My Turn: Let’s not let the environment be a partisan issue

Last modified: 2/19/2015 4:20:12 PM
One notable result of the current antagonism between Republican Speaker Shawn Jasper and his nemesis, Bill O’Brien, is that Jasper’s House Republican majority leadership team – in an attempt to unify their party and assert control over the legislative agenda – is looking for political issues on which they can make common cause with the rump O’Brien caucus. This effort is taking place on a broad range of issues, but nowhere is it more obvious or more alarming than with respect to House Republicans’ current efforts to gut two of New Hampshire’s signature environmental laws – the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the Renewable Portfolio Standard.

RGGI

RGGI, a bipartisan multistate compact organized in 2007-8 by New York’s then Republican Gov. George Pataki, has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions among nine participating Northeastern states from Maine to Maryland, including New Hampshire. It has also generated $20 million in economic growth in New Hampshire, largely in the form of new clean-energy jobs and energy cost savings, according to detailed studies by the Analysis Group. The most successful cap-and-trade clean air program since the campaign against acid rain, RGGI is seen by experts on both sides of the aisle as a model for market-based federal legislation to slow, if not reverse, the effects of global warming. Our participation in RGGI also means New Hampshire will likely not be required to take costly further measures to comply with the EPA’s June 2 Clean Power Plan, which will impose new reductions in CO2 emissions from existing fossil-fueled generating plants.

On Jan. 22, five days after NASA and NOAA announced that 2014 was on average the warmest year since official record-keeping began in 1880, the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee held a public hearing on HB 208 in Representatives Hall at the State House in Concord. In its original form, the bill called for outright repeal of New Hampshire’s participation in RGGI. Well more than 100 members of the public attended. Dozens spoke in opposition to RGGI repeal. Of the four who spoke in favor of the bill, two were members of the House Republican leadership, one was concerned about communist plots and the fourth was the director of Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire, funded by the Koch brothers’ oil and gas interests. His suggestions for an alternative to RGGI included building a new nuclear plant in New England, or having New Hampshire pull out of ISO-New England, the regional grid operator that keeps New England’s lights on.

Realizing that the public would simply not tolerate outright repeal of RGGI, House Republican leaders later sponsored a fall-back amendment, which passed ST&E on a straight party-line vote. The bill that will come before the House tomorrow would preserve New Hampshire’s participation in RGGI, but eliminate all state energy efficiency programs funded with RGGI revenues from the sale of emission “allowances” (each allowance is a permit to emit one ton of CO2), rebating all such funds to ratepayers in order to “reduce electric rates.” Reducing electric rates would indeed be something to talk about, if HB 208 as amended would do that to any appreciable degree. But it won’t.

RGGI allowances have recently sold for about $5 per ton of CO2. Current state law (RSA 125-O:23) provides that the first $1 of revenue from the sale of each RGGI allowance received by New Hampshire goes to energy efficiency programs coordinated by the Public Utilities Commission (programs that have been very successful in creating “green jobs”), and that all such revenues in excess of $1 per allowance are rebated to retail electric ratepayers on a per-kilowatt-hour basis. PUC witnesses have testified that in 2014, RGGI energy efficiency programs funded by that “first dollar” totaled $3.487 million (the equivalent of 21 cents on an average residential customer’s monthly electric bill of $125 for 650 kilowatt-hour), while the amounts in excess of the first dollar resulted in ratepayer rebates amounting to 83 cents per average monthly residential electric bill. In other words, eliminating the $1 of RGGI-funded energy-efficiency programs would reduce the average New Hampshire residential ratepayer’s monthly electric bill by 21 cents – about enough for a stick of chewing gum. Meanwhile, PUC and DES witnesses and other experts testified that RGGI-funded energy efficiency programs (especially those targeted to low-income residents) would in fact be the most effective way to reduce retail electric rates over time, by reducing total demand for electricity in New Hampshire.

In the short-to-medium term (within four years), there is only one way to reduce New England retail electric rates significantly, and that is to increase the supply of natural gas delivered to the “Dracut Hub” during winter months, when tight supplies of natural gas are dedicated first to home heating requirements, and gas-fired electric generators have to pay much higher wholesale prices for natural gas because pipelines cannot currently provide enough supply.

Renewable Portfolio Standard

Longer term, what will keep a lid on retail electric prices is a combination of energy efficiency to reduce demand and the development of native renewable energy sources to increase supply. That brings us to the House Republican leadership’s shortsighted attempts to gut New Hampshire’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law, which requires New Hampshire utilities to obtain 25 percent of the power they sell to ratepayers from renewable energy sources by 2025.

Three bills introduced by various Jasper and O’Brien Republicans – HB 143, 234, and 543 – would either weaken or totally repeal New Hampshire’s bipartisan efforts to reduce our reliance on out-of-state fossil fuels and encourage development of domestic renewable energy sources. HB 143 would swamp the market for Class 1 “renewable energy credits” by allowing large hydropower from Canada (which, unlike small domestic Class 1 sources, needs no public subsidies) to qualify for Class 1 REC’s. HB 234 would collapse the current four classes of renewable energy sources qualifying for REC’s into a single class. Either would effectively shut down New Hampshire’s nascent renewable energy industry. And HB 543 would repeal the RPS statute altogether, effectively signaling that New Hampshire is quite happy to rely on federally subsidized out-of-state fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

These three bills aimed at New Hampshire’s RPS programs will be discussed in ST&E today and presumably debated on the House floor during the first week of March.

Let’s not let RGGI and New Hampshire’s Renewable Portfolio Standard become victims of the fractured Republican majority’s attempt to score partisan political points based on arguments that fly in the face of overwhelming testimony from both experts and the public.



(Democrat Howard Moffett represents Merrimack District 9, Loudon and Canterbury, in the New Hampshire House of Representatives. He is a member of the House Science, Technology & Energy Committee.)




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