Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Non-Tax Tax

When President Obama campaigned in 2007 and 2008, cap & trade was the centerpiece of his strategy on climate change. The latest iteration of cap & trade legislation is being developed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, within the broader Waxman-Markey Bill. After numerous hearings and comments, the revised bill is expected to be released later this week and put to a committee vote by Memorial Day. In the process, its approach to cap & trade has apparently evolved from an assumption that 100% of the emissions permits would be auctioned, to the current expectation that a large fraction of them would be allocated for some period at no cost to current emitters, particularly in the electric power sector. In some quarters, the potential impact of this change on the federal deficit is being viewed with alarm and treated as tantamount to a tax cut--never mind that the tax being reduced does not yet exist. For that matter, many politicians can't even agree on whether cap & trade constitutes a tax. I'm sympathetic, because while it has many of the same effects and features of a tax, it differs in at least one important respect: the revenue it raises is incidental to achieving its primary purpose.

One key feature of taxation shared by cap & trade is its potential to transfer large sums of money from taxpayers to the government. In that respect, cap & trade fits many people's definition of a tax. Since it would fall heaviest on consumers and productive industries, both of which are reeling from the effects of the current recession, I've argued for deferring its collection until economic growth has resumed. Even then, the more of its proceeds are recycled back to taxpayers in the form of relief on other taxes or simple rebates, the better the chances that it would not undermine a fragile recovery. Granting free allowances to current emitters--a form of temporary grandfathering--merely reduces the amount that would need to be recycled, as well as the risk that large portions would be diverted to other purposes. Although conventional wisdom has it that a similar allocation to the power sector and other industries in the first phase of the European Emissions Trading Scheme resulted in a windfall for utilities, the same result is far from certain here, because the structure of our power sector is different. But whether the value of these permits is captured by industry, government, or no one at all is ultimately immaterial to the real purpose of cap & trade, which is to put a tangible price on the marginal unit of carbon emitted. That's what will alter investment decisions and consumer behavior.

This is where cap & trade differs most from its first cousin, the simple carbon tax. A carbon tax would apply the same price--set by the government--to every ton of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG). Since the US emitted 7.2 billion tons of GHG in 2007, the most recent year for which we have data, a carbon tax wouldn't have to be very high to raise a lot of money--but it also couldn't be so low that it didn't influence behavior. A tax of $20/metric ton of CO2-equivalent would add on average about $0.22 per gallon of gasoline and $0.012/kWh of electricity, while raising nearly $150 billion per year. If it took $100/ton to achieve the desired emissions reductions, that revenue could swell to over $700 billion per year--almost enough to close the budget gap, but also enough to be a serious drag on the economy. Cap & trade could deliver the same marginal cost of carbon, but with a significantly smaller net burden on the economy, by allocating a portion of the allowances at no cost.

The key to making that work would be to ensure that the total number of allowances auctioned and allocated each year created a shortage in the market; that's why you do this, anyway, as a means of shrinking emissions year after year. That shortage is what gives the allowances their value. If you issued exactly as many allowances as the tons of GHG we expected to emit next year, their value would be zero. But you also need to make sure that you don't grandfather so many emissions that no one needs to buy or sell allowances. If everyone can meet the target themselves, allowances would become worthless. So the trick is to give out just enough free allowances--reducing this allocation annually--to avoid creating a shock analogous to an oil price spike, but not so many to any participant or sector that they can opt out of trading and deprive the aftermarket of the liquidity it needs to function properly.

The problem today is that we already have a federal budget built upon the assumption of a certain level of revenue ($646 billion over the next 10 years) from the auctioning of emissions permits from a new system, the enactment of which remains uncertain. Once that revenue is in the budget, even if it has never been collected before, anything that reduces it risks throwing the whole edifice into disarray. This bit of aggressive planning has empowered two powerful constituencies: those who see cap & trade as a massive, and thus undesirable new tax, and those who see any weakening of it as a threat to fiscal stability. I will be watching with great interest as these groups grapple with cap & trade in the weeks ahead.

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