California: "Not Turning Back" on Energy Policy

January 25, 2017

Alex Morris, Director of Policy


Many years from now, historians will likely mark 2017 as a critical period in the fight against (or for) climate change. The election of President Donald Trump has raised the prospect of a backslide on climate change and clean-energy policy.  While many pundits expect backsliding to occur at a federal level, such as with the US EPA’s Clean Power Plan or with the Paris Climate Accord, it remains to be seen how California’s policies will play in the future. Could federal rules or court outcomes regress California from its clean energy and clean transportation efforts?


This past week brought multiple pieces of news relevant to predicting the feasibility of maintaining or expanding California’s legal authority for clean energy and climate change mitigation policies. First, the California  Governor indicated a willingness to scrap and fight to preserve California’s leadership and policies.  “California is not turning back. Not now, not ever,” Governor Brown said in his State of the State speech. Taken alongside remarks by legislative leaders as well as the hiring of former Attorney General Eric Holder to safeguard California’s interests and legal authorities, I interpret these remarks as a fairly clear commitment that California intends to hold the course.  Adding to this, CESA was told that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recently increased its focus on federal engagement, understanding, and education efforts, working in part with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  Apparently, the CPUC too has an eye towards playing defense.


Collectively, California is circling its wagons.  Will this be enough?  Is it truly necessary? Apparently so…


At the federal level, gathering storm clouds may be heading to California. President Trump’s selection for heading the US EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, remains skeptical of climate science and isn’t showing deference to California’s standing authority to regulate auto-emissions.  Pruitt would not commit to keeping in place the long-standing federal rule that authorizes California to set emissions stricter than anywhere else in the US.  Further, President Trump just met with major auto industry heads, and he signaled that regulations were a barrier to them. Additionally, federal threats to California’s clean energy plans could come through new FERC appointees who could potentially walk back important advances in Multiple-Use Applications and other rules. President Trump’s election also splashed cold water over California’s consideration of expanding, aka “regionalizing,” its sophisticated service for managing the electric grid, known as the California Independent System Operator (CAISO). With Trump’s EPA very likely to halt and backtrack implementation of the Clean Power Plan, Californians would need to think twice before ceding authority over the CAISO, which is tasked with implementing many of California’s clean energy policies. 


It’s tempting at this point to reference arms races, or the Bruce Lee knuckle-cracking which has preceded many serious, if not catastrophic, conflicts.  Will such conflict truly occur?  Who might prevail?  Are win-win outcomes possible given President Trump's inclusion of advanced renewables, electric transmission and energy storage in his preliminary infrastructure modernization plans? While some conflicts may occur, it is also likely that many of California’s agencies work within the lines to defend State authority or to collaborate where appropriate. 


Stay tuned for our next blog on California’s future plans, where we’ll consider possible actions by our agencies, hoped-for outcomes, and strategies for the Clean Energy industry.