Monday, October 19, 2009

"Feeding Frenzy"

An article in today's New York Times offers more detail on the manner in which Congressional climate legislation has fractured the energy industry into competing groups of haves and have-nots, based on how companies and sectors were treated under the Waxman-Markey bill and their hopes for receiving a better deal in the pending Kerry-Boxer bill in the Senate. Not only has it fragmented utilities along the axis of their emissions intensity, but it has also opened gaps within the oil & gas industry between companies that produce primarily natural gas and those that produce or process mainly oil. I don't know whether the authors of Waxman-Markey saw this potential in their design for allocating emission allowances, though some supporters are bound to see it as a beneficial feature. I regard it as a worrying symptom of the distortions inflicted on the basic concept of cap & trade, which remains the best option for guiding the economy toward a lower-emission future, but now seems likely to underperform its potential in a very costly way, as a result of these flaws.

As recently as a couple of years ago, few energy companies were enthusiastic about the prospect of cap & trade, because it was bound to raise their costs and reduce demand for their output, at least from energy sources with substantial emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. If the bill passed by the House had treated all emissions from all sectors equally--a level playing field--we'd still see visionary companies diverging from the industry's stance, but their numbers would probably be a lot fewer for the simple reason that there wouldn't be nearly as much financial gain in it for them. When no-nonsense companies like Exelon and several of its utility peers break ranks with the US Chamber of Commerce on this issue, it's a good bet that they see a direct strategic advantage that will put money in their shareholders' pockets. Simply put, this is as good a deal as they're going to get. But while I find their support of cap and trade perfectly rational and even laudable, it should by no means be read as a sign that the Waxman-Markey approach is the best means of addressing climate change.

As I've noted in previous postings, Waxman-Markey was excessively generous in handing out emission allowances to the electricity sector, at the expense of the transportation sector. It also lavished allowances on non-emitting sectors and favored causes and groups in lieu of cash--a form of largess that fundamentally undermines the accountability of these benefits, because no one knows or can know what they will be worth when they are eventually received. Yet although this is bad policy on many levels, I see many people holding their noses and supporting the W-M approach, because they conclude that once the free allocations have phased out in 2030, we'll be left with a more or less pure cap & trade system enforcing a steadily tightening cap on emissions. The problems with this thinking lie in the enormous distortions and unnecessary economic hardship those uneven allocations will create over the next 20-plus years and the opportunity cost of the emissions reductions that could have been achieved more quickly and cheaply.

My strong preference has been for an even-handed cap & trade system that would include the broadest possible collection of emissions sources, providing great diversity of abatement costs and thus great scope for emissions trading to minimize the cost of achieving our emission reduction goals, and with most of the proceeds rebated directly from the government to taxpayers. Unfortunately, the ship has sailed on that approach--at least for now--and anyone supporting cap & trade for the elegant simplicity of its mechanism for squeezing out emissions is left hoping that the legislative excesses of one chamber of Congress will cancel out those of the other, and that somehow two bad bills will beget a good one.

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