Clean energy bill aims to put DC ‘ahead of practically any other jurisdiction’

First of two DC Council hearings on Cheh's climate-protection bill slated for Tuesday

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A new measure hailed by advocates as one of the most ambitious local climate-protection bills in the country is now working its way through the DC Council, with two public hearings planned for this month.

Up first, the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment will hold a hearing Tuesday to review the legislation, titled the CleanEnergy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018. Ward 3 DC Council member Mary Cheh introduced the bill on July 10 with four colleagues, as well as the backing of three other legislators.

Although the absence of a carbon tax from the measure initially upset some activists, a coalition of local environmental, labor and public health leaders turned out at a Wilson Building rally and press conference Sept. 24 in support of Cheh’s proposed legislation.

“The fight to reduce climate change is the most important environmental issue of our day,” Cheh said at the event. “It is the moral issue of our time.”

Among other provisions, the bill would require that by 2032 all electricity sold in the District comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar — upping the stakes from the current goal to reach 50 percent renewables by that year. Cheh said the proposed increase would establish the nation’s most aggressive renewable-energy standard.

“I believe the bill, if passed and implemented, would be a great leap forward for our climate goals and place us ahead of practically any other jurisdiction in the fight against the devastating effects of climate change,” Cheh said.

Fees on fossil fuels would also be set to increase, to the tune of 100 percent for electricity and 200 percent for natural gas. One-fifth of the funds generated would go to the DC Department of Energy & Environment, to help reduce energy costs for low-income residents; the remainder would go toward other green initiatives.

Another provision in the law would exempt electric cars from the District’s vehicle excise tax and tie the rate for others to fuel efficiency.

Cheh said the Department of Energy & Environment has estimated that the measures in the bill would be sufficient to reduce the District’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 49.4 percent by 2032 — in line with the city’s current goal to decrease emissions 50 percent by that year and 100 percent by 2050.

Speakers at the Wilson Building last week emphasized the need for action on climate change that is also inclusive and fair. “We must make change in a way that does not put the burden entirely on working families,” said Judith Howell, a union member and security officer in DC. “We believe that working people can be a part of the process of reversing climate change.”

Other voices at the press conference included representatives of the Not In My Community coalition and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, and Tyshawn Turner, a Ward 8 resident and solar installer. The DC Climate Coalition — a group that includes more than 100 advocacy organizations, faith groups, unions and businesses in DC — also made a strong presence at the gathering.

The climate coalition, formerly called “Put a Price on It DC,” had initially advocated strongly and specifically for a DC carbon tax — a charge on the burning of gasoline, oil and coal aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions. After working extensively with Cheh’s office during the drafting of the bill, climate coalition members expressed shock when the bill appeared in July without the carbon tax. Afterward, however, the group decided to change its name to be more general and to continue its advocacy work on behalf of the legislation’s passage by the end of 2018.

Camila Thorndike — the DC policy director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which coordinates the DC Climate Coalition — wrote in a blog post in July that “part of my heart was broken and betrayed” by the bill Cheh introduced. But Thorndike went on to say that such feelings should not derail the push to win approval of the legislation’s broader package of clean energy initiatives.

“Although Cheh’s omnibus bill falls short of our expectations, it features a very strong set of landmark policies that will significantly enhance the District’s commitment to clean energy and energy conservation,” Thorndike wrote. “We lost a big battle for courageous climate policy, but if we stick together and fight as hard as ever, we are on the way to winning the war for a clean energy transformation in the District.”

Others, though, were relieved to see the carbon tax not included. The Energy Justice Network — which advocates for communities affected by pollution, waste and climate change — has argued that carbon taxes often elevate ill-advised alternatives, such as biomass and trash burning, and affect low-income households more than high-income ones.

In an interview, Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, expressed concerns with another provision of the bill that remains in place: the vehicle excise tax. Ewall believes would that tax would disproportionately affect residents in wards 7 and 8, who lack transit options and are therefore more car-dependent. “Some would say that this plays into gentrification,” he said. “They’re not increasing transit access. They’re not making Metro fareless.”

Ewall said the bill could also benefit from further disqualifying combustion sources as renewable energy, and by working to increase public-transit access instead of taxing vehicles.

Tommy Wells, director of the DC Department of Energy & Environment, expressed support for the bill in an interview this week, saying he believes it strongly mirrors goals his agency and Mayor Muriel Bowser set forth in their Clean Energy DC Plan, released in late August.

“The Clean Energy DC plan is a model plan for jurisdictions across the nation,” Wells said. “This legislation is really one of the vehicles for implementing that plan.”

Wells emphasized the bill’s impact on the built environment and its funding for green initiatives as strong points. The legislation would implement an energy performance standard for existing buildings, and authorize full funding for the city’s Green Finance Authority for environmental initiatives over the next six years.

“The built environment will have the funds needed or the retrofits needed to meet the goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050,” Wells said.

Wells’ few concerns centered around the practicality of purchasing energy through long-term contracts. As proposed, the bill would require residents to sign seven-year contracts to buy energy from a given supplier, which Wells believes may be inefficient for providing affordable energy. He also said the ability to rely solely on electricity generated from regional renewable resources might diminish in the future depending on demand from neighboring jurisdictions, even though the goal seems feasible right now.

Pepco, the public utility that supplies electricity in DC, expressed general support for Cheh’s bill. “At Pepco, and our parent company Exelon, we are working in favor of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the federal, state, and municipal level,” Pepco spokesperson Tasha Jamerson wrote in an email to The DC Line. “We recognize that states and cities have been and are becoming even more crucial leaders right now in the struggle to combat climate change and we applaud the District of Columbia’s leadership in this fight.”

Cheh’s proposal was co-sponsored or co-introduced by a majority of the 13-member council: Chairman Phil Mendelson; at-large members Robert White and David Grosso; Ward 1’s Brianne Nadeau; Ward 6’s Charles Allen; Ward 7’s Vincent Gray; and Ward 8’s Trayon White.

The bill has been referred to both the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, which Cheh chairs, and the Committee on Business and Economic Development, chaired by Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie of Ward 5. McDuffie has not indicated whether he will support the legislation.

The public hearing scheduled by Cheh’s committee is set for Tuesday, Oct. 9, at 11 a.m. in the Council Chamber. McDuffie’s committee has announced plans to hold its own public hearing on the bill on Monday, Oct. 29, at 10 a.m., also in the Council Chamber.

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