Monday, July 12, 2010

Whither Cap & Trade?

Just a year ago it seemed a near-certainty that the US would eventually adopt some form of cap & trade mechanism for greenhouse gases (GHGs). After repeated failed attempts to pass cap & trade legislation in the Senate, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey bill, HR-2454, and the Senate was expected to follow, bolstered by a filibuster-proof Democratic majority and urged on by a popular new President. Then came the divisive debate over healthcare legislation, the off-year election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, Climategate, and an oil spill that among other things derailed the latest bi-partisan (tri-partisan?) Senate climate bill. Today, the prospects for climate legislation remain highly uncertain, while the clock runs out on the current Congressional session. And if all that weren't enough, the EPA has just issued new regulations covering interstate emissions of conventional air pollutants that could effectively terminate the highly-successful sulfur-dioxide market upon which cap & trade for GHGs was based. Can cap & trade survive these travails, and should it?

Time will tell whether Waxman-Markey represented the high-water mark of cap & trade in the US, or if the hiatus since then has merely been a pause in a long process of refining and ultimately adopting this approach. Heaven knows W-M was a highly-imperfect vehicle for cap & trade, with its allocation of emissions allowances skewed to the highest-emitting sector and with hundreds of pages of extraneous provisions that could set up all sorts of unintended or undesirable consequences. The last year has also seen a proliferation of variations on cap & trade that call into question the original formulation of an economy-wide cap on emissions implemented by means of requiring emitters to purchase allowances from a gradually-shrinking national pool of emissions credits, with the proceeds doled out by Congress for purposes including clean energy R&D and deployment, deficit reduction, and mitigation of the impact on consumers and selected businesses. The Cantwell-Collins bill, for example, proposes returning most of the allowance revenue directly to consumers, while the Kerry-Lieberman bill would exclude the transportation fuels sector from cap & trade, but impose on it a sort of carbon tax based on the price of traded allowances. Both of these approaches have complex pros and cons, and as with original cap & trade their effectiveness at reducing emissions without imposing crippling costs on the overall economy depends critically on their detailed provisions, negotiated exceptions, and how they would actually be implemented.

Cap & trade has also come under fire on more fundamental grounds. Some critics have questioned the desirability of creating a vast new financial market for emissions when the shortcomings of other financial markets have caused so much harm, while others have suggested that investing in innovation to make low-carbon energy and efficiency much more cost-effective has greater potential to reduce emissions in a world in which developed-country emissions are being eclipsed by those in developing Asia.

Against this backdrop EPA Administrator Jackson's repeated assurances that she prefers legislated cap & trade to enforcement under the Clean Air Act have become increasingly divorced from reality. Her agency's determination to proceed with enforcement next year if no bill is passed, coupled with its newly-issued rules for power-plant pollution, serve mainly to remind the market that emissions allowances are not a new form of fiat currency, with intrinsic value backed by fractional reserves and the full faith and credit of the US government, but a fragile construct, the value of which can be eroded or erased at the whim of this and other regulators or the courts. Today's Wall St. Journal describes the impact of the new air pollution rules on the SOx market. Any potential participant who imagines that something similar couldn't happen to a future greenhouse gas allowance market is not paying attention.

So despite the apparent enthusiasm of the majority party's Senate caucus for enacting some kind of comprehensive climate and energy bill this year, presumably including elements of cap & trade, we're left with serious questions about whether this is an idea whose time has come and gone. From my perspective, putting a price on GHG emissions is still an essential step if we're serious about reducing them by more than the amounts that have resulted from the inadvertent combination of the recession, cheap natural gas, and existing incentives for renewable energy and efficiency. Cap & trade still has significant theoretical advantages over an arbitrary carbon tax as a means of imposing such a price, but as we've seen the likelihood of cap & trade being enacted in such a pure form seems low in the messy world of US politics--perhaps as low as the chances of a pure and simple carbon tax.

The odds against cap & trade look long at this point. Realistically, the time left for bringing a full-blown climate bill to a vote in the Senate is measured in weeks, rather than months, before the dynamics of the mid-term election campaign take over. Notions of passing an energy-only bill and then grafting on Waxman-Markey's climate provisions via a House-Senate conference committee seem even less likely to produce a mechanism that could survive the political upheaval that the mid-terms appear likely to produce. Nor should anyone be considering the last-gasp option of trying to pass climate legislation in a lame-duck session after the November election. As the Congressional Budget Office recently determined, any sort of controls on emissions are likely to reduce overall US employment--"green jobs" notwithstanding--so getting this right must be treated as more important than just getting something through before the current window closes. I will be watching developments in the weeks ahead with great interest.

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