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With snail's pace of Congress, green groups go local

This year came and went without Congress passing significant reforms to curb climate change. Similar to many of President Obama’s other agenda items, advocates for environmental regulations and standards have turned much of their attention to affecting change at the state and local levels.

“You fly a little bit closer to the ground at the state level than what members of Congress do,” said former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday at a Washington, D.C., panel discussion on the perspectives of local governments on climate change. The left-leaning The New Republic magazine and Center for American Progress hosted the event.

Over the summer, Obama -- through executive orders under the Clean Air Act -- set tighter carbon emissions limits on U.S. power plants. But despite his calls for wider reforms earlier this year in his State of the Union and Inauguration addresses, Congress has done little to advance his goals.

“[Members of Congress] are embedded here,” Ritter said. “They’re a part of the environment. We’re hoping there’s some transition in that.”

Ritter hopes that transition comes in the form of Republicans trying to sell their constituencies on the business opportunities associated with expansion of alternative-energy industries.

There is also still hope among the group for a renewed push by Obama in the future, especially with the White House’s addition this week of John Podesta, the former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and the longtime-environmental advocate, as a counselor to the president.

Yet, pushback persists as states and districts that produce coal hesitate to take actions they fear would destabilize the coal industry and their local economies. And the administration still has not decided if it will approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The environmental community and the petroleum industry expected a decision as early as late last year. Podesta opposed the pipeline in his roll at CAP and recused himself from any pending administrative decision on it.

The tension on Capitol Hill has consequently turned the attention of reform to state and local governments. Environmental activists are pushing for initiatives that add caps on coal emissions, requirements for renewable energy production, standards for energy efficiency, and an emphasis on bringing in more natural-gas vehicles.

More than 30 states have renewable energy standards that require utility outlets to supply a certain percentage of their outgoing electricity from renewable resources. And as the AP reported earlier this week, Massachusetts joined eight other Northeastern states in setting tougher carbon dioxide rules in their respective states, lowering the emissions cap in Mass. by 45 percent in 2014.

Additionally, 41 states have enacted requirements that government agencies in their states use more natural gas vehicles for official duties to expose a greater number of people to cleaner alternative vehicle options.

There continues to be a push in many states and cities for the local production of alternative energy, including wind, solar, and thermal generating plants.

“States talk about the benefits that come from these investments,” said Vicki Arroyo, the executive director of Georgetown Climate Center. “The narrative at the state and local level is different.”

Those investments were seen by two mayors -- both Republicans -- who flew to Washington as part of the panel.

“[Kansas farmers] were the original green people,” said Mayor Bob Dixson of Greensburg, Kan. “They lived within the resources that were around them. They relied on solar, wind.”

A tornado in 2007 devastated Dixson’s town of now-850 residents. Since, the city and its historically right-leaning residents have built sustainable buildings and invested in renewable-energy technology. Dixson said the expansion of renewable energy is not a right or left issue.

Mayor Jim Brainard of Carmel, Ind., focused on the walkability of his town of 85,000 people. The suburban makeup of the area previously forced residents to rely on cars.

“Quite honestly, [suburban neighborhoods] don’t work very well. So how do we retrofit these cities?” Brainard rhetorically asked.

During his tenure in office, Brainard’s city has focused on establishing public-private partnerships to develop a walkable downtown with green spaces, efficient roads, underground parking, and attractive spaces for businesses to locate.

“[Change] is down at the grassroots level,” said Joe Goffman, a senior counsel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “It is down to decisions that counties make and individuals make.”