Last week's finding by the US Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse gas emissions "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations" should not have come as a surprise. It has been virtually inevitable since the Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA two years ago, and it was rendered imminent by the election last November of Barack Obama, who made responding to climate change a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Whatever you might believe about the risks of climate change, we no longer have a choice between addressing them or ignoring them. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Security and Global Warming, responded to the finding by saying, "It is now a choice between regulation and legislation." I don't think that's quite accurate, particularly since his own proposed climate legislation includes many strong regulatory features. Instead, I believe the choice lies between relying primarily on an explicit price for emissions to nudge consumers and businesses away from emissions-intensive activities, and employing a more prescriptive approach using mandates, "standards", and air pollution-style rules on smokestacks and tailpipes. Long-time readers won't need to infer my position on this matter from the way I've described that choice.
I've argued the case for cap & trade numerous times on this blog and in front of various audiences, corporate and public. I've also expressed my misgivings about the imposition of a strict cap & trade system in the middle of a recession, particularly if the government intends to use the revenues from cap & trade to fund a dog's breakfast of non-energy programs, rather than returning the bulk of it to taxpayers. I've even suggested that under some circumstances a simple carbon tax might be preferable to cap & trade, since both serve the purpose of establishing a price for emissions, to which our market economy must respond by shrinking emissions-intensive sectors and growing low-emissions ones, including the renewable energy sector with its vaunted "green jobs." I've spent less time, however, examining the regulatory approach, perhaps because I regarded it as self-evidently inferior, particularly if it looks more constraining than the version of cap & trade that might accompany it. It is abundantly clear that many others do not share that view.
The main appeal of the regulatory path is that it would build on long experience in managing other environmental impacts--including many from energy systems--under existing federal and state air and water quality regulations, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), and numerous state-level renewable electricity standards (RPSs) and other regulations. But these programs also illustrate some of the severest drawbacks of this approach, in the complexity and overlapping nature of these rules. Regulating emissions that are not incidental to, but rather a fundamental consequence of the use of our principal energy sources would add further layers of complexity without subtracting any, as cap & trade might eventually be expected to. We already have trading in Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) for state RPS compliance, Renewable Identification Numbers for compliance with the federal RFS, and sulfur and nitrogen credits for compliance with the Clean Air Act's rules for criteria pollutants. And because the GHG emissions from motor vehicles are determined largely by how much fuel they consume, efforts at regulating tailpipe emissions become de facto fuel economy regulations, in conflict with the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy regs. (This is the matter on which California eagerly awaits a waiver from the administration to pursue its legislated Low-Carbon Fuel Standard.) With all due respect to the dedicated professionals at the EPA, anyone contemplating leaving the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions to that agency should be required to pass a test demonstrating that they understand the EPA's notice implementing the RFS for 2009, which involves the comparatively much simpler task of setting the required ethanol percentage in gasoline for the year.
We are now at the point that I have long feared we would be, if we mislabeled carbon dioxide as a pollutant. While the consequences of excess CO2 and other naturally-occurring greenhouse gases certainly live up to the terms the EPA has applied in its finding, unleashing a pollution mentality to solve climate change will be counter-productive and unnecessarily expensive, when dealing with a phenomenon for which a ton of CO2 emitted, captured or avoided in Boston is exactly equivalent in its climate impact to a ton emitted, captured or avoided in Beijing. We would have been much better served if the Supreme Court had paraphrased the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and found that CO2 was "almost, but not quite, entirely unlike" pollution, yet here we are.
By next year's Earth Day, the 40th anniversary of the first one, I expect that we will have made our choice between these competing approaches. We see signs of this in the apparent determination of the administration to arrive at the Copenhagen climate conference this December having taken concrete steps here, and in the competing cap & trade bills making their way through the Congress. I can understand that opponents of strict legislation on climate change might regard the EPA's endangerment finding as a high-stakes game of chicken. But whether it serves as an implicit threat or merely an insurance policy against protracted legislative delay, it--rather than inaction--represents the new baseline. Anyone who has been sitting on the fence must now decide which approach is likely to be more effective in dealing with the US contribution to global warming, while simultaneously doing less harm to our economy. After long and careful scrutiny of the options, and after spending a career in an industry that has already been regulated to the gills, I find pricing emissions by far the most attractive solution. This is anything but a trivial decision, though it is one that must be made, and soon, before the default option becomes as inevitable as the endangerment finding was.