Leading on Climate Action in the US: Ten States to Watch in 2020

In 2019, critical groundwork for climate action was laid — millions of young people around the world joined forces to strike for urgent action on climate change, and United States presidential candidates, most prominently Jay Inslee, ran on a platform of combating the climate crisis. Sixteen states introduced carbon pricing legislation, and governors across the country signed executive orders calling for the creation of climate task forces and market-based mechanisms to reduce emissions. The most substantive discussion of climate change policies ever broadcast on primetime television took place, and more US voters than ever reported prioritizing climate change and the environment. 

While momentum and urgency undoubtedly grew in 2019, policy implementation continues to lag behind heading into 2020. Last month, the international climate negotiations in Madrid ended with great disappointment and unanswered questions, and here in the U.S., several critical bills that were seen as surefire to pass, ultimately died (see Oregon’s devastating cap-and-invest saga). 

But with the dawn of a new year comes renewed ambition and hope in the carbon pricing and climate policy space. States are continuing to move ahead in the wake of federal inaction on climate — our State Carbon Pricing Network is tracking progress in each of these states. 

Listed below are ten of the states we’ll be watching carefully in 2020. Some have been working on carbon pricing policy for years now, while others are relatively new to the conversation (though not as new as you might think). What they have in common is renewed political will to price carbon pollution, and for the most part, bold gubernatorial leadership on the matter. (Disclaimer: This list is not exhaustive, and other states not listed here may very well implement strong climate and carbon pricing policy in 2020). 

1. New Mexico

What’s Going On

New Mexico is helping pave the pathway forward for fossil fuel-intensive states looking to price pollution. In a report released in November, the state’s recently-established Climate Change Task Force announced plans to “evaluate the adoption of a comprehensive market-based program that sets emission limits to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution.” That could mean joining the Western Climate Initiative, an economy-wide cap-and-invest program that California and Québec are part of. The report’s release came almost a year after Governor Michelle Luijan Grisham signed an Executive Order setting a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target of 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and established the Task Force to craft the state’s plan to meet this target. Additionally, Climate XChange held our Southwest Carbon Solutions Summit in Santa Fe this fall, mobilizing hundreds of advocates and policymakers to discuss the pathway forward for the upcoming session. 

What to Watch in 2020

The state’s Climate Change Task Force will spend a large part of 2020 studying what kinds of emission reductions could be achieved by a cap-and-invest program and complementary climate policies. More detailed policy proposals and concrete next steps are expected to be reported by September. At the same time, a legislative effort to fund clean transportation initiatives and infrastructure is expected this session. New Mexico’s September report will likely call for WCI linkage, but it’s too soon to say with certainty. After all, this isn’t the first time the state has considered joining the regional program. 

Want to learn more? We’ll have two of the leading authors of the recent Task Force report: Sustainability and Resilience Officer Laura Tabor and Environmental Protections Director Sandra Ely, on our monthly Deep Dive webinar this Wednesday. 

2. Hawaii

What’s Going On

Hawaii, the first state in the country to legally commit to a carbon neutral economy by 2045, is moving ahead on efforts to price carbon. This session, it became just the second U.S. state to see a direct fee on carbon be approved by a legislative chamber (Massachusetts was the first, in 2018). “An Act Relating to Taxation” (HB 1459), which would have repealed the fuel tax and replaced it with a modest, $6.25 per ton carbon price, was unanimously approved by the Senate but never got a hearing in the House. Instead, a carbon pricing study bill was authorized. 


What to Watch in 2020

The University of Hawaii will spend the coming months studying the effects of carbon pricing on the state’s economy. Dr. Makena Coffman, the Director of the university’s Institute for Sustainability and Resilience (ISR), is overseeing the state’s carbon pricing study. 

“Any legislation that comes out of that study probably won’t be ready until the 2021 session,” said Representative Nicole Lowen, the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, in a September SCPN call. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t be considering bills during the next session to keep the discussion going to hopefully educate and build support among the public and in the Legislature.”

Expect several carbon pricing bills to be introduced in Hawaii once again this session. At the same time, we’ll be anticipating promising study results to be released from the University toward the end of the year. 

Have more questions? In our January Deep Dive webinar, we’ll be joined by Anu Hittle, who helps lead Hawaii’s climate change mitigation and adaptation work at the Department of Land and Natural Resource.

3. Massachusetts

What’s Going On

Massachusetts is poised to adopt some type of carbon price this session. Two bills, one sponsored by Senator Barrett (SD 1817) and the other by Representative Jennifer Benson (H 2810), have received historic levels of support this session. At the same time, Governor Charlie Baker (R) is backing the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional initiative to price transportation fuels and invest revenue in clean transportation initiatives. 

What to Watch in 2020

In one way or another, carbon pricing will figure prominently in Massachusetts over the coming months. If it’s not through one of the state-level bills, it will be through TCI, which Baker has continued to fervently support. Separately, Senator Barrett is leading an effort with Senate leadership to introduce a bill focusing on broader climate issues that will complement these efforts to put a price on carbon. Interest from the House in passing a climate change bill (see Greenworks) sets up the real possibility of a significant climate bill by the end of the session. 

