By Jessica R. Bell & Hampden T. Macbeth
August 6, 2020
State attorneys general have been hard at work to advance and defend their states’ clean energy and climate goals and protect their most vulnerable constituents from the adverse health effects tied to fossil fuel pollution. The global pandemic is challenging the energy industry and its customers, as explored at last month’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) technical conference on COVID-19’s impacts on the industry. In the midst of these issues, AGs are engaged in protecting utility consumers from power shut-offs and other acute COVID-related stressors, while working to speed the transition to a clean energy economy.
The COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the importance of this work as we learn more about the links between air pollution and COVID risk. The combustion of fossil fuels, for example, produces fine particulates (PM2.5) that are a major cause of asthma and premature deaths, and state AGs have been fighting to strengthen PM2.5 standards. Now we are learning that these fine particulates’ damage to respiratory functions is putting patients at greater risk of death from COVID-19, making AGs’ advocacy for tougher PM2.5 standards as well as clean energy even more important.
As Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey noted in a recent report, investment in clean energy now will help both economic recovery and pollution reduction. Clean energy, including energy efficiency, has been a large and growing source of well-paying jobs. Transportation electrification and expansion, as well as increased bike, pedestrian, and electric vehicle rideshare programs, can reduce air pollution and help people access opportunities. And increasing energy efficiency can reduce both energy bills and air pollution.
Clean Energy and COVID: Challenges and Opportunities
There were two key take-aways from FERC’s recent technical conference on COVID. First, while the energy industry has largely been able to adjust to the changing work conditions and slumping demand for electricity brought on by COVID, the industry is concerned about its ability to safely repair infrastructure harmed by possible natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires, later this year in the middle of a pandemic.
Second, and relatedly, a number of prominent leaders in the energy industry have highlighted that the COVID health crisis underscores the imperative to transition as quickly as possible to a clean energy economy. The President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the New York Power Authority called for investment in clean energy now as it offers two sets of benefits: restarting the economy and addressing the disproportionate adverse impacts that the pandemic and severe weather events are having on low income communities, especially communities of color. The CEO of Xcel Energy recently articulated similar sentiments, seeing COVID as the time for Xcel to accelerate its investment in clean energy as a way to spur economic growth.
Yet, even if the COVID crisis reinforces the need to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, the moment is not without peril and challenge. More than 30 companies recently wrote to Congress, urging it to include clean energy provisions in the next stimulus package to offset COVID-related supply chain disruptions and permitting and construction delays that are slowing industry growth. Clean energy companies are reporting that they have struggled to access the capital needed to undertake projects during the pandemic. Additionally, shifting energy consumption patterns from COVID may drive up demand for natural gas in some parts of the country, making nuclear and coal-powered generation more cost competitive.
AGs Keeping the Ball Moving Forward for Clean Energy
Attorneys general are continuing the hard work of advancing clean energy goals during the pandemic, although often these goals have a new framing and sense of urgency. For example, AGs called upon FERC to put an immediate moratorium in place for gas and liquified natural gas infrastructure projects. They noted that these projects draw many interested parties, including individual landowners, and many of these potential parties are now dealing with “unprecedented challenges” due to the COVID crisis that make involvement in a new-to-them federal proceeding particularly difficult.
In a recent clean energy victory, 31 AGs submitted a protest letter to FERC, urging the rejection of a petition to take authority over net metering away from the states. There were several other multi-state and individual state AG oppositions to this petition, as well — all pulled together on a tight timeline.
On energy efficiency, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra is leading a multistate challenge to the Energy Department's revisions to its Process Rule that set an unreasonably high bar for establishing new efficiency standards, missing out on significant energy savings as a result. A multistate coalition also commented on an Energy Department rulemaking on its prioritization process, asking the department to comply with the law and allow the energy efficiency program to provide further economic and environmental benefits.
Consumer Protection in COVID Times
In addition to working for a cleaner and more equitable climate future, attorneys general are active on shorter-term consumer protection issues related to COVID. AGs are working to make sure that people struggling with unemployment, illness, and other effects of the pandemic are able to keep the lights on even as their bills rise. In a petition seeking to halt disconnections, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring noted how essential uninterrupted access to power, heat, light, and water is for Virginians remaining in their homes to protect public health and safety. Multiple AGs have advocated for moratoria on utility disconnections in their states. And attorneys general are also on the lookout to warn citizens about scams, particularly as bad actors may try to exploit concerns about high utility bills during the pandemic.
These actions are only a small sampling of the extensive consumer protection and clean energy efforts underway in AG offices across the country. Advocating for consumers and state clean energy goals is business as usual for AGs. The challenges of COVID highlight the continued importance of and need for this work.
Jessica R. Bell is Clean Energy Attorney and Hampden T. Macbeth is Staff Attorney, both at the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.