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Rising Tides, Rising Temperatures

Climate Change is not a Hot Topic for Mississippi Lawmakers

Story by Mateos Lozano

As conversations about rising tides and higher temperatures intensify, efforts to enact public policy initiatives to address the effects of climate change in Mississippi are not.

Generally, public policy is any set of laws and guidelines enacted or actions taken by local, state and national governments to deal with problems or concerns facing citizens.

Climate change policy can take many forms, ranging from broad-scale emission reduction regulations and state investment in renewable energy projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions to programs that aim to mitigate damage from natural disasters that are projected to grow more frequent and severe with climate change.

An example of climate policy is Louisiana’s Climate Initiative Task Force, established by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive order in 2021, which set a state-wide goal and plan to balance the amount of carbon put into the environment with the amount removed from the environment by 2050.

The state of Mississippi, however, largely has not aggressively pursued climate policy. The most prominent state action consists of updating building efficiency standards, funding electric vehicle manufacturing and providing tax exemptions for renewable energy companies.

Dominika Parry
Dominika Parry

“Climate change has become not science but politics,” said Dominika Parry, president and CEO of 2C Mississippi. Parry, who received her Ph.D. from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, established the non-profit 2C Mississippi to promote science-based dialogue and action on climate change.

“Talking about it is automatically assumed to be supporting the lefties, and with a state that has a Republican supermajority (in the state legislature) … climate change is not just not a priority, it’s a hostile topic,” Parry said. “It’s perceived as a goal that is wasting money, solving a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Parry’s perspective is shared by University of Mississippi Associate Professor of Law Antonia  Eliason.

“I think there’s still a lot of climate skeptics in the state of Mississippi. The issue has been turned into a political issue, it’s been turned into a partisan issue … it’s become a very, very politized thing. So I think some of the hostility comes from that.”

Patrick Sullivan, president of the Mississippi Energy Institute, a nonprofit that provides technical expertise about the energy sector to government and private companies, takes a more pragmatic view of the state’s relatively few public policy initiatives, particularly around support for renewable energy.

“Wind and solar are simply not options to generate electricity on a large scale in Mississippi,” Sullivan said. “For the state to invest or aggressively incentivize the addition of more solar would result in costs added to the system, paid by electricity consumers.”

LIMITED LEGISLATIVE ACTION

One of the steps Mississippi has taken on climate policy is House Bill 1266, passed by the legislature in 2013, which updated the state’s commercial building energy efficiency codes to the 2010 American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers standards. ASHRAE helps create national code guidelines for governments. Prior to HB 1266, statewide energy efficiency standards had been set 30 years earlier. ASHRAE updates its standards every three years, but Mississippi has not kept pace with those updates.

Another bill passed in 2013, HB 1685, authorized the Mississippi Development Authority, a state agency responsible for managing economic and community development programs, to create the Mississippi Alternative Fuel School Bus and Motor Vehicle Revolving Loan Fund. The fund allowed public schools to apply for loans to purchase buses and vehicles that use alternative fuels such as natural gas or electricity.

On the flipside of climate policy, HB 632, known as the All Fuels Act of 2021, forbids any county or city in Mississippi from banning the use of oil or natural gas in homes. Groups such as the Consumer Energy Alliance argued, “(This legislation) … will protect our families and small businesses from ill-conceived and irresponsible prohibitions on the use of reliable, safe and clean fuels like natural gas in homes or communities.”

It’s worth noting that, as the Consumer Energy Alliance reports, “No energy service bans have been proposed in Mississippi.”

Chairmen of the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives Committees on Energy, the Senate Committee on Environmental Protection Conservation and Water Resources, the Senate Committee on Finance, the House Committee on Ways and Means and the House Committee on Conservation and Water Resources were asked to discuss legislation dealing with the impact of climate change, but none responded to the requests.

Most climate policy action in Mississippi occurs within departments of the state government. For example, the Mississippi Development Authority administers a tax exemption program, the Mississippi Clean Energy Initiative Incentives Program, that allows companies making parts for renewable or nuclear energy manufacturing to qualify for a 10-year exemption from state income and franchise taxes.

Furthermore, as Joe Donovan, the director of technology, innovation and entrepreneurship at the MDA, explained, “The Nissan plant in Canton and Toyota in Blue Springs, those were significantly supported by the state Legislature. … Those are $100-$200 million projects. The MDA poured $40 million into Nissan’s EV (electric vehicle) project.”

One of the few state initiatives that incentivizes consumers to buy EVs comes from the Public Service Commission, a state agency responsible for regulating various utilities. A one-time $3,000 cash incentive is available to EV buyers who meet a variety of criteria, such as earning low to moderate income.

However, at the same time, Eliason adds, “(In Mississippi there is) an additional tax for the purchase of EVs. Most other states would give you some sort of tax rebate.”

Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan

This “tax” is an annual charge that EV and hybrid car owners are required to pay — $150 and $75 respectively. While 32 other states also charge EV owners, Mississippi is also one of 17 states that charges a fee while offering little to no incentives for EV owners (excluding incentives offered by private companies). Since 2021, these fees have been tied to inflation, and they go to fund road infrastructure in the state.

Sullivan notes, “There is not any direct financial assistance provided (to renewable energy projects by the state) but there is a regulatory role for that through the state’s Public Service Commission.”

The commission regulates a net metering rule, adopted in 2016, that applies to Entergy and Mississippi Power customers. As summarized by solar energy company Palmetto, net metering “allows you to send extra solar energy that your solar panels generate back into the electric grid. In return, you earn credit that you can use to offset the cost of electricity you pull from the grid in the future.” The extra money allows consumers to partially offset the cost of installing solar panels and in some cases even earn a profit.

