How to cut carbon emissions while advancing environmental justice in the US West

New reports warn of potential disconnects between climate policy and energy equity — and lay out a path to the policy sweet spot.
By Jeff St. John

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Cutting carbon emissions is a must to combat climate change. But policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions as quickly as possible aren’t always aligned with those meant to ensure that the people most harmed by existing pollution and facing the direst threats from climate change aren’t hurt in the process.

This risk of disconnecting carbon reduction from energy equity is informing the debate over climate change policy in Washington, D.C. and in state legislatures across the country. This week, a set of new reports from nonprofit group Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy focus on the implications for three Western states in the midst of setting their own climate and energy goals for the coming decades: Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

Historically, deep decarbonization models are meant to decarbonize — they’re only focused on carbon,” Elena Krieger, PSE Healthy Energy’s research director, said in an interview. The benefits or drawbacks of these policies for disadvantaged communities are calculated later. But they aren’t necessarily built into how policies and strategies are designed upfront.”

The group doesn’t advocate for specific policies to address these disconnects, Krieger said. Instead, it is trying to create the data and the frameworks” for others to use in their advocacy.

That data includes a cross-referencing of environmental impacts, such as exposure to air pollution and rising temperatures, with socioeconomic data down to the census tract level. Often enough, those hot spots overlap, with poorer communities and communities of color also bearing the highest environmental burdens.

At the same time, these hot spots may not stand out to policymakers focused on the most visible and easily addressed decarbonization targets, she said. For example, low-income households spend a far greater proportion of their income on electricity, natural gas and fuel for vehicles, as the chart below from PSE’s New Mexico report reveals. But they tend to have some of the lowest energy uses and carbon footprints,” Krieger said. If you have a carbon policy that only looks at your biggest emitters, that might overlook those households.”

Image credit: PSE Healthy Energy

Policies aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuels, like switching from natural-gas-fired home heating to electric heat pumps or from diesel-fueled trucks to electric models, risk putting these communities under even greater economic strain, she noted.

Historically, adoption rates for things like solar tend to be higher in higher-income households, in whiter households,” she said. If the shift from natural gas to electric heating and appliances follows those same trends, a smaller and smaller share of the population will be paying for a larger and larger share of the natural-gas distribution network,” she said. If it’s those same low-income households that lack access to solar, they’ll face even more of an energy cost burden.”

At the same time, communities across the U.S. West are going to be facing more extreme heat going forward [and] more wildfire smoke,” Krieger said — data also captured in PSE’s models. That’s where you can pursue solar and efficiency, electrification and heat pumps. They may not need air conditioning now, but they may need it later.”

Image credit: PSE Healthy Energy

Similar dynamics loom for electric vehicle adoption. Some of the folks we talked to in Colorado, when we were talking about trucks, highlighted the fact that they have a lot of small owner-operators who aren’t going to be able to buy electric tractors and will need specific financing in order to transition,” she said. Otherwise, they’ll be paying for higher gas prices and everything else.”

On the other hand, trucks and buses can account for a significant portion of the air pollution that low-income communities face, as this map from PSE’s Nevada report makes clear. While individual states can craft policies to reduce the impact of transportation emissions, for interstate trucking, that requires regional and federal efforts.”

Image credit: PSE Healthy Energy

The challenge is determining the value of reducing a ton of particulate matter versus the value of reducing energy bills,” Krieger said. It requires a value input. What we wanted to do is put them on the table.”

When you show these kinds of data to any community member, they say, Yeah, we know we’re polluted, we know our bills are high,’” she added. But they don’t have the data to show it.”

Tradeoffs and win-wins for climate and equity

But in some instances, carbon-reduction efforts and environmental justice can align. In New Mexico, the 2019 closure of the massive Navajo Generating Station coal plant and the planned 2022 closure of the nearby San Juan coal-fired power plant will reduce pollution across the Navajo Nation.

However, even these big environmental wins come with tradeoffs for a tribal nation that relies on the coal industry for jobs and tax revenue. New Mexico’s 2019 Energy Transition Act, which set the state on a path to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045, has directed economic aid and job training to relieve the impact of coal-plant and coal-mine closures.

