Ambitious plan for highway emissions

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The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), of which Vermont is an integral part, has had tangible benefits on the region's air quality since 2005. Can a similar system targeted at vehicles have the same kind of impact? Twelve states plan to find out.

On Tuesday, Vermont and 11 other Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states released a framework agreement for a "cap and invest" system to curb transportation emissions. It is to be modeled after the nine-state RGGI, which has contributed to a reduction in power plant emissions by about 40 percent from Maine to Maryland since its enactment 14 years ago. Electricity prices have generally remained stable in the member states since its passage, according to the member states.

The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, and accounts for 40 percent of the emissions in the region. The proposed initiative, known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative, will be far more complex than the RGGI and the states will be working on the specific details into next year. They will have to determine how much pollution will be allowed, how much the permits will cost, and how quickly the caps will decline. The concerns of business groups and others that the initiative will substantially raise gasoline prices will have to be addressed.

Under the framework agreement announced Tuesday, fuel distributors in the states would have to buy pollution permits for the carbon dioxide they produce. A similar provision was a sticking point for power plant operators when the RGGI was introduced but they bought in to the agreement because the cap would decline over time as emissions were reduced. This is how the RGGI has worked, largely without controversy.

Kathleen Theoharides, who heads the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and chairs the Transportation and Climate Initiative, said in The Boston Globe that the general goal is to invest the proceeds of the pollution permits into transportation-related projects, such as public transit, carpooling and subsidies for the purchase of electric vehicles. She added that it will be a priority to assure that the needs of lower-income populations and rural communities are served by the initiative.

Along with the six New England states, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia have signed on to the effort, and North Carolina is considering participation. The Globe observes that if all these states participate they would constitute more than one-fifth of the nation's population and a quarter of the country's economic output. It is hoped that the program would begin in 2022 and reach a targeted emissions level within a decade.

The initiative will have its skeptics, but so did the RGGI. As long as Washington, D.C., is in the control of climate change deniers, the states will have to take the lead on environmental issues, and there is strength in numbers. Like the RGGI, which has served as a model for greenhouse gas reduction efforts elsewhere, the Transportation and Climate Initiative has the potential to benefit Vermont and the region while showing the way forward for other states.

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