WASHINGTON — An ambitious plan by Eastern states for a regional cap-and-trade program to curb greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks got off to a slow start Monday after just three states — Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — plus Washington, D.C., formally agreed to adopt it.
The program’s backers had originally aimed for broader participation and expressed hope that more states might join later. Last year, 11 Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic States, making up a fifth of the United States population, signed on to a draft version of the plan, which would set a cap, to be lowered over time, on the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released from vehicles that use gasoline or diesel for fuel.
But so far, only a few states have said they would begin implementing the policy. In a separate statement on Monday, eight other states left open the possibility of joining at a future date, but would not commit for now. Those states include Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.
Under the cap-and-trade program for cars and trucks, which would start in 2023, fuel companies would buy allowances from participating states, either directly or on a secondary market, for every ton of carbon dioxide their fuel will produce. The states would then invest the proceeds into efforts to reduce emissions from transportation, such as trains, buses or electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.
In its initial phase, the program aims to cut vehicle emissions 26 percent by 2032 in participating states. The plan’s backers estimated that it could increase gasoline prices by around 5 to 9 cents per gallon, while raising roughly $300 million per year in revenue over the next decade for Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.
“We’re at the point where climate action can’t wait,” said Kathleen A. Theoharides, secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, in explaining why Massachusetts was moving forward. The state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, set a goal this year of reducing statewide emissions to net zero by 2050.
Ms. Theoharides said she expected more states over time to join the program, which had the benefit of creating a steady stream of revenue for cleaner transportation options at a time when public transit agencies nationwide are facing massive funding shortfalls because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The window for joining the program opens today, and that window will remain open,” Ms. Theoharides said. “States can join at a time that works best for them.”
The new transportation initiative is modeled after a similar interstate cap-and-trade program that limits pollution from power plants, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That plan got underway in 2005 with participation from just seven states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.
But 10 states have now adopted the power plant program, which has raised $3.7 billion to date for state efficiency and renewable programs. Other large emitters, including Virginia and Pennsylvania, are currently in talks to join.
Still, the idea of charging cars and trucks higher prices for their climate pollution remains contentious. Last year, New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Republican, announced he would pull out of the transportation initiative, saying he “would not force Granite Staters to pay more for their gas just to subsidize other states’ crumbling infrastructure.”
In January, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, expressed some skepticism about the program, saying that many Vermonters had no choice but to drive long distances and that he “simply cannot support proposals that will make things more expensive for them.” Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, has said she would be “appropriately cautious” in deciding whether to join the plan.
Lindsay Crete, the press secretary for Governor Mills, said by email that Maine would “continue to monitor” the initiative as it evolves, but that “we remain concerned about the lack of specifics for implementation and the potential impact on Maine consumers.” A spokesperson for Governor Scott did not respond to request for comment.
The transportation initiative’s backers say that the climate benefits of the program — as well as the health benefits from a reduction in vehicle exhaust — would outweigh the costs. One study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health estimated that, if the plan were broadly implemented, it could help prevent up to 1,000 fewer premature deaths each year across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions.
Yet the plan has also come under criticism from some groups who say it doesn’t go far enough to help communities of color that disproportionately live near highways and suffer the effects of tailpipe pollution. While the states participating in the initiative have said they will devote at least 35 percent of new revenues toward underserved communities, that has not assuaged many critics.
In New Jersey, some had urged the state’s governor not to join the initiative and to instead pursue a different approach that enforced mandatory pollution reductions in vulnerable areas, said Maria Lopez-Nuñez, deputy director for organizing and advocacy at the Ironbound Community Corporation, a New Jersey-based nonprofit.
“I’m proud to see that New Jersey did not sign on,” she said. “We need bolder steps and can’t keep pretending incremental solutions are the answer.”
Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, said that the state “will continue to evaluate” the transportation initiative, but also noted, “It is especially critical that we reduce emissions in communities historically burdened by disproportionate amounts of pollution, which are also among the communities most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”
The transportation initiative comes at a time when many state climate policymakers are shifting their attention from the electricity-generation sector — where emissions have fallen quickly as utilities retire coal plants in favor of cleaner and cheaper natural gas — to transportation, where gasoline and diesel engines remain ubiquitous.
Transportation is now responsible for one-third of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, the largest single sector, and experts say that many states are unlikely to meet their broader climate change goals without persuading people to shift to cleaner electric vehicles or alternative modes of travel like public transit or biking.
President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr., has vowed to pursue tougher federal standards on new cars and trucks that, if implemented, could help reduce gasoline use and make electric vehicles more financially attractive.
“The steps we’re taking are going to be a complement to any federal support that happens,” said Katie Dykes, Commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
Still, the ultimate effects of the vehicle cap-and-trade program may hinge on how many states end up joining, analysts said. The four jurisdictions that joined on Monday account for less than 3 percent of the nation’s transportation emissions, while the eight states that are considering their options account for another 18 percent.
“Right now many states are really focused on their Covid-19 responses and the economic recovery, which is demanding a lot of attention from governor’s offices,” said Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director at the Acadia Center, a research and public interest group in New England that is pushing for cleaner energy. “Now that the program’s moving forward, I do think we’ll see more states jump aboard, but I don’t want to make any assumptions just yet.”
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