But it doesn’t go as far as many community groups have demanded to ensure that the transition to cleaner energy sources provides economic opportunities, said James Povijua, policy director from New Mexico’s Center for Civic Policy, which represents more than 40 community organizations in the state.

We learned back in 2018 that Indigenous people and people of color could be left behind by the Energy Transition Act,” he said in an interview. Community groups were able to win a commitment from lawmakers to fund a clean energy workforce development study, but the study was just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of understanding the opportunities and the barriers for our communities to fully benefit from a clean energy economy.”

Nevada is facing similar pressure from community groups to enhance its support for low-income and disadvantaged communities as part of its climate-change mitigation efforts. Nevada passed an energy bill earlier this summer that adds $100 million in electric vehicle charging infrastructure funding and expands roles for rooftop solar, energy storage and energy efficiency as part of its policy to reach net-zero carbon energy by 2050.

In New Mexico, Povijua cited the need to increase funding for community solar projects, such as those built on the land of the Picuris Pueblo tribal nation, and for low- and moderate-income households to purchase an EV, and ensuring that the dollars to develop charging stations are in every community, not just in urban centers.”

PSE Healthy Energy’s Krieger highlighted the need for electrification in Navajo Nation communities that disproportionately rely on wood-burning stoves and propane heating — small but potent sources of harmful air pollution and carbon emissions. She added that low-income urban communities tend to be the home of natural-gas-fired power plants, adding public health value to the economic case for replacing them with batteries charged with clean energy. The chart below demonstrates the situation in New Mexico.

Image credit: PSE Healthy Energy

The oil and gas industries in New Mexico and Colorado are also major sources of methane, a signficiant health risk for communities sited near infrastructure that can leak substantial quantities of the highly potent greenhouse gas. Efforts to put a halt to methane leakage could play dual roles in combatting climate change and reducing local health hazards, Krieger said. The map below outlines the situation in New Mexico.

Image credit: PSE Healthy Energy

One of our goals here was to bring together all of these different issues that are…addressed in silos,” she said. There are policies to protect ratepayers; there are policies to promote efficiency or to reduce air pollution. […] There’s an ability to adjust them all at once in ways that bring benefits to people across the board.”

Putting recommendations into policy action

PSE Healthy Energy’s reports come with a set of recommendations for policymakers, some of which have been taken up by advocacy groups. In Colorado, the first of the three states the group focused on, data was put to use in a report released last year by Evolved Energy, GridLab, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

Some of its policy prescriptions made their way into Colorado’s climate law passed this summer, which set enforceable greenhouse gas reduction targets for electricity, industry and the oil and gas sectors. While the law lacked mandates for cutting emissions from transportation and buildings, other laws steered hundreds of millions of dollars toward electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, as well as a set of building efficiency standards, electrification incentives and emission-reduction targets for natural gas utilities.

Another Colorado law directs state utility regulators to create a clean heat standard,” aimed at giving natural gas utilities — including the state’s largest gas and electric utility Xcel Energy — the option to pursue efficiency and electrification targets to cut their emissions, as well as reducing methane leakage or tapping a limited amount of hydrogen, biomethane or recovered methane.

In an interview last month, Will Toor, executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, described the new standard as the framing that pulls all these tools together” by giving utilities multiple pathways to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions profile by 22 percent by 2030. He also highlighted ongoing work that could help solve the problem Krieger identified as an Achilles’ heel for low-income communities: the threat of gas infrastructure costs being foisted upon customers who can’t afford to switch from gas to electric.

Toor said his office is developing pilot projects to target a section of a city where they’re close to needing to do major upgrades on the gas system and [avoiding] those upgrades by reducing gas use in that area.” Because regulated utilities earn guaranteed rates of return on capital investments including new gas infrastructure, these pilots would factor those avoided costs into a new cost-benefit analysis framework aimed at reducing disincentives for utilities, he said.

PSE Healthy Energy will be involved in Colorado’s ongoing efforts to track the cost implications of its intersecting energy and equity policies, Krieger noted. The Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit recently won a bid for a state contract to apply its energy cost burdens analysis to looking more deeply at policy levers and rate impacts, and what the potential health and equity implications of those might be,” she said.

(Lead photo by Maddy Baker/Unsplash)

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.