4. Oregon

What’s Going On

Oregon’s cap-and-invest bill, more than a decade in the works, was largely expected to pass last session. For a while, things looked promising, particularly after the bill passed the House. When the bill was due for a vote in the Senate, however, Republican legislators infamously fled the state and threatened the state police in a scene that captured national headlines. That walkout, along with Democratic Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson’s last-minute decision to vote against the bill, ultimately killed the legislation in June. 

In September, the Renew Oregon coalition mobilizing the state’s climate policy efforts introduced three climate-focused ballot initiatives calling for 100 percent clean electricity by 2045 and a 100 percent clean economy by 2050 — but Oregon Secretary of State Bev Clarno rejected them, declaring they were “unconstitutionally broad.” That set a wrench in Renew Oregon’s plan to put pressure on emission-intensive industries to reconsider their support for the carefully-crafted cap-and-invest bill in the wake of an ambitious ballot initiative. 


What to Watch in 2020

This session, the same legislation is expected to be introduced, and Renew Oregon will continue to prioritize its passage. Despite last session’s dramatic conclusion, it’s important to note that Democrats hold significant majorities in both the House and Senate. Brad Reed, the coalition’s Communications Director, told Climate XChange in November that action is needed beyond the legislative campaign though. “If we went with the same exact bill, to the same legislature, with the same context, it would be hard to expect a different result,” Reed said. “The ballot measures are part of changing the conversation, and they go even further than the legislation, which we’ve heard has industry worried.” 

 Additionally, although the Secretary of State rejected the ballot initiatives based off of the inclusion of fair labor standards for clean electricity projects, Renew Oregon is exploring all legal options to bring the measures to voters in November. There is no legal precedent for this rejection” said Margaret Olney, an Oregon lawyer who has worked on dozens of ballot initiatives. “The citizen initiative process gives the people the same right to enact laws as the legislature. Until this election cycle, the single subject rule has rarely, if ever, been used to reject a proposed initiative. By ignoring the analysis of the Attorney General, Legislative Counsel, the Oregon Supreme Court and inserting an exceptionally partisan review into a previously unbiased process, Secretary of State Clarno is undermining our initiative process and crippling the power of Oregonians to take their concerns directly to the voters.”

Governor Kate Brown (D), who fervently championed the legislation last session, has been quiet on climate of late, but advocates will continue to push Governor Brown to fulfill previous commitments to push forward cap-and-invest in the face of Republican opposition. 

5. Pennsylvania

What’s Going On

In October, Governor Tom Wolf (D) issued an Executive Order instructing the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to join RGGI, a cap-and-invest program program regulating the electric sector emissions of nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. That highly-anticipated move came months after a coalition of hundreds of organizations filed a petition calling for an economy-wide cap-and-trade program, which was accepted by the Environmental Quality Board for further study last April. 


What to Watch in 2020

In Pennsylvania, most of the focus will be on ensuring the state continues to move forward with RGGI and TCI. The fossil fuel-heavy state may very well join both initiatives by the end of the year, marking the first time a state is simultaneously entering two cap-and-invest initiatives. The DEP will develop and present a proposal to “abate, control, or limit carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel fired electric power generators” to comply with RGGI by July 31, 2020. At the same time, TCI’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is anticipated to be finalized in the spring. Although the state’s Air Pollution Control Act gives the DEP authority to regulate pollution from power plants, GOP legislatures have introduced bills (HB2025 / SB950) requiring legislative approval for the state to join RGGI. We’ll be keeping our eye on how slight Republican majorities in both the Senate (29-21) and House (110-93) may impede the Governor’s process moving forward with RGGI and TCI.

6. Minnesota

What’s Going On

Last month, Governor Tim Walz (D) signed the state’s first-ever climate-focused Executive Order, calling for the state to create two new government bodies: 1) a Climate Change Subcabinet and 2) a Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change. Walz’s Subcabinet will bring together different state agencies to identify policies that can put Minnesota on track to achieve its emission reduction goals, which the state is currently not on track to meet. It’s likely that a price on carbon will be part of this package, but it’s too soon to know exactly what such a program might look like. What we do know is that the environmental community is energized and that the legislature has grown increasingly Democratic. At Climate XChange’s Midwest Carbon Solutions Summit in Minneapolis in November, we convened top executive branch officials, legislators, business leaders and advocates who were eager to see strong climate policy this year. 


What to Watch in 2020

The Subcabinet will submit its first written update to the Governor by December 1st. At the same time, look for legislators like Representative Frank Hornstein (chief author of last year’s Green New Deal-style bill) and Senator John Marty (long-time carbon pricing champion) to each introduce bills of their own. Minnesota may be a bit farther from actually implementing carbon pricing policy than some of the other states on this list, but momentum is rapidly rising. 

