Wisconsin lawmakers are leaping into a barbed debate on emissionless electricity, making it perhaps the first state to launch a major climate initiative in a new year that promises to be shaped by swirling politics, rugged economics and question marks in Congress.
Discussions begin tomorrow on a state plan seeking a 22 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions within 12 years. A haystack of programs would be used to meet that goal, including a major upsizing of Wisconsin's existing renewable portfolio standard, new incentives for residents who produce their own power, and demands for cleaner car fuels.
It is perhaps the brawniest effort of the new decade. But other states are plodding ahead with climate-friendly policies, like expanded mandates on utilities for clean power, wooing manufacturers of solar panels and turbine parts into coal country and making government agencies emit fewer harmful gases.
"A lot of the states that have been taking action are not going to let up on the gas pedal," said Patrick Hogan, regional policy coordinator for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "They're not taking it for granted that we're going to get federal legislation anytime soon."
Wisconsin Democrats are taking advantage of their majority takeovers in the state Assembly last year and in the Senate in 2006 to prioritize passage of the climate bill before Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle surrenders his office at year's end.
The party hasn't achieved a "trifecta" in both legislative chambers and the governor's lakeside mansion since 1986, said state Rep. Spencer Black, a Madison Democrat who chairs the Assembly committee created to steer the sprawling bill through its legislative corn maze.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Black says. "You would have had no bill, or a very diminished bill, if the control was different."
He expects the Legislature to act quickly. A final bill should be ready for the governor's signature on Earth Day in April, Black predicted, though he admitted it won't be an easy "slam dunk."
'Extremists' in power
It has taken more than 18 months for lawmakers to translate a host of climate recommendations produced by a group of researchers, industry representatives, environmentalists and others convened by the governor into the whopping bill.
It does not include a statewide cap-and-trade program, but the list of initiatives, nonetheless, is an aggressive attempt to restructure the state's fountainhead of electricity while making conservation a priority.
There's a goal to find 25 percent of the state's power from renewable sources within 15 years; a feed-in tariff would allow residents to sell excess solar or wind power to utilities; all new buildings beginning in 20 years would be powered by on-site clean energy systems; statewide electricity use would drop by 1 percent next year and by 2 percent annually in 2015; and greenhouse gas emissions would be regulated from new passenger cars.
The measure is stoking an eruptive political undercurrent. One Republican complained that Democratic "environmental extremists" drafted the bill with little input from the other side.
Demanding that one-quarter of the state's power come from renewable sources, including 10 percent from within Wisconsin, will raise electricity costs on manufacturers and reduce jobs, said state Rep. Phil Montgomery, a Republican from the paper mill city of Green Bay and an author of the state's existing renewable portfolio standard.
"We do not have the amount of land necessary to site the number of windmills that it would take to meet that 25 percent standard," he said. "We physically do not have the characteristics that are needed for [that amount of] wind power."
No shots fired yet
The action in Wisconsin, as in other states, is shaped around job creation, not climate protection. Supporters say state modeling shows that 15,000 jobs could be created by reducing the massive annual cost of buying outside fuel sources.
"We have no coal mines, we have no gas fields, we have no oil wells," said Black, the committee chairman. "We spend $20 billion a year on energy. Eighty percent of that -- in rough terms, about $16 billion a year -- immediately leaves the state's economy. That's a tremendous drain."
Tia Nelson, who co-chaired the governor's climate group that produced the recommendations, said the bill will invigorate state investment in a range of renewable energy and efficiency efforts. Jobs will follow. But she noted that criticism from opponents in manufacturing is likely to be close behind.
"We think on the merits, we'll prevail," said Nelson, the daughter of former Wisconsin Gov. and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson. "But it's hard to tell because people haven't started shooting yet."
Wisconsin's move comes amid rising criticism of Democratic control in Washington, fueled in part by the party's expensive plan to reshape health-care insurance during a global recession punctuated by high unemployment rates.
Congress's looming debate on climate legislation will come as lawmakers are preparing for midterm elections that could shave down the Democratic majority.
With that backdrop, selected states are moving forward with incremental plans that can address climate change, such as attracting renewable energy manufacturers, making government agencies carbon-free and enlarging mandates that make utilities buy power derived from the wind and sun.
In Washington state, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire announced plans to make state agencies carbon-neutral by 2020, likely with the use in part of electric vehicles.
"It's one thing for us to talk about climate change and to look at federal legislation, but if we're not keeping our own house in order that's a problem," Gregoire told reporters last month, according to the Associated Press.
In the Northeast, 11 states are developing a low-carbon fuel standard that will enhance the carbon-cutting effort of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the nation's first carbon cap-and-trade program, which is directed at 233 utilities.
There have been rumblings that Colorado and Pennsylvania might expand their existing renewable portfolio standards, and a bill is being introduced in Maryland to create a feed-in tariff, according to sources.
Many of those actions are happening in states that have been pressing forward with conservation and climate policies for years. What's less clear about 2010 is whether states that have been slow to act will be more forceful, or if nagging budget constraints combined with state and congressional elections will hamper initiatives all over.
Deficits "loom over the legislatures right now, and getting anything done that has any type of fiscal note on it is going to be difficult in a number of states," said Adam Schafer, who tracks state efforts as executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.
There has been, however, quiet progress coming from an area of the nation known for its climate queasiness: the Southeast, where conservative politicians and historically cheap fossil fuels have generally limited global warming legislation.
Tennessee Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is methodically working to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives, especially attracting solar manufacturing and expanding ethanol production, according to Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Bredesen doesn't talk about climate change. In Tennessee, as in Wisconsin, it's about jobs.
But the result is the same.
"He has substantively engaged on a number of tools in the toolbox to address climate change," Smith said.