Benefits of Northeast climate initiative are bountiful, even as few states divert funds to close budget gaps

In Sunday’s New York Times, oil-industry-funded lobbyists and a New Jersey legislator rightly criticized three states for diverting funds from an innovative 10-state northeastern clean energy program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). But the article only touches on the plethora of additional benefits we’re already seeing from this clean energy initiative, despite these poor decisions in a few states.

The primary goal of RGGI is to reduce pollution and keep more of our energy dollars in the region, instead of sending them out-of-state to buy fossil fuels, and it is doing just that. Northeasterners are enjoying millions in benefits as states have invested the majority of the $729 million collected from the sale of pollution permits in energy efficiency and renewable energy in participating states. 

I’ve extolled some of RGGI’s virtues in previous posts. Among them: Pollution is down 30%. Hundreds of contractors in the region have found work weatherizing homes and installing solar panels. Homeowners and businesses are saving 30% or more on their energy bills. And let’s not forget that cleaning up our power sector will enable us to avoid the potentially catastrophic impacts of global climate disruption and the hundreds of thousands of emergency room visits and tens of thousands of premature deaths that power plant pollution causes each year.

Yes, consumers in New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire would benefit even more if their states had not diverted a portion of the funds to help fill the gaping holes in their budgets. But the benefits to our region from RGGI are plentiful and still can’t be matched by the business-as-usual dirty energy economy. RGGI is creating jobs, reducing energy bills, cleaning up our air, and improving our health throughout the Northeast.

So the diversion of funds is hardly the travesty the critics in the Times piece painted it to be. And it’s worth emphasizing that these critics, Americans for Prosperity, are funded by oil giant Koch Industries, the only ones who really stand to lose here. If your primary business is selling fossil fuels or operating antiquated coal plants, the new energy economy is not very appealing. But the long and diverse list of RGGI’s business supporters – from National Grid, the largest electric utility in the region, to Staples and Pfizer  – attests to the fact that many more firms are taking advantage of opportunities for growth and increased competitiveness by becoming more energy efficient themselves and delivering energy efficiency and a cleaner more diverse mix of power supply resources to their customers. 

At the RGGI website you can read more about the homeowners, businesses and local governments reaping the greatest benefits. One such business is Madison Paper in Maine, which expects to save $2 million a year from a new system that captures and reuses waste heat. In New Hampshire, the Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center is sending fewer dollars to places like Iran to import oil, and instead paying local firms to supply heat via a wood chip-fired system. Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum is saving $9,000 a year thanks to energy efficiency improvements, including an upgrade to their HVAC system.

Simply put, the smartest thing states can do to drive economic well-being is to shift energy investments from dirty old fossil fuel plants to energy efficiency programs. According to a 2009 report by the research and advocacy group Environment Northeast, if six Northeastern states sufficiently invested in energy efficiency over the next 15 years we can add $99 billion to the Northeast’s regional economy. Ninety-nine billion dollars and 80,000 new jobs, in 15 years, funded, in part, by RGGI. That means our energy dollars will go toward paying local contractors to weatherize our homes, upgrading our heating and air-conditioning systems and installing solar panels. All of these things reduce our demand for electricity from power plants, which puts downward pressure on energy prices and allows us to reduce the amount of money we send out of our communities to import fossil fuels.

So if Americans for Prosperity are as genuinely interested in promoting prosperity as their name suggests, RGGI and other energy efficiency programs are the first places they should look.