7. Maryland

What’s Going On

In Maryland, a carbon pricing bill will be introduced for the third consecutive session. Last year, lawmakers ushered the Clean Energy Jobs Act (SB 516) into law, increasing the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard to 50% by 2030 and establishing a new clean energy target of 100 percent by 2040. 

In October, Climate XChange convened and trained hundreds of key stakeholders from across the state for our Mid-Atlantic Carbon Solutions Summit. We also hired a new staff member, Wandra Ashley-Williams, to lead efforts to price pollution in the state, and collaborated with Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) on a research report that found that the state’s climate plan falls short in addressing climate change. 


What to Watch in 2020

There are several concurrent initiatives to keep tabs on this year. For one, a 2019 report of the Kirwan Commission highlighted the need for new sources of revenue to address Maryland’s chronically underfunded public schools. A new bill filed by Representative David Fraser-Hidalgo seeks to direct carbon pricing revenue to meet some of these needs. Additionally, a new coalition led by CCAN is beginning to form, focusing on pushing Governor Hogan to adopt more ambitious climate goals. The coalition is likely to be modeled after a similar successful effort in New York, known as NY Renews. Finally, Maryland remains a part of TCI, and we’ll be keeping tabs on Governor Hogan’s commitment to the program once modeling is released later this spring. 

Want to hear more about the state’s upcoming climate plans? Secretary of Environment Ben Grumbles will join our Deep Dive webinar next week (register here). 

8. Wisconsin

What’s Going On

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) joined the U.S. Climate Alliance in January, and signed an Executive Order in July, calling for the state’s energy usage to be 100 percent carbon free by 2050. The Order, which made Wisconsin the first state in the Midwest with a 100 percent clean electricity commitment, also establishes an Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy that will explore different policy solutions and technologies for reducing emissions. In October, Evers created the Climate Change Task Force to further study this matter.


What to Watch in 2020

The Climate Change Task Force will undergo an extensive public engagement process over the next few months, studying the different policies the state could adopt to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, one of the most outspoken state leaders at COP 25, will serve as chairman of this task force. He’s reiterated that the public engagement process will prioritize the inclusion of communities and sectors that have long been excluded from policymaking before making its official recommendations in August. 

“Right now, everything is on the table,” Barnes told Climate XChange at COP 25, after we asked if a price on carbon would be one of the Task Force’s policy recommendations. 

9. Nevada

What’s Going On

Since taking office in January, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak (D) has prioritized addressing climate change in a way that past governors simply have not. Nevada joined the U.S. Climate Alliance in March, committing to reduce its GHG emissions, track and report actual emission-reductions, and promote clean energy deployment. In November Sisolak (D) signed an Executive Order calling for a new statewide climate strategy that will include market-based mechanisms and other emission-reducing policies. 


What to Watch in 2020

While there are no specifics yet on what such a mechanism could look like, it’s likely that the state will explore implementing a cap-and-trade program that links with the Western Climate Initiative. Sisolak has ordered the state’s climate strategy to be finalized by December, and for his administration to work collaboratively with a mix of public, private, and tribal partners. With Democratic majorities in both the Assembly (28-13) and Senate (13-8), the Silver State is well-positioned to act boldly via the legislature as well. 

10. Virginia

What’s Going On

Progressive lawmakers have long been pushing for the state to join RGGI. These efforts fell short last session after GOP legislators included a provision in the state’s annual budget that prohibited state dollars from being used to “support membership or participation” in RGGI, effectively barring program administration. In a historical blue wave, Democrats gained control of both the House (55-45) and Senate (20-19) in the November elections (Republicans had previously held slim advantages in both chambers: a 20-19 majority in the Senate and a 51-48 edge in the House). 


What to Watch in 2020

With full Democratic control of the state government for the first time since 1994, the state is at long last well-positioned to pass strong climate legislation. Legislators have already pre-filed a bill enabling linkage with RGGI. However, Delegate Mark Keam (D), one of the state’s leading climate champions, cautions that overcoming the state’s oil and gas industries will remain a challenge.

“We should not assume that the incumbent carbon-producing industries will simply fold and accept a bold, progressive environmental agenda,” Keam told Climate XChange last month.  “On the contrary, I am afraid they will try and pull all the stops to lobby some of my colleagues to continue the business as usual path that doubles down on fossil fuels, such as maintaining nuclear and building new fracked gas pipelines. Environmental and climate activists must be vigilant to ensure that Democrats produce real change they promised during the campaigns.”

Our Goals

At Climate XChange, we will do all we can to ensure that 2020 is the year — the year that replaces study bills with actual policy, the year we can praise serious emission reductions rather than ambitious emission reduction goals, as aspirations become laws. It’s a new year, it’s a new decade, and it’s time for unprecedented action and accomplishment. 

Want to support our work of pushing climate policy forward? Consider purchasing a ticket in our annual Tesla Raffle or making a donation. And if you haven’t already, simply stay plugged in with state-level initiatives by joining our State Carbon Pricing Network