Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What Now for Cap & Trade?

In the course of a single month, from the conclusion of the Copenhagen climate conference to yesterday's special election in Massachusetts, the anticipated global response to climate change has shifted dramatically. What had once seemed a likely scenario of coordinated, mandatory cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions suddenly looks unattainable, at least any time soon, and the whole approach to addressing climate change is in urgent need of a rethink. While much of the attention in last night's election was focused on the prospect of a 41st Senate vote to block pending health care legislation, the same dynamic almost certainly applies to cap & trade, at least along the lines of the Waxman-Markey bill passed last June by the House of Representatives.

I'll leave it to others to comment on the extent of the political upheaval that the voters of Massachusetts have created by sending a Republican to fill the US Senate seat held for decades by the late Senator Kennedy, and by his brother before him. Whatever this means for the administration's health care agenda, you only need to view a short video clip from Senator-elect Brown's campaign to realize that President Obama's plans for cap & trade, on which only one chamber had acted while the Democrats held a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate, look like further collateral damage from last night's result. While supporting more energy from renewables and nuclear power, Mr. Brown opposes cap & trade, or at least the version now on the table.

I'm probably in a minority of those concerned about climate change who welcome the demise of the Waxman-Markey approach. As I've noted before, it made little sense to adopt a methodology designed to create a level playing field for energy technologies based on their emissions, if it was established on such an intentionally-uneven foundation of excessive free allowances handed out to favored sectors and constituencies. And on top of its basic flaws, Waxman-Markey exemplified the recent Congressional tendency to load up any big bill with mountains of pork and reams of tangential provisions.

Does this mean cap & trade itself is now dead? I hope not, because I believe its underlying concept remains the most efficient way to recognize the cost of the environmental externalities associated with our use of fossil fuels--which cannot be replaced overnight--and to shift our energy habits toward greater efficiency and a growing reliance on more sustainable energy sources. But the politics of that now look challenging, particularly in an election year that is shaping up so unpredictably. Democrats still hold commanding majorities in the Senate and House, but no bill without bi-partisan support could get past a cloture vote in the Senate. That gives greater leverage to the negotiations of Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Kerry (D-MA) for a bi-partisan climate bill incorporating much broader support for domestic energy production--something that might be marketed as a genuine jobs bill without the cynicism of "green jobs" hype.

It also shifts attention to the EPA's Endangerment Finding on CO2 and that agency's proposals for regulating CO2 emissions. Last week the Washington Post was shocked by the apparent involvement of lobbyists in drafting proposed legislation to block any action by the EPA. Did their editors ever bother to scrutinize Waxman-Markey, which read like a lobbyist bonanza? Either way, extending the regulations of the Clean Air Act to CO2 would be a very expensive bad idea. CO2 is only a pollutant in the traditional sense by legal courtesy, and regulating the primary result of all carbon combustion in the same way we regulate much more easily managed fuel impurities and combustion byproducts like SOx and NOx--for which the term "Best Available Control Technology" actually has some meaning--looks orders of magnitude more expensive than a system that channels emissions reductions to the lowest-cost sources.

With a 52-47 election victory for Scott Brown, voters in Massachusetts have completed the work begun in Copenhagen of upending the best-laid plans for dealing with climate change. Instead of a binding global treaty to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol, we have the voluntary goal-tallying of the Copenhagen Climate Accord, and instead of legislative momentum towards mandatory cap & trade in the US, we have renewed uncertainty and the necessity of a scaled-back bi-partisan approach--if any at all this year--that must focus more on what we should add than on what should be taken away--with the threat of EPA regulations and endless legal wrangling over them lurking in the background. I'll be very interested to see what emerges from this.

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