Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chicago's Climate Exchange Shuts Down

I see that the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) will be winding down its CO2 trading operations by the end of the year and laying off staff. This is only surprising considering that the parent company of the CCX was acquired just this summer by the Intercontinental Exchange, though mainly for its successful European emissions trading market. In case you were wondering how long the odds against enacting cap & trade legislation in the US have become, the demise of the CCX is a signpost you can't ignore. If the symbolism of a popular Democratic governor using the Waxman-Markey climate bill for target practice during his recent successful bid for the US Senate wasn't clear enough, it looks like his bullet may have also hit the CCX.

I recall a meeting with one of the founders of CCX at Texaco's corporate headquarters in New York prior to my leaving the company at the end of 2001. At that time, Texaco's management was coming around to the idea that sooner or later emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases would carry a price, for the first time in human history. Cap & trade offered a proven way to discover that price, based on the pioneering experience of US markets for sulfur dioxide, a cause of acid rain, and nitrogen oxides. The principles of emissions trading had been embedded in the Kyoto Protocol, largely thanks to the efforts of the US delegation, and European countries were setting up the precursors of the EU Emissions Trading System to manage mandatory carbon reductions. Such developments still appeared to be somewhere over the horizon in the US, which never ratified Kyoto, but they seemed likely to find their way here, eventually. One of the main selling points of the CCX, which was based on voluntary emission reduction commitments by member companies, was that it would provide valuable early experience in a formal market for emissions reductions, giving participants a leg up when such trading was required by law. This argument didn't persuade my former employer, but a number of other companies signed up.

If this scenario now seems like a quaint strand of alternate history--a "what if?" that never materialized--that perspective is quite recent. The prospects for CCX and wider emissions trading looked reasonable for a long time. The value of the CCX contract peaked in mid-2008, when it had become apparent that the ultimate presidential nominees of both major US political parties would be candidates who supported cap & trade, with the Republican even having previously co-authored Senate legislation on the subject. After a severe dip during the worst of the financial crisis, the contract recovered to around $2/ton after the new administration took office, but then swooned again as the Waxman-Markey bill, with its heavily skewed version of cap & trade, neared passage. As the likelihood of parallel Senate action on climate legislation receded, it never really recovered.

In its editorial on the termination of the Chicago Climate Exchange, the Wall Street Journal suggested that the market has delivered its verdict and the idea of national-level cap & trade is now dead in the US. Perhaps, but it certainly doesn't signal an end to all CO2 trading here. Aside from the state and regional programs to which the Journal alluded, companies with global operations subject to emissions caps in other countries will still be active participants in non-US emissions markets, and firms that remain committed to voluntary reductions in the US may continue to trade with each other, via brokers, or with over-the-counter market makers.

For that matter, I can't help wondering whether cap & trade is truly as dead as a Monty Python parrot or just resting. I'm reluctant to let go of an idea I've supported for a long time, but I also still see significant advantages for cap & trade over other means of putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Although the idea of carbon pricing may have gone out of fashion in the US, major tax reform for the purpose of deficit reduction could make it much more difficult to provide the monetary incentives for renewable energy technologies that we do today. Without those subsidies or a price on CO2, renewables will have a hard time competing with fossil fuels. And if our only other choices for emissions reduction were mandates or the command-and-control approach for which the EPA is now gearing up, then cap & trade and the emissions trading that makes it work might no longer look quite so appalling to their critics. In that case, the companies that participated in the CCX during the last seven years might not have wasted their time, after all.

FYI, I'll be participating in a webinar on the sustainability aspects of natural gas next Monday at The Energy Collective . To sign up follow this link. In the meantime, I wish my US readers a very enjoyable Thanksgiving. New postings will resume next week.

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