Legally Green: Mandating a Cleaner Environment

Going green isn’t just some trendy catch-phrase for Whole Foods yuppies. Around the country, local governments are forcing corporations to clean up their acts.

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Thirteen states from California to Rhode Island would like to impose strict emissions standards on new cars. Another 23 state legislatures would like to do away with the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags. Oregon has kicked a flame retardant out of children's pajamas; Wisconsin has banned another compound from toys for tots. Washington is taking copper out of auto brake pads, while Gainesville, Florida, is promoting the use of electricity from wind farms.

Across the country, state legislatures and city councils are adopting a wide range of measures aimed at improving the local and regional environment and reducing emissions that contribute to global climate change. This accelerating spate of green laws affecting both consumer and corporate behavior sometimes reflects peculiarly local needs and, at other times, provides the framework for national legislation dealing with air and water quality, or consumer protection.

In the area of chemicals in everyday usage, the recalls of several Chinese-made products spurred legislatures to develop their own chemical screening programs.

"The states are often moving ahead of the government," explained Scott Hendrick of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "If there is a perception that the federal government is not properly fulfilling its role of protecting the public, then the state goes ahead.

"That was the response to the recalls of toys in 2007 where there was a perception in state legislatures that the federal government wasn't protecting children and passed their own legislation. Those laws became the basis for the Federal Consumer Product Safety Act, which passed last year."

By the time the federal law passed, said Hendrick, 18 states had laws removing chemical phthalates from toys. The same principle holds for environmental issues far above ground.

"Most of the nation's federal air quality laws have some history in state clean air acts," said Adam Schafer, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. "As for climate change legislation, the states have been working on climate change policy for the past ten years.

California, Schafer said, adopted exhaust emission standards for automobiles and businesses in 2007 and, since then, ten states have followed suit: "Those states are trying to figure out how to meet their reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and set up regulations and policies to reduce emissions."

Towards that goal, 13 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region have joined in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which set up a cap-and-trade system for air pollution credits among utilities and businesses. Across the country, seven states and four Canadian provinces have joined in the Western Climate Initiative to set up a similar system, which includes power plants and the transportation sector. And the Midwest Governors' Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord is developing a similar framework for air quality improvements for Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Manitoba, Canada.

While Congress is still dithering on the ins and outs of a climate bill, several states have moved to require power companies to buy and use renewable energy. In most cases, that involves imposition of a "feed tariff," in which the utilities are required to buy back excess electricity generated from solar systems on residential and commercial property or to purchase wind power when it is available.