his predecessor Sarah Palin.

Farther south, it's unlikely that Jerry Brown will hear the last of the fracking issue anytime soon. "Brown is out of step with the California electorate," said rose Braz and Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity in an Op-Ed prior to Monday's signing. "Polls show 58 percent of the state wants a moratorium on the practice. If Brown values his legacy as a climate leader, he needs to halt fracking in California. The governor needs to face facts: Climate leaders don't frack."

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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