Pacific Coast utility regulators reaffirm climate change goals

New agreement recognizes health, economic threats of climate change

On the West Coast, major threats from climate change include worsening wildfire seasons, persistent drought and ocean acidification. And part of the answer to addressing those threats comes from an unexpected and behind-the-scenes source — utility regulators.

Earlier this week, top utility regulators in Washington, Oregon and California convened to reaffirm their commitment to taking action against climate change.

It’s been more than 10 years since the utility commissions threw their support behind efforts to reduce the carbon pollution produced by private utility companies and to back the development of low-carbon technologies in the energy industry such as solar or wind power. Their latest action — signing a memorandum of understanding Tuesday at Seattle’s eco-friendly Bullitt Center — reinforced that goal.

The memorandum, or MOU, recognizes climate change as a “serious threat to the health, safety, and welfare of all people,” and affirms that it is the responsibility of these utility commissions to protect the public’s health and the health of the environment.

That attitude is relatively new.

Before 2006, utility commissions typically had two priorities: making sure that the private utility companies they oversee offer reliable services, and that the rates for those utilities are as affordable as possible. The agreement made a decade ago and reaffirmed Tuesday adds a third goal: regulating those companies’ contributions to climate change as a matter of public health.

“In order to address the real-life implications of climate change, the commissions support cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, improve reliability, and obtain cost benefits for ratepayers,” Tuesday’s memorandum states.

Signing the MOU were David Danner, chairman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC); Lisa Hardie, chairwoman of the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC); and Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, from left, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission Chairman David Danner and Oregon Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Lisa Hardie discuss their memorandum of understanding Tuesday in Seattle. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

“The West Coast states I believe do have an environmental ethic,” Danner said at the signing. “It is important that we undertake our economic analyses with our eyes wide open about the impacts of the resource choices that our utilities make, the possibilities for energy efficiency that are out there and what it really means to be cost effective.”

He added that the UTC is “finding that cleaner power is often the best choice.”

The UTC has many responsibilities. It regulates Washington’s investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities, landline telephone companies, solid waste haulers and private water systems, among other businesses. It also manages the state’s pipeline, intrastate bus and trucking safety programs.

The UTC has made strides in reducing investor-owned utilities’ reliance on coal power and increasing renewable energy sources, Danner said. The state is on track to close its only coal-fired power plant, TransAlta, by 2025 and has been working to eliminate the use of coal-fired electricity imported from other states as outlined in an executive order signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2014.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s commission has approved the closing of its state’s only coal-fired power plant by 2020, and California’s commission started a solar initiative that spurred more than $10 billion in private investments in solar technologies and more than 50,000 jobs in the state’s rooftop solar industry.

Looking ahead, the refreshed MOU includes a list of action items that the three regulatory bodies plan to tackle, including:

  • Pursuing joint opportunities for cost-effective energy conservation.
  • Writing policies that encourage the development of renewable energy.
  • Sharing research with each other about what works.
  • Ensuring that regional energy markets maximize benefits to ratepayers.
  • Creating annual objectives and work plans among staff members in the three states.

Joining forces

The commission chairs’ teamwork fits into the Pacific Coast Collaborative, a nonbinding agreement struck in 2008 among the governors of Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska, and the premier of British Columbia to find joint solutions to climate change.

The 2016 Pacific Coast Climate Leadership Action Plan (PDF)

The collaborative has met several times since then, most recently in June when its members signed the Pacific Coast Climate Leadership Action Plan. All of the original jurisdictions save for Alaska signed onto that plan, which stated in part that climate change will continue to threaten the region and that the health of the economy and the environment go hand-in-hand.

Washington, Oregon and California also have signed onto the Under2 MOU agreement, a global effort to keep the planet from warming no more than 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the limit scientists say is needed to avoid the dangerous consequences of climate change, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So far, 167 jurisdictions worldwide have joined the Under2 coalition.

Leaders in the Pacific Coast region say that the impacts of climate change know no borders.

“Carbon pollution doesn’t recognize state borders and neither should our solutions,” California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement Tuesday. “When utility regulators work together across state lines, they can get a lot done.”

As the commission chairs spoke Tuesday with members of the media, the question of federal-level politics came up. The chairs appeared resolute in evaluating clean energy solutions, no matter what the federal policies might be.

“Regardless of who is in the White House, these are things we are going to do,” Danner said.

California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Picker, from left, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission Chairman David Danner and Oregon Public Utility Commission Chairwoman Lisa Hardie sign their memorandum of understanding Tuesday morning at the Bullitt Center in Seattle. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)