Local climate action
Somini: Brad, you went to Taft, Calif., an oil town in a state that’s trying to end drilling. What surprised you most?
Brad: In oil towns like Taft, it’s really striking to see how deeply everyday life is tied to the local fossil fuel industries. It’s not just all the jobs in oil and gas. It’s millions of dollars in property tax revenue that fund parks and hospitals. It’s donations from companies that fund baseball fields and high school programs. It’s oil and gas employees who mentor students and volunteer at community events. If we’re thinking about what a clean energy transition will look like, none of that is going to be easy to replace.
Somini: There have been company towns for a long time. Pittsburgh lived off steel. No more. It’s now a thriving city buoyed by several industries and some top-notch universities.
Brad: Kern County, where Taft is located, is exploring a bunch of ideas, like aerospace and manufacturing and even new energy technologies like carbon capture. But the transition will take years. And they’re facing major economic shocks in the meantime.
Somini: Maggie, you found some really interesting counterexamples, where people had rallied around local climate action. Tell us about Morris, Minn.
Maggie: What happened in Morris was a really interesting collaboration involving a number of parties, as opposed to policies enacted by the city government alone. The local college campus, the University of Minnesota Morris, and university-affiliated researchers have done some creative renewable energy projects, like mounting solar panels on poles high enough for cows to graze underneath, and making fertilizer using wind energy instead of petroleum.
Some of the on-campus projects have served as proof of concept to city officials and made them more comfortable adopting the same strategies, so now Morris has solar panels on various municipal buildings. That makes home solar panels seem more appealing to residents.
It’s a politically divided community, with a lot of conservative farmers as well as a lot of liberal college students, but they’re broadly united on a plan to produce renewable energy locally, significantly reduce energy consumption and eliminate landfill waste.
Somini: That kind of political unity has been elusive in Washington. What kind of local climate policy is most realistic in the United States? Is there a common thread?
Maggie: It really varies a lot from place to place. The policies that will have the biggest impact in a farming town like Morris — making fertilizer with lower emissions, for instance — are not the same policies that will be effective in a big city like Phoenix, which needs to focus more on transportation. Likewise, the sweeping, government-mandated changes that are politically feasible in a state like Colorado, with a united Democratic government, are not politically feasible everywhere. And the level of public investment that is possible in a wealthy place like Fairfax County, Va., isn’t necessarily possible in a small town in Ohio. What local officials emphasized to me was that local policies have to be tailored to communities.
In some respects, that’s an opportunity. You can achieve some emission reductions in individual cities that wouldn’t be possible if you tried them through a one-size-fits-all policy. But it’s also a serious limitation. Cities and states can help in meaningful ways, but they can’t solve the climate crisis on their own without federal action. It’s not possible. They don’t have the money or the regulatory authority.
Somini: What about at the state level? In New Mexico, for instance, the governor provided money to coal communities hurt by plant retirements. Did that work?
Brad: Unfortunately, there aren’t yet a ton of examples of coal-dependent communities that have successfully reinvented themselves. There’s Tonawanda, N.Y. But that is one coal-dependent town in a wealthy state that doesn’t so much depend on fossil fuels for its economy. The picture will look very different in places like Wyoming or Montana or North Dakota.
Somini: Here’s what I find bewildering: In a state as rich as California, couldn’t a handful of tech titans fund the schools and parks in towns that to want shift away from oil and gas?
Brad: The numbers are pretty large. In 2020, Kern County got $197 million in property taxes from oil and gas — about a quarter of the county’s property tax revenue. That doesn’t count income taxes and sales taxes from economic activity associated with fossil fuels. And that’s just one year. So it’s a very large hole to fill. Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, is talking about a bill to help local communities around the country affected by fossil fuel facility closures, which would initially be seeded with a $20 billion investment — and even that may not be enough.
You can read Brad’s article this week from Taft. And here’s Maggie’s recent article on state and local climate efforts.
Essential news from The Times
Before you go: Protesters try to make their message stick
Activists in Britain are gluing their hands to the frames of important paintings. Protesters from one group, which wants officials to stop licensing new fossil fuel projects, have recently stuck themselves to masterpieces by Van Gogh and a 16th-century copy of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” They say it doesn’t matter whether their actions are popular, only whether they are noticed.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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