Looking ahead: Environment America’s 2021 federal and state priorities

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Josh Chetwynd

Agenda includes ramping up renewable energy, prioritizing wildlife over waste and increasing protections for our wild spaces

Environment America

DENVER — Environment America, a national nonpartisan network of state environmental groups, contributed to numerous environmental victories in 2020. The organization is looking ahead to spurring more environmental progress at the federal and state levels.

“We enter 2021 with hope for a brighter and healthier year,” said Environment America’s Acting President Wendy Wendlandt. “With a new presidential administration and state and local governments showing leadership, we are optimistic we can continue to slash emissions from our cars and trucks, transition more of our cities and states to 100 percent renewable energy, conserve our wild spaces, reduce plastic waste and ensure Americans have clean water.”

Here is a roundup of some of the top issues and bills that Environment America and its 29 state organizations will be working on across the country this coming year:

Building on momentum toward a 100% Renewable Energy society 

With seven states and more than 150 cities pledging to generate electricity from clean energy sources, we continue to move closer to powering our country with 100 percent renewable energy. To continue on that road at the federal level, Environment America will press for further extending solar and wind energy tax credits, expanding incentives for electric vehicles and energy efficiency, and creating new tax credits for energy storage projects.

In addition, our organization will be working for 100 percent clean energy bills in at least six states —  Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Texas and Connecticut — and supporting 100 percent renewable initiatives on at least 23 college campuses.

Along with that work, there will be a big push to improve existing renewable energy plans. Environment California is supporting policies to accelerate the state’s transition to 100 percent clean energy, which currently has a 2045 deadline. Environment Missouri will be looking to increase Missouri’s Renewable Energy Standard of 15 percent renewable energy by 2021 to 50 percent by 2035; and Environment Minnesota is also seeking an update to its Renewable Energy Standards. In Michigan, Environment Michigan is calling on its legislature to create a legal roadmap to get the state to its 100 percent renewable energy commitment by 2050, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced in September.

Environment California has other ambitious clean energy plans, such as working to ensure that state legislators set a goal of 3 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030 and 10 gigawatts by 2040, and advocating for state investments in long-duration renewable energy storage technologies. Other plans on our California agenda include increasing geothermal power; ramping up the number of solar panels paired with battery storage on K-12 public schools; and heightening the use of such important energy efficiency options as all-electric buildings.

On the defense side, Environment Texas will be fighting against efforts to impose a tax on energy sources other than natural gas and to discriminate against wind and solar as part of the state’s economic development program. At the same time, the group will support, among other policies, adopting a solar consumer protection act to make it easier for Texans to go solar; commencing a study on expanding the state’s renewable energy standard on electricity to 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050; and investing in additional transmission lines to bring wind and solar power to cities.

Elsewhere, Environment Colorado will back The Healthier Homes Act of 2021, which would help utilities develop plans to replace gas and propane-powered appliances with high-efficiency versions and The Building Energy Performance Act of 2021, which would require most large commercial, multifamily and public buildings to benchmark energy use and reduce emissions. Environment Maryland will advocate for a school clean energy bill that ensures the state’s public schools develop comprehensive school energy policies. In the Southeast, Environment Georgia will aim to get burdensome solar fees outlawed. And Environment Florida will, among other things, press for expanding community solar, increasing rooftop solar numbers, adding new energy storage capacity, ratcheting up energy efficiency and banning fracking statewide.

Addressing the plastic pollution crisis

Every day, people throw away tons of single-use cups, containers and other plastic “stuff.” All of this waste not only trashes our parks and public spaces, but it also washes into our rivers, where it’s harmful to wildlife and pollutes our drinking water. To change that cycle, state environmental groups across the country will advocate for legislation to make sure that containers we only use for moments don’t pollute our planet for generations.

For example, Environment Colorado, Environment Florida, Environment Michigan, Environment OregonEnvironment Virginia and Environment Washington will all be working for statewide bans on polystyrene — what many people refer to as Styrofoam. Environment Florida, along with such  groups as Environment Missouri and Environment Texas, will also be working to ensure that state legislatures don’t preempt local communities’ efforts to address polystyrene foam pollution. 

Our groups will promote numerous other policies to reduce plastic foam and other forms of plastic pollution. For instance, Environment Virginia will work for a ban on intentional balloon releases, which can be one of the most dangerous types of litter for wildlife. Environment Georgia will advocate for bans on plastic bags and plastic foam in state facilities and grocery stores. Along with its battle against preemption, Environment Texas will also support a bill that creates a statewide debris management plan with emphasis on landfill diversion and environmental protection.

In the Pacific Northwest, both Environment Oregon and Environment Washington will support statewide policies that require producers to take responsibility for the plastic pollution they create. Environment Oregon will also seek a comprehensive foodware policy that shifts away from single-use products and toward reusables; and a statewide stop to permitting new or expanded “chemical recycling” facilities, which is a false solution to the plastics problem. 

Similarly, Environment Maryland will call for companies that produce plastic to be responsible for its disposal costs. Its state agenda includes a plastic incineration ban; a statewide ban on plastic bags and legislation that requires hotels to stop providing single-use toiletry containers, bans plastic utensils and stirrers, and requires that straws be given upon request only. 

Conserving public lands and wild spaces

When The Great American Outdoors Act was signed into law in August, it was a rare bright spot for 2020. While the federal statute, which permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) with $900 million annually and provides $9.5 billion over five years to fix maintenance problems plaguing America’s public lands, was a big win, it was only a start.