Most states offer customers the full retail rate when reimbursing them for self-generated energy, but Mississippi is one of six states that does not. And Entergy and Mississippi Power have successfully pushed back against a recent PSC attempt to expand net metering. In response, the PSC narrowed the eligibility for households that can receive reimbursements in addition to other changes to the rebates offered.

STATE, FEDERAL PARTNERSHIPS

Departments within the Mississippi state government also manage several federal climate policy programs.

Through the federal State Energy Program, the MDA has invested $15,000 to cover the cost of energy audits in order to improve industrial energy efficiency.

Through the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, the Mississippi Department of Human Services has provided grants to increase residential energy efficiency by weatherizing homes, a practice that lessens the usage of air conditioning or heating at an average of 167 homes per year, according to the federal Office of State and Community Programs.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has helped restore the damage caused by natural disasters and invest in infrastructure disaster resiliency.

Biloxi Mayor Andrew Gilich said MEMA oversaw “a huge project that started after Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) … implementing across the city … was about a $350 million investment in water, deep sewer and storm drains systems that primarily was funded through FEMA and managed through MEMA.”

With help from MEMA and FEMA funding, Biloxi has been able to implement parts of its 2009 comprehensive plan to increase the city’s level of preparedness against natural disasters.

The city of Waveland, through FEMA grants, is undertaking a $6.9 million construction project to improve flood water drainage through the construction of new ditches and other improvements.

According to the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange, a nonprofit that reports on U.S. climate policy initiatives, the city is also “working to secure funding to develop a raised boardwalk on one of the city’s main streets, Coleman Avenue. The boardwalk will be raised 23 feet off the ground and be able to withstand the high winds associated with extreme storm events.” This project is estimated to cost approximately $20 million.

Conversely, the city of Jackson’s efforts to create a climate mitigation plan have met many challenges. According to a 2020 press release, the city along with several local partners established a group known as the Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force with the following mission statement: “The task force will simultaneously address the issues of climate justice, economic well being and prosperity of the citizens of Jackson.”

Representing one of the most comprehensive attempts at local climate action in the state, the task force laid out a commitment to “begin developing a comprehensive Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Plan, while working on … an Extreme Heat Preparedness Plan, Urban Heat Mapping and Municipal Carbon Accounting.”

However, as Dominka Parry of 2C Mississippi, who was involved in the task force’s creation, explained, “We had a champion at the city administration that was very interested in our work — this is where that concept planning for mitigation and adaptation long-term came up — then our champion left the city, changed jobs. The entire task force went dormant because we didn’t have anybody to directly work with. I’m hoping it’s just dormant.”

Despite that disappointment, 2C Mississippi continues to pursue positive climate action, such as an urban heat island mapping initiative.

“Just a few weeks ago, we got $1.5 million to actually do it from the Forest Service USDA,” Parry said. “Implementation should start next calendar year.”

As stated on 2C Mississippi’s website, the initiative will comprehensively map the distribution of heat throughout Jackson to help guide future investments that aim to reduce the impact of heat on the community.

GREEN HOUSE GASES

The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality is also tapping into federal funds to participate in the Emissions Reduction Program, initiated by the federal Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. The department will develop a plan that will identify all significant greenhouse gas sources and sinks (anything that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases), establish green house gas emission reduction goals and provide strategies to achieve those goals.

The first draft of these plans will be due on March 1, 2024, and multiple phases of the project are expected to play out over four years. With this, Mississippi will set its first official emission reduction goals, although at this early stage, it is unclear how these goals will be shaped and to what extent the state will act on them.

The federal government has been one of the biggest drivers of climate public policy in Mississippi. The Inflation Reduction Act, for example, establishes a variety of tax credit and rebate programs that allow consumers and businesses to increase their energy efficiency, expand clean energy and EV usage and apply to upgrade the resistance of housing units and transportation projects to natural disasters such as floods.

Through the IRA’s $52 million Home Electrification and Appliance Rebates Program, low- to moderate-income households can apply and receive tax rebates that cover 50%-100% of the cost of installing new electric appliances that ultimately increase energy efficiency, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the long run.

This is only a snapshot of the total number of climate actions that the IRA and other federal programs seek to implement.

According to a press release from the Biden administration, approximately $800 million in funds relating to climate public policy have been invested in Mississippi through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as of March 2023.

Enacted in November 2021, the BIL has invested $18 million into building EV charging stations around the state, $447.8 million into infrastructure resiliency against flooding and other natural disasters and $57.3 million into improving energy efficiency of residential homes and manufacturing facilities.

Among the law’s investments, the Vicksburg Warren School District has received grant money

to purchase 10 clean school buses — vehicles that run on electricity instead of diesel fuel — at a cost of $3.5 million, according to the Vicksburg Post.

Within Mississippi, nine school districts in total have seen this support from the federal government.

FUTURE ACTION IS UNCERTAIN

Over the past 20 years, despite the improvements and investment in energy efficiency, climate-resistant infrastructure and EV expansion in Mississippi, the state has yet to join with other states in aggressively pursuing climate public policy. The lack of support from the state makes it more challenging for municipalities and non-profit organizations in Mississippi to pursue projects to abate the impact of climate change.

Actions such as the MDEQ’s initiative to enroll in an EPA program that would establish the state’s first emission reduction goals does demonstrate progress. As the climate continues to change dramatically, however, it remains an open question as to whether Mississippi’s long-term policies will change as well.

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