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The Carbon Confederacy

While there has been a lot of talk recently about removing the Confederate battle flag from public property, there has been a little-watched secessionist movement of a different stripe.

Steam rises from stacks at the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Rodeo, California.
Getty Images
Steam rises from stacks at the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Rodeo, California.

A number of leaders are calling on states to secede from the union once again — at least as it applies to the national environmental laws that are designed to protect public health and save money. Let's call them the Carbon Confederacy.

The Jefferson Davis of the Carbon Confederacy is the Republican Senator from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell. In March, he fired the equivalent of the Fort Sumter "first shot" with a letter to all fifty U.S. state governors that called on them to openly defy the federal government's rules to curb carbon pollution.

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In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases (generally called "carbon" pollution) are air pollutants as defined by the federal Clean Air Act. It is worth noting that the majority of the justices on that court were appointed by presidents of the same political party as Mr. McConnell — a good indicator that this legal decision, and the rules in question, are the result of sound law, policy, and science, not politics.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been doing its job, as required by the Clean Air Act, ever since, including finding that carbon emissions from motor vehicles and power plants "cause or contribute to air pollution, which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare."

Apparently more interested in protecting the coal-mining interests in his own state, Mr. McConnell ignores these settled facts and uses what he sees as the only remaining option: Secede from our "clean air" union.

Just as a few states in the 1800s wanted their citizens to maintain the right to own slaves and formed a Confederacy that seceded from the United States, several governors are proclaiming their intent to defy the EPA: Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana (both declared 2016 Presidential candidates) plus Mary Fallin of Oklahoma, Mike Pence of Indiana, and Greg Abbott of Texas. The USEPA gives states wide latitude in finding ways to comply with the law, but apparently these governors don't think their businesses and residents are smart enough to find the most cost-effective, money-saving options. Other states don't seem to have the same blind spot.

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California, which leads the "union" states in carbon-reducing policies, cut emissions by 1.5 million metric tons in 2013 (compared with 2012); at the same time, its economy grew at a faster pace than the national average.

Nine northeastern states created a carbon-trading market, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. It added $1.3 billion to the economy, created more than 14,000 new jobs and saved $460 million in electricity and heating costs between 2012 and 2014, according to a recent report from the economic-consulting firm Analysis Group.

Although not a declared member of the Carbon Confederacy, New Jersey Governor and 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie balanced his first state budget with revenues from this program, but then seceded from it when conservative politics trumped economic common sense.

One state among the rebels, Texas, leads the nation in clean wind power.

It's worth noting that Denmark today gets more energy than it needs from wind, meaning it has economic certainty (which fossil fuels can't provide) and a good source of export revenue.

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That uncertainty around fossil fuels is highlighted further by the recent news that BP now estimates it will end up paying some $54 billion for its 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, just one example of the true cost of our carbon dependency and another reason the secessionists should be wary of Mr. McConnell's myopic suggestion.

Just as slavery meant there was no motivation to invent labor-saving devices or to innovate more efficient products and processes, ignoring carbon limits leads to missed opportunity for economic growth. Just as common decency and subsequent events proved the Confederacy to be on the wrong side of history after the American Civil War, we have ample evidence that states today should not be flying their Carbon Confederacy battle flag either.

Commentary by Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency. He is also the president of Seventh Generation Advisors and co-founder of the R20 Regions of Climate Action. Follow him on Twitter @terrytamminen.