A Conversation with Annie Notthoff and Max Baumhefner
By Steve Schaefer
On May 14, 2019, two leaders from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) spoke to Acterra members and guests at The Foster, a gallery in Palo Alto filled with the beautiful paintings of Tony Foster. The topic of Acterra’s final segment of its Spring Lecture Series was the future of transportation in California, the U.S., and the world.
Annie Notthoff is the Senior Western Advocacy Director of the NRDC in San Francisco and Sacramento. She has spent her long career working on a broad range of initiatives to promote climate action, public health and environmental protection.
Max Baumhefner is a Senior Attorney with the Climate and Clean Energy Program at NRDC, based in San Francisco. His focus is moving our nation’s cars, trucks, and buses to zero emission vehicles and accelerating the transition to a smarter, more affordable electric grid powered by renewable resources.
The NRDC was founded in 1970 by law students and attorneys at the forefront of the environmental movement. Today’s leadership team and board of trustees make sure the organization continues to work to ensure the rights of all people to clean air, clean water, and healthy communities. And today that also means tackling the climate crisis.
Ms. Notthoff spoke first. She began by mentioning she was a Bay Area native and talked about how California’s size means that standards set here are often adopted by other states, so the state’s impact is magnified. Other nations have adopted California standards, too.
What has made this possible in California is “a combination of political will and the courage to act,” she said. “You need to elect people who will take action on climate. Over the years, these people, being held accountable, have helped raise the percentages of voters who vote for climate issues.”
Notthoff noted California’s 40 years of energy efficiency and air quality standards.
“If the other 49 states followed California’s Star standards, the U.S. would have about 25% less carbon emissions today,” she stated.
In California, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from transportation—41%, in fact—so moving to 100% renewable energy is essential—and is planned by 2045 in the state.
Notthoff said that that even though many of us know what the problem is, we’re not doing enough fast enough. And with the U.S. government not acting on climate change in the current administration, it falls to the states and cities to make the efforts now. They, along with businesses, will work to meet the United States’ Paris Agreement terms.
Notthoff said climate progress was especially likely in “trifectas,” where the state governor and the legislature agree on climate change urgency and get laws drafted and passed. For example, in Colorado, several new laws have recently passed. And the NRDC is partnered with the Bloomberg Foundation to work with 25 selected U.S. cities on building and transportation measures.
Of course, if we elect a more climate-aware chief executive in 2020, in 2021 we can use what was developed at the “subnational” level to move quickly. If the 25 cities meet their goals, then the U.S. will almost meet its Paris commitments.
Notthoff then turned the microphone over to Max Baumhefner, a tall, slim man with a youthful bush of curly hair. He started out by saying that we know what we need to do to reduce emissions in the transportation sector, but we can’t just order consumers to do things, like you can with the electricity generating companies.
Transportation has now surpassed power generation as the highest source of carbon emissions. He says we need to power everything we can with electricity, and use clean electricity to power our vehicles.
Baumhefner described the “three legs of a stool” needed for success:
- Reduce the need to drive – provide other options
- Massively improve vehicles
- Develop low-carbon fuels
He travels to other states and meets with leaders there to bring what’s working in California to them. One big success in California is SB 350, which as originally written required 50% renewable energy by 2030, mandated that the electricity industry make plans and invest in accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles, and cut petroleum use by half. The oil industry stripped the last section from the bill.
There will be a $1 billion investment in changing the infrastructure, and another $1 billion has been proposed. This kind of action in California is getting attention from other states.
“There are 10 to 20 proceedings in other states now, and the regulatory commissions are glad to see you, and want to learn to do the right thing,” Baumhefner stated, striking a positive note. “But because utilities are not risk takers, sometimes they need a legislative kick in the pants.”
In Oregon, leaders are working on a bill to get utilities to use 50% renewables and to electrify transportation. After three tries, it just got done in Colorado. It’s happening in New Mexico, too.
“This is a tangible example of aspirational leadership,” he said.
Baumhefner mentioned a 1995 program in China for a coal cap, when the NRDC worked with them on reducing emissions. China is serious about electric vehicles, and EVs are now 50% of their market—the largest market in the world.
The speakers then took some questions. One audience member asked about carbon taxes. Baumhefner replied that they were not sufficient to force a market transition, but that could have a “complementary role.” Notthoff added that there wasn’t enough time to get them to work—and that they were divisive—so better to get other policies in place.
A question was asked about phasing out gasoline cars by a certain date. Notthoff said that California’s phase-out bills were stalled in the legislature. Baumhefner said he’d rather see it stated in the affirmative – a certain percentage of EVs by a particular date.
Someone asked about the gas tax and EV user fees. Baumhefner said that because the gas tax hadn’t risen for inflation, it was now too low. He stated that a user fee based on mileage might seem like a solution, but that the gas tax itself was serving as a price on carbon, so there were advantages in keeping it in place. Better, he said, to tweak it and extend it in some way to EVs. High EV fees, like those being considered, are not addressing the real problem, he added.
Continuing on EVs, a question was asked about setting up a “cash for clunkers” type of program for gas-powered vehicles. There are swap and replace programs giving up to $9,000 for old cars in some places, Baumhefner said. He supports finding ways to get EVs into the hands of more Californians, “not just some ZIP codes.”
It was a valuable hour of learning about how California leads the nation, the valuable work the NRDC is doing, and what we can do to contribute.
Acterra’s mission is to bring people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.