How Obama’s New EPA Regs Can Bring More Local Control Over Energy—Even in Red States

The Clean Power Plan is counting on states to cut carbon emissions. Will they be the new frontiers for change?

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Following the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2014 affirming the Environmental Protection Agency’s right to reduce carbon pollution, President Obama has introduced a major program in the lead-up to the Paris climate talks at the end of this year that seeks to significantly reduce carbon emissions from U.S. power plants, targeting a 32 percent drop from 2005 levels by 2030. This is a substantial executive action in a hostile legislative context, although many climate activists rightly demand far more ambitious targets.

What few have noticed is that the implementation phase of the Clean Power Plan is where things could start to get very interesting, as there are almost certainly going to be very important opportunities for powerful local organizing.

Savvy climate activists in conservative states might push for a"cap-and-dividend" plan.

Basically, the EPA will be mandating reductions on a state-by-state basis, and then each state will be responsible for hitting those targets—or the federal government would step in, via the proposed Federal Plan, and do it for them if they refused or were unwilling to meet the targets. In certain ways, the approach resembles the Affordable Care Act, but given the flexibility in the strategies states can pick to cut their emissions, there is going to be a great deal of unexpected room to begin demanding, at the state level, plans that get the climate job done while also moving toward a more democratic economy.

This is potentially true even in states politically hostile to the notion of government regulation, where even mentioning the fact that climate change is caused by humans remains ludicrously taboo in political discourse. Savvy climate activists in these conservative states might well push for a“cap-and-dividend” plan—in response to the conservative fear that the federal government will otherwise step in. Rather than turning the right to pollute into a financialized commodity to be traded by Wall Street and between giant corporations as “cap-and-trade” does, such a plan would promise to transfer the fees imposed on polluters directly to every citizen.

From the climate perspective, this could be one way to do an end run around red-state opposition—it’s harder to side with the fulminations of climate denialists when your carbon reduction dividend check reliably arrives in the mail every year. From an economic standpoint, such a move would put what amounts to a first step toward a universal basic income on the table in a very practical way. Indeed, the deep red state of Alaska has no problem with this traditionally socialist principle when it comes to the annual checks each resident receives from the Alaska Permanent Fund (a publicly owned fund that collects and invests proceeds from oil and mineral extraction in the state).

In many states, however, it might well be possible to do far better. Many grassroots environmental justice groups are rightly angry that the featured status of cap-and-trade arrangements in the Clean Power Plan means essentially that polluters disproportionately harming poorer, predominantly black and brown communities (where dirty power plants tend to be located) are likely going to be allowed to pay for the privilege of perpetuating this harm. But what if it were possible in certain states to force dirty power to help finance its own displacement, and to do so in a way that started to address persistent economic marginalization along class and race lines?

Carbon dividends could be used to finance low-income community solar.

Finally, in a few states the politics might align to really open a path clear across the checkerboard. Elsewhere in the world, we’ve seen pessimism give way to populist efforts to build different energy systems: Cooperative ownership of wind turbines, for instance, played a major role in the development of a renewable sector in Denmark. Germany’s Energiewende, while not without its problems, has shown that ambitious planning around energy transition is a real possibility—and this policy regime is now being supplemented by popular activist movements that support remunicipalizing large portions of the electrical system. Nor is this kind of thing impossible in the United States; they’re successfully doing it in Boulder, Colorado, for instance.In these states, the checkerboard is slightly more open: Here, a push might be made not for strategies like cap-and-dividend that generate funds earmarked for anyone whatsoever, but to earmark funds for the communities that face the most harm in the current energy system. The goal, too, would be to directly build up an alternative. Carbon dividends could be used to finance low-income community solar, for instance, with community benefit provisions directing the jobs created into community-based or cooperative businesses built to intentionally create opportunities where they are most needed. The Clean Power Plan requires, at least nominally, the inclusion of low-income communities in the formulation of state plans. Moving toward a community-based, democratized energy system could make those provisions more than just empty token gestures.

With Obama’s mandated reductions necessary, but not sufficient, to meet key Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) targets to avoid the worst effects of climate change, we’re going to need local pressure and local momentum to go beyond what the EPA has set out. The Clean Power Plan is an invitation to the states to reinvent their energy systems.

A state-by-state checkerboard strategy can be powerful.

On the new clean power checkerboard, it’s entirely possible, given the right strategic mobilizations, that three or four breakout states will fully embrace a transition to renewables aligned with economic justice and democratic ownership. Another 10 or 15 states might achieve substantial progress to align more modest carbon reductions with the growth of a community-centered energy economy. And even in the states that will inevitably fight tooth and nail for their right to continue ignoring the threat of climate change, new approaches to a democratized energy system may be able to begin to help shape the federal option that will be imposed on the holdouts.

A state-by-state checkerboard strategy can be powerful: Same-sex marriage seemed like a political impossibility at the start of the millennium; 15 years later, it's the law of the land. In the New Deal era, much of what ultimately became Roosevelt's signature social and economic programs was a product of the checkerboard strategy as well, prototyped in the local “laboratories of democracy.” A strategic breakthrough at the state rather than federal level might one day make it possible to tell a similar story about the fight for a just energy transition.