Climate change pact signed by California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia

Saying that the West Coast must lead the way in battling climate change, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington, along with the premier of British Columbia, signed an agreement Monday committing the Canadian province and the three states to coordinate global-warming policies.

Each state and the Canadian province promised to take roughly a dozen actions, including streamlining permits for solar and wind projects, better integrating the electric power grid, supporting more research on ocean acidification and expanding government purchases of electric vehicles.

“You are witnessing a historic small-but-powerful first step,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said during the event, held at Cisco’s San Francisco campus.

“It’s only the beginning. You just watch,” Brown said. “Next year and the year after and the year after that, this will spread until finally we get a real handle and grasp on what is the world’s greatest existential challenge – the stability of our climate, on which we all depend.”

It was clear, however, that the goals of the pact won’t all be immediately achievable. California already has a cap and trade law, signed in 2006 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The law, which requires oil companies, factories and power plants to hold permits for the carbon pollution they emit, took effect last year.

In 2008, British Columbia passed a carbon tax that raised the price of gasoline but was offset by a cut in corporate taxes and personal income taxes.

The governors of Oregon and Washington announced support for cap and trade policies. But they must now persuade their legislatures to pass laws to put the policies into effect.

In Washington state, the state Senate is controlled by Republicans, who have opposed cap and trade.

In a wider sense, however, the agreement was a strong political statement. The three Western states and British Columbia have 53 million people and an annual GDP of $2.8 trillion – representing the fifth largest economy in the world.

The Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy also says that the signatories will agree to support new rules from the Obama administration setting limits on carbon emissions from new power plants, which will make it nearly impossible to build new coal-fired plants. The administration is expected to release rules next year on existing power plants – which could raise electricity bills in many states that depend on coal.

The three governors, all Democrats, made the case that growing the economy is not incompatible with reducing pollution that the majority of the world’s scientists say is heating the Earth, melting polar ice and raising sea levels.

“Along the West Coast, we have collectively recognized that a clean economy, energy efficiency and green building provides probably the only path that we have to a sustainable future,” Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said.

Added Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: “While the process in Washington, D.C., is strangled by climate deniers, there is no denying the fact that the West Coast is rip-roaring and ready to go.”

Environmentalists praised the pact. “Where Congress is stalled, this shows that states can take the lead,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director of Environment California, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Industry leaders who fought California’s regulations, however, took a wait-and-see attitude.

“What we really need is an announcement that these other states will put their economies under cap and trade like California,” said Dorothy Rothrock, vice president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association. “It will be hard for our manufacturers to compete until that happens.”

Others said the agreement needs more specifics before its impact will be known. “The devil will be in the details, whether they do anything substantive or whether it turns out to be a time wasting exercise,” said Jeremy Carl, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Afterward, Brown defended his support for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial practice in which oil and gas firms inject water, sand and chemicals into the ground to fracture underground rock formations and release fossil fuels.

Asked by this newspaper whether fracking should be banned, as about 50 protesters carrying signs outside the event were demanding, Brown said: “What would be the reason for that?”

Brown noted that he just signed a law that not only regulates fracking but also requires an in-depth scientific study of its environmental effects. And he contended that fracking in the U.S. has helped the environment in some ways by increasing the supply of natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal.

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