• WisBusiness

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Debate over Clean Energy Act rests on how far Wisconsin should go on its own


By Tom Still
Steve Pintar grew up in Milwaukee and earned an engineering degree from the UW-Madison. He also led the design teams for the 2008 Ford Focus and, most recently, the 2011 Ford Fiesta, another "global" vehicle due for release this spring.

One might think the guy who is redefining Ford's tough-truck image through fuel-miser cars with big-car features would applaud state efforts -- such as those proposed in Wisconsin -- to set tougher emissions standards than those required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Not so. While Pintar gives states credit for pushing the envelope on emissions, alternative fuels and other climate-change strategies tied to transportation, he thinks a hodge-podge of state standards can slow innovation among carmakers and make life more complicated for dealers, customers and cross-border economies.

"Obviously, we work to meet all the California requirements and we have a product line right now that does. But my personal opinion is, after having been on the product development side, that when a state has its own regulations, the system is less efficient in total," Pintar said. "For the total (auto) industry, the maximum technology deployment, customer acceptance and industry efficiencies will be best with better regulatory alignment."

Pintar, who toured Wisconsin this month to promote Fiesta's release, is not alone in his belief that states can overreach when they set standards that move beyond federal rules. Business and trade groups in Wisconsin have lined up to oppose the transportation goals from the Governor's Task Force on Global Warming for that very reason.

The task force report, largely embodied in the Clean Energy Jobs Act now being debated in the Wisconsin Legislature, would tie the state's vehicle emissions standards to those adopted by California. The EPA itself has refused to accept California's tougher standards, which critics say have created another layer of state bureaucracy and costs.

The vehicle emissions standards are not the only parts of the bill that could set Wisconsin apart -- in ways supporters insist will better position the state as a haven for "green" economic growth, and which opponents fear will cost thousands of jobs.

The bill seeks to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (largely carbon dioxide) emissions in Wisconsin over time by a combination of strategies. On the electricity generation side, renewable energy sources would need to reach 10 percent by 2013, 20 percent by 2020 and 25 percent by 2025. While some state utilities have hit the 10 percent mark already, most are still well short of that mark, which current law would not require until 2015.

The bill anticipates new federal limits on carbon emissions due to global climate change and seeks to give Wisconsin a "green economy" edge over other states.

"When you see a train coming, you need to get ready," said Roy Thilly, co-chair of the task force and president of WPPI Energy in Sun Prairie. "The scientific consensus (around global climate change) is really quite strong, and it would be imprudent not to act based on that science. In fact, there are serious long-term costs for Wisconsin if we fail to act."

Speaking to a recent meeting of Competitive Wisconsin Inc., Thilly said conservation always comes first but Wisconsin must pursue other strategies to reduce its "carbon footprint" in anticipation of new federal standards. Absent steps now, he argued, Wisconsin won't be able to compete with other states and nations for green jobs.

Opponents claim the bill won't create jobs -- but will instead cost Wisconsin jobs because it puts the state too far ahead of the pack, creates new burdens for business and increases costs for everyone from electricity users to owners of cars and other vehicles.

"I don't think I have ever seen a bill that has a broader reach to all the citizens of this state," said James Buchen, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. "Increasing the cost of electricity, increasing the cost of gasoline and taking $1,000 per year out of the pockets of each Wisconsin citizen to pay for this (legislation) will not create jobs."

Scores of business groups such as WMC insist the market, combined with reasonable federal standards, will prove far more effective in the long run. With the recession only now beginning to ease, they worry that stand-alone rules will harm the state's competitiveness.

"I don't think there's any benefit to get too far out ahead," Buchen told the Competitive Wisconsin board of directors.

Whether lawmakers act on the bill remains to be seen, but Gov. Jim Doyle has already signaled he's ready to talk about changes. Because Wisconsin is so dependent on coal-fired electricity plants, the state doesn't want to get caught flat-footed if federal standards demand a sudden conversion. Likewise, it doesn't want to stick out like a sore thumb among other states.

"California has caused people to push harder, and that's good," said Ford's Pintar, "but technology can only be shoved so far, so fast. More alignment is a better way."

Finding an energy-use "alignment" that better positions Wisconsin for the long run without harming competitiveness now won't be easy, but it will be necessary.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

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