Energy Policy

Respective Roles of National, State, and Local Authority


While we often think of issues surrounding energy and climate policy as being global in scale, it's also important to recognize the important roles smaller scale governments and institutions can play.

Over the past 20-25 years, state level action on energy (particularly renewable) and climate policies has flourished partially as a response to federal inaction here in the United States. By tackling this problem at a smaller scale, individual states and communities are more easily able to tailor plans and activities to work well within their own unique geographic and political realities.

Visit the EPA State, Local, and Tribal Energy page to learn more about state and local actions across the country. You'll see they also offer training and greenhouse gas inventorying tools to help local governments inventory and plan to reduce their emissions. (Side note: for a trip down memory lane and evidence of the sometimes subtle ways that federal agencies change their focus under different administrations, see the archived page from the Trump Administration and see if you can spot the difference.) The Center for Climate Strategies has also been working with state-level stakeholders and decision makers across the country to develop climate mitigation plans that not only reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions, but also drive the development of alternative energy technologies. Has your state developed a climate action plan yet?

On a broader scale, creating a cleaner energy future for the United States (and the world) is a dauntingly large task. So much of our economy is driven by the availability and use of inexpensive fossil fuels. The future threats of a changing climate are difficult for politicians and voters alike to reconcile with the very immediate and pressing economic realities we face right now. In fact, recent climate change-exacerbated events like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria along with the wildfires in Maui and the West prove that even current climate change impacts are difficult for people (like our lawmakers) to process and respond to quickly. It is important for us to recognize that there will be no magic bullet technology to propel us into a low carbon economy. Instead, we must strengthen and create a host of technologies and fundamentally change the way we think about energy. This will require support and innovation from all levels of government and society.

Let's look at an example from the Marcellus Shale gas and oil play happening here in the Northeast to gain a better understanding of the intertangled nature of the roles of different scales of government in energy policy.

The following is the nature of this multiscale relationship:

  • The federal government requires oil and gas companies to obtain permits for exploration and extraction on public lands.
  • The state government dictates how mineral rights and surface rights affect who benefits from the production of wells, responds to any complaints from landowners, and also issues permits for exploration and extraction within the state.

Here is a real-world example of this: A moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the state of New York went in effect in 2014 until more information was gathered and analyzed to assess how the extraction of mineral resources from the Marcellus Shale formation could impact water supplies and ecosystems, despite threats from the Republican gubenatorial candidate (who lost) in 2022. For this state-level moratorium, it was the local governments who were responsible for managing on-the-ground efforts related to the gas production - everything from road maintenance and truck traffic to increasing public services to accommodate a larger population.

While all of this seemingly complicates matters since drillers and other players in the natural gas industry are required to work with stakeholders at multiple scales, it actually makes sense. Consider how difficult it would be if the following were true instead of the current arrangement:

  • local government set permitting standards for drilling, resulting in energy companies having to comply with myriad different standards for well design, air quality, and water quality across the country;
  • federal government managing on-the-ground issues related to drilling - they would lack the local expertise and trust necessary to ensure that localities' and residents' concerns are addressed adequately.

As we've explored briefly, the Clean Power Plan offered a unique approach for a piece of federal legislation in that it left much of the decision making about how to achieve targets up to the individual states. Look up the state where you live to find out if they've developed (or are developing) a climate action plan! Does your governor support legislation that requirees the state to reduce or eliminate energy-based emissions? If so, contact her or him and let them know that you appreciate what they are doing. If not, contact them and encourage them to do so!