In 2021, Environment America will lobby at the national and state level for resolutions that call for the conservation of 30 percent of America’s lands and water by 2030. It will also support the Roadless Area Conservation Act, which aims to keep our wild spaces wild. Safeguarding our waters from offshore oil drilling will continue to be a vital issue in states along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts. 

Protecting pollinators will also be a priority. Environment Texas will support a series of policies to aid bees. These include establishing a voluntary pollinator-friendly designation for solar farms; backing a bill that requires utilities to install native and pollinator-friendly plants after they dig along state highways; and banning the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides along state highways and on other state property. 

Preventing the use of neonicotinoids is also at the center of both Environment Oregon and Environment Missouri’s efforts on this issue.

Finally state environmental groups will continue to advocate state park funding. For example, Environment Texas will support an effort to appropriate all of the state’s sporting goods sales tax to state parks and historic sites.

Decarbonizing the transportation sector 

Despite fewer cars on the road in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, transportation emissions continued to be the top contributor to global warming in the United States. Environment America and our national network will continue efforts to solve this problem in 2021.

When federal transportation spending authorization expires in September, Environment America will be supporting a reauthorization that prioritizes reducing greenhouse gases emissions and investing in electric vehicles. Among the federal bills that the group will support is the Driving America Forward Act, which renews and extends the electric vehicle tax credit.

California has long been a leader on the transportation front, and Environment California looks to ensure that continues in 2021. The group will press for increased electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure as part of an effort to reach a goal of 1 million charging stations by 2030. The group will also embrace efforts to double the amount of trips taken on public transit in the next 10 years and will back programs that help people replace fossil-fuel powered cars with EVs. 

Building on California’s announcement in September that, by 2035, it will stop the sale of gas-powered vehicles, Environment Washington is aiming to get its state to enact a similar ban on new fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks — but, in this case, by 2030. In the short term, the Seattle-based group will also push for a clean fuel standard within the state.

In the Lone Star State, Environment Texas will fight for allocating all current Texas Emissions Reduction Plan funds to support clean air and for expanding funding for electric vehicle rebates. The affiliate will also back cities’ rights to adopt local option taxes for transportation investments. In addition, the group will endorse one bill that allows state employees to telecommute and another that requires drivers to stop and yield the right-of-way to pedestrians. It will oppose a bill that assesses an annual $200 fee on electric vehicles and another that takes “rainy day” funds to build roads and other infrastructure for oil and gas development

Other state plans include Environment Missouri’s support for increasing Missouri’s current 17-cent fuel tax to 30 cents per gallon. Environment Colorado will support a transportation funding bill that will emphasize reducing vehicle miles travelled and accelerate a transition to EVs. Environment New Jersey is supporting initiatives to rapidly expand electric vehicle charging infrastructure. It is also advocating for spending Volkswagen settlement funds and Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) money on electrification measures for public transit vehicles, charging stations and seaport electrification.

Cleaning up America’s waterways and protecting our drinking water

Too many of America’s waterways continue to be threatened by toxic chemicals and too many schools continue to have unacceptable levels of lead in their drinking water that threaten children’s health.

To that end, Environment America will urge Congress to increase water infrastructure funding to stop sewage overflows, make our waterways safe for swimming, and “Get the Lead Out” of our kid’s school faucets and fountains via the Get the Lead Out Act, which would require replacing lead service lines within 10 years.

At the federal administrative level, the organization will work to repeal the Dirty Water Rule, a Trump administration regulation that deeply diminished protections for our streams and wetlands. Other necessary changes include: increasing limits on toxic pollution from power plants; strengthening the Lead and Copper Rule; curbing pollution from meat processing plants with updated permit standards; and barring direct discharges of the “forever chemicals” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFS) into waterways while also phasing out these toxins where possible.

State groups in the Environment America network will also be leaning into many of these issues. Environment Florida will push for comprehensive water testing and full public access to all the data from those studies. The group is also calling for schools to immediately shut off taps where water contains more lead than one part per billion (ppb), which is the threshold recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and install National Sanitation Foundation-certified filters on faucets or fountains used for drinking or cooking. Similarly, Environment Maryland is backing a bill that strengthens protections from lead in school drinking water and Environment Washington is calling for both testing and alerts when drinking water taps test above 1 ppb. Environment Washington is also backing the approval of $3 million for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to replace or remediate lead fixtures. 

Environment Michigan will have PFAS and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) in its crosshairs. The group will press for thorough regulations that protect Michiganders from this whole class of chemicals. The group will also support strengthening Michigan’s “polluter pays” laws, which should hold those accountable when a company has contaminated our water or soil with these compounds.

Environment Virginia, which has worked for years to prevent runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, will continue these efforts. In Florida, another iconic body of water — the Suwannee River — also remains under threat. To solve that and other water-related dangers in the state, Environment Florida is aiming to protect state waterways through limits on agricultural pollution from large factory farms; keep beaches and other waterways safe from sewage overflows and runoff pollution with new stormwater standards and adequate funding for green infrastructure; and promote water conservation through incentive programs and appliance standards. Environment Georgia will fight to protect Georgia’s waterways from toxic coal ash pollution by requiring stricter rules for long-term coal ash storage.

Environment Texas’ large clean water agenda includes supporting a nature-based infrastructure financing program to fully fund community projects, policies that get toxic lead out of school drinking water, and a drinking water standard that reduces exposure to PFAS.