Texans support a statewide "clean energy" plan

When it blocked President’s Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the U.S. Supreme Court let Texas off the hook — at least for now — on developing a plan to boost its use of cleaner-burning energy.

But most Texans believe their leaders should draw up a plan to shift from coal-fired power to natural gas and renewables anyway, even if the state wins a high-profile battle against the carbon dioxide-slashing regulations, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

That includes Republicans.

Two Republican pollsters developed and conducted the survey of more than 800 registered Texas voters on behalf of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, a group that supports natural gas, solar and wind energy. It offers insight into Texans’ views on energy policy and a test of how public opinion compares to the rhetoric of politicians on the issue.

Among the findings:

  • Eighty-five percent of Texans (including 81 percent of Republicans) believe Texas should develop its own comprehensive clean energy plan, regardless of the outcome of a landmark lawsuit over the Clean Power Plan, which would require states to submit plans to the federal government to reach mandated targets for slashing carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Texans tended to define “clean energy” as wind, solar and natural gas sources. Few — just 37 percent — identified nuclear energy as clean, despite its lack of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Only 14 percent have seen, read or heard of the Clean Power Plan.
  • Most Texans opposed the federal regulation when informed of one of the basic sticking points in the debate: whether Washington or the states should shape energy policy. In that case, just 41 percent said the Clean Power Plan was a good idea, and 55 percent considered it a bad idea. Only 17 percent of Republicans backed the regulation.
  • Most Texans — 69 percent — believe their leaders should construct a proposal to comply with the Clean Power Plan in case the state loses its court battle.  

The Clean Energy Coalition suggested that the results should strengthen a push in the Texas Legislature to add more natural gas and renewable energy to the grid.

“What struck me about the survey results is how widespread the support is across the political spectrum for increasing our state’s use of clean energy,” former Texas Sen. Kip Averitt, the group’s chairman, said in a statement.

The survey involved 801 live interviews conducted last month over the telephone (including cellphones and landlines), and it had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

Clean Power Plan opponents seized on the data showing that most Texans oppose the policy and suggested that the survey questions should have included more information on how transforming the state’s energy mix would affect power prices and the reliability of the electric grid.

“We find the poll quite flawed. It is uninformed on the legal issues underway by a number of states,” Michael Nasi, general counsel for the pro-coal group Balanced Energy For Texas, said in an email.

The Clean Power Plan, Obama’s most ambitious effort to combat climate change, would require states to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants however they see fit — accelerating a shift from coal that started years ago. Carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas that directly contributes to climate change.

For Texas, that would mean cutting an annual average of 51 million tons of emissions, down about 21 percent from 2012 levels.

Had the regulations stayed in place, Texas would have had until September to submit a final plan or apply for an extension. If the state failed to do so, the federal Environmental Protection Agency would have drawn up its own plan for the state.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans argued that doing so would cost the state jobs, push electricity costs too high and threaten reliability. They say the regulations subvert state power.

Proponents of the rules — backed by early analyses — suggest that market forces and existing policies alone would push Texas most of the way toward its target.

But it’s not clear whether Texas will ever have to comply. In February, the Supreme Court granted a request by Texas and 26 other states to halt the regulation as their challenge winds through the legal system.

Though any state can take action on climate, and many have, the ruling removes the mechanism to submit a plan to the federal government.

Nevertheless, advocates for the Clean Power Plan suggest that Texas should prepare a plan in case it loses the legal battle — if only to keep federal regulators from imposing a plan they drew up. Most of the Texans who responded to the new poll seemed to agree, even if they opposed the Clean Power Plan broadly.

Mike Baselice, a longtime Republican pollster who conducted the poll, said he wasn’t surprised.

“Part of it is a knee-jerk reaction to: Hey, if it’s Washington, D.C., telling the state of Texas what to do, some of the people are going to put up their hands and say, 'Back up,'” he said.

But not everyone considers that a good idea. 

Pamela Giblin, an Austin-based lawyer with the firm Baker Botts, which represents many energy companies that would be affected by the policy, called the federal rule “outrageous, regardless of your position on climate” and believes the justices will ultimately strike it down.

Even if the Obama administration wins, she suggested, judges would likely draw up a new timeline for states to comply — refusing to penalize them for not immediately complying with a rule that had been blocked. And that final decision could take years.

A spokesman for Abbott suggested that the survey results did not sway the governor.

"Texas will not waste millions in taxpayer dollars attempting to comply with a federal statute that the Supreme Court has already found suspect and put on hold," John Wittman said in an email.

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Note: The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation funds The Texas Tribune to support coverage of water and energy issues in Texas, and to expand coverage across critical demographic communities on these and other vital issues of politics and public policy. The foundation also funds the Texas Clean Energy Coalition to help expand the coalition of supporters of clean energy in the state of Texas.

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