Highways are next battleground in Obama’s climate agenda

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Republicans and Democrats are waging a new climate fight over an Obama administration proposal to measure the success of highway projects by their greenhouse gas emissions.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is considering requiring state and local planning agencies to measure and report the greenhouse gas emissions of new transportation projects in a new set of performance standards (ClimateWire, April 19). It would be one of the Obama administration’s last chances to advance a regulation tackling climate change.

Environmentalists have framed the measure as a long-term strategy to vehicle emissions by encouraging public transportation and dense housing. Critics argue Congress did not give the highway agency the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

“FHWA is not being very smart about this,” Michael McKenna, a GOP energy strategist, said in an email. “They get paid to help build roads, not abet the Administration in its never-ending quest to squeeze anyone who makes anything from oil and gas.”

The proposal comes amid growing concern about emissions from the transportation sector, which recently overtook the power sector as the country’s top carbon polluter in the country. The agency is expected to decide in the coming months whether or not to include the climate metric in its final rule.

Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) last week penned opposing op-eds for the think tank the Eno Center for Transportation. The two worked together to pass the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) in 2012, which ordered FHWA to set new performance standards for road projects receiving federal dollars. Now they’re at odds over how the agency should implement it.

The law requires the agency to improve air quality, specifically by regulating ozone, carbon monoxide or particulate matter under the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program. Opponents of the proposed climate metric say the agency is overreaching by also considering greenhouse gases.

“The goal of the laws I co-authored is to improve the safety and advance the modernization of our roads and bridges,” wrote Inhofe in his op-ed. “FHWA’s proposed GHG regulation would divert the limited time and resources of States and local governments away from this goal to pursue instead the administration’s unlawful and overzealous climate agenda.”

Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska and John Boozman of Arkansas also signed on to a letter sent to the highway agency asking it to forego a greenhouse gas standard.

Nick Goldstein, vice president of environmental and regulatory affairs for the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, said his organization would “explore” legal options if FHWA went through with the proposal.

“Our comments are not an objection to climate change,” he cautioned. “They are an objection to a wholly unrelated issue being put into a place where it wasn’t supposed to be.

“If we want to do this, we can have a separate conversation. To jam an issue in way after the fact violates the entire spirit of compromise in the act,” he added.

Proponents of the climate metric argue the agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions because it must protect air quality and public health.

Nineteen Democratic senators described the measure as a “necessary step to meet the goals agreed upon at the landmark Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015” in a letter. Despite automakers meeting federal fuel efficiency standards, there remains a gap between the goals and the expected carbon emissions from transportation.

“Establishment of a performance measure for carbon pollution is critically needed now,” Boxer wrote in her op-ed. “By requiring transportation agencies to track carbon emissions, we can evaluate whether transportation investments are effective in meeting the goal of protecting the environment.”

State and local authorities also divided

The proposed climate metric is also dividing state agencies. Some states, like California, Washington and Massachusetts, and many metropolitan planning organizations already require officials to measure the holistic global warming impacts of their projects.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials said it does not want the federal agency to set additional standards, which would include the climate metric. But it shied away from the issue in its comments.

Some state transportation departments, however, voiced clear concerns. Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming teamed up to oppose any standard for measuring greenhouse gas emissions, saying it would make it harder on planners.

“The proposal is a ‘lose-lose;’ little or no environmental benefit and burdens on the provision of transportation programs and projects at a time when the public wants more for each transportation dollar,” they wrote in a letter.

They also suggested the agency give more details on the proposal before finalizing it, a common request.

Other state transportation departments, along with environmental groups and cities, backed the climate metric. California, Colorado, Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont sent a joint letter of support.

Rafael Mares of the Conservation Law Foundation, who works with Massachusetts metropolitan planning organizations to weigh greenhouse gas impacts in planning decisions, said he’s already seen the effects of the state’s law requiring the metric. More money has gone to roads with multiple types of users, like bicycles and buses, and low-emissions public transportation, he said.

“Without that information, how do you know for sure whether you’re having a positive impact?” he said. “It’s been done here, and without slowing down the process. More information makes for better planning.”