Agency mandate reform is a critical tool to address climate change

States have committed to significant economy-wide cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To achieve these ambitious goals, government agencies should be empowered to prioritize climate change impacts and mitigation in their decisions. The latest climate science calls for decarbonization at a speed and scale well beyond what the Northeast has already achieved and will require deep emissions cuts from all sectors. The decisions that government agencies make today will create the building stock, transportation and mobility systems, and energy infrastructure of 2030, 2050, and beyond. Delay in taking significant steps to plan for such emissions reductions will only require more expensive and drastic cuts in later years.

Despite the potential to make decisions with long-range climate consequences, government agencies generally have enabling statutes that are silent on climate change or give it insufficient priority in agency decisions, relative to more conventional priorities. As a result, even if regulators want to factor benefits and costs of climate action into their decisions, their obligations to traditional priorities may prevent such action. For example, Public Utility Commissions (PUCs) are mandated to provide reliable energy services, to keep customer rates low, and to guarantee utilities the opportunity to earn a profit on their business. Because of the limits on their statutory mandates, PUCs cannot fully consider greenhouse gases and equity of equal or higher importance than a regulated utilities’ opportunity to earn a fair return. This regulatory climate-blindness is a major barrier to regional and state-level climate progress that must be addressed.

Government agencies play powerful roles in key carbon-intensive sectors such as electricity and natural gas, transportation, buildings, and land use. Their regulatory decisions can shape and approve major investments that lock in significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions for decades. Examples of government agency regulatory decisions with serious, long-term climate ramifications include: establishing building and energy codes, setting forestry policy for state lands, authorizing expansion of local natural gas distribution systems, setting incentive levels for utility investments, and approving transportation projects such as new highways and road construction. Even everyday agency spending decisions can either lock in fossil fuel use for decades or advance climate goals.

Acadia Center works to address these issues in three key areas:

  • Strengthening state climate statutes to correspond with current science, setting targets along the way to 2050, and directing the relevant agencies to make decisions in line with those targets.
  • Updating state agencies’ enabling statutes to prioritize climate alongside other more traditional aspects of their missions, such as providing affordable housing, planning efficient transportation systems, or keeping utility rates low.
  • Reforming ISO-New England’s policies and procedures to include considerations of state climate goals and clean energy procurements in its markets and planning to avoid waste, duplication of efforts, and working at cross-purposes with state governments.

The following examples illustrate some of the functions of government agencies and the many ways they have a role to play in achieving climate goals:

  • Public Utility Commissions (PUCs): Regulate the rates, services, and investment decisions of investor-owned electric and gas utilities. With a mandate to consider climate, PUCs could assist with the transition away from fossil fuel use by winding down the gas industry and infrastructure, and preparing the grid for electrification and renewables.
  • Departments of Energy Resources/State Energy Offices: Design and administer programs to meet state energy goals, including energy efficiency programs, clean energy incentives, and state renewable energy portfolio standards.
  • Departments of Housing and Urban Development: Oversee public housing development and affordability programs, including issues related to building safety and occupant health. With a mandate to consider climate, they could require electrification and high levels of efficiency, lowering energy bills for those who can least afford it.
  • Departments of Transportation/Transit Authorities: Oversee transportation infrastructure and public transit systems. Without a mandate to consider climate, the DOT may not prioritize transportation electrification and zero-emissions and active mobility options.
  • Energy Facility Siting Councils: Determine whether new generation facilities, pipelines, and other energy infrastructure projects are needed and where they should be located. With a mandate to consider climate, they could evaluate the climate impacts of new energy facilities and act accordingly.
  • Departments of Agriculture: A clear climate mandate could help empower a Department of Agriculture to consider climate impacts of fuels, fertilizers, machinery, and land management practices, and reorient their funding to support programs that reduce emissions, sequester carbon, and make agriculture more resilient to the effects of climate change.
  • Departments of Conservation, Recreation, and Environmental Protection, or Fish and Wildlife: Manage state parks and other public lands, including state forests, beaches, and watershed areas. With a mandate to consider climate, they could implement efforts to sequester additional carbon in soils and forests and expand urban tree canopies. These agencies are also intimately involved in adaptation measures on natural lands, dealing with the effects of sea level rise in natural areas on the coastal areas, and planning for how wildlife and fisheries will be affected by climate change.
  • Boards of Building Regulations and Standards: Adopt and administer the state building codes. A clear climate mandate could empower these boards to stop fossil fuel usage in new buildings, require certain buildings to be solar-ready or electric vehicle-ready, and improve efficiency in existing buildings.
  • Independent System Operators (ISO): ISO-New England (ISO-NE) and New York ISO (NYISO) oversee real-time management of the electricity grid, facilitation of wholesale markets for the procurement of energy-related services, as well as long-term planning to meet the region’s energy needs. Their decisions have a major impact on energy infrastructure and on whether power grids are aligned with state clean power and climate goals.

State agencies and regional operators like ISO-NE must act now to prioritize climate and stop approving investments in fossil fuel infrastructure, especially since customers will still be paying for it long after we have abandoned it to mitigate climate risks. By reforming the enabling statutes to specifically add climate and climate justice to the agencies’ responsibilities we can empower the agencies not only to make decisions that incorporate considerations of the costs and benefits of climate action, in alignment with states’ climate goals, but also give the agencies the authority to push achievement of those goals and others like climate justice, equity, and transparency forward. These long-lasting updates to the agencies’ mission will serve as a tempering force against the preferences of different administrations by integrating climate and justice considerations into law as fully as possible.