Not Dead Yet: More Options for Cap and Trade

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: National Parks Service / Wikimedia Commons

Previously on “Climate Change”: When Democrats said they might try legislating to restrict greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate to change in a not-good way, Senate Republicans threatened to haul off and give them a dirty look.

Afraid of being embarrassed by showing how the Republicans care more about their corporate sponsors than the well being of their constituents, not to mention the future of the planet, the Democratic leadership retreated on climate change legislation (listen to the press conference). Instead, they said they’ll introduce a more modest bill that maybe they can get a Republican to vote for (read the Democrats’ pitch for the bill, and the draft bill itself.)

In this episode, we fight against despair by looking into what others can do while the Senate fiddles and the planet burns.

We open with a view of the World Resources Institute, which describes itself as “an environmental think tank that goes beyond research to create practical ways to protect the earth and improve people’s lives.” If practicality includes planning for what to do if what you want to happen doesn’t, then WRI’s self-description is particularly apt.

Six months before the Democrats bailed on climate change legislation, WRI was starting to figure out how much could be accomplished at the federal level under existing laws and regulations, and what states that have already announced emissions-regulating actions could add.

The result, released in July, is a 60-page report entitled “Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions in the United States Using Existing Federal Authorities and State Action.” Accompanying documents, all available at no charge, are a 24-page summary, a PowerPoint presentation, and a Q&A for those who want just the key findings.

The Institute makes no pretense at discounting the importance of legislative action. But the report notes that the key federal agencies that have a say in polluting emissions – the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, and the Federal Aviation Administration – together could enact regulations reducing greenhouse gas emissions by about 12% from 2005 levels. If the states that have already acted follow through, they’ll get us to a 14% reduction – 3% less than President Obama committed to in Copenhagen by 2020.

But WRI adds, the world needs a 75% to 90% reduction by 2050. The WRI report is encouraging, but only in the short term.

On the regulatory front the EPA, having survived threats of of mayhem and disembowelment by Senate action, is beginning to flex its muscles. Things looked hopeful back in April 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that EPA had both the authority and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. EPA had said the Clean Air Act didn’t give it the authority and, besides, it  needed more scientific evidence. (Note the year of the decision. EPA refusal to act came in the Bushtime.)

It took a while – and a new EPA administrator – but in December 2009 the agency issued a finding that such emissions endanger the public health and safety and that the exhausts from new cars and trucks contribute to those emissions. This was the shot across the bow of climate change deniers. It gave EPA the right to regulate such emissions.

The deniers wasted little time before trying to reverse EPA’s finding. But in June 2010, the senate rejected a resolution by Lisa Murkowski designed to gut the Clean Air Act and strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to enforce it.

And, on July 29, EPA rejected 10 petitions asking it to reconsider its finding of endangerment and cause. It’s hard to imagine where those who won’t take No for an answer will turn next. The Supremes have already spoken, and don’t have to deal with the matter any more.

Sources say that EPA is now weighing its regulatory options, figuring out how to deal with the biggest industrial polluters – oil refineries and power plants, mainly.

Living on Earth” reports

…A new permitting process is starting January, which will ensure that new facilities are as low-carbon as possible. But the step is even trickier – it has to figure out how to deal with existing emitters. One idea is to cap emissions industry by industry and allow companies within a specific industry to trade pollution permits amongst themselves.

It is cap-and-trade, but a little more limited. You could sell your allowances or you could hold on to them for later when you actually need them as the cap gets lower and lower. The idea is to make cutting carbon as cheap and flexible as possible. But if you are a cement plant then you wouldn’t be able to trade allowances with say a coal-fired power plant or a car factory. So the EPA wouldn’t be regulating into existence a huge single carbon market—that is really controversial.

A third approach to cap-and-trade is spreading through the Western U.S. and Canada, thanks to the Western Climate Initiative. This group of seven U.S. states and four Canadian provinces has been working for two years toward the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% from 2005 levels by 2020. They plan to accomplish this by

  • Creating a market-based system that caps GHG emissions and uses tradable permits to incent development of renewable and lower-polluting energy sources
  • Encouraging GHG emissions reductions in industries not covered by the emissions cap, thus reducing energy costs region wide, and
  • Advancing policies that expand energy efficiency programs, reduce vehicle emissions, encourage energy innovation in high-emitting industries, and help individuals transition to new jobs in the clean-energy economy.

Start date for the planned program is January 2012. You can see a map of partners – states and provinces – and other states and provinces who are observing (presumably thinking of joining) here. Some 25 other U.S. states have emission regulations in effect; a linkup is not beyond possibility.

As encouraging as it is to see so much activity, it’s not enough without Congressional action. While Congress is on vacation, it’s a good time to call your Senators’ offices and tell them how much you’ve enjoyed the weather this summer, and how much you’re looking forward to winter. And next summer. And so forth.

We have no previews of the next episode. Will the White House support EPA’s efforts at a scaled-back cap-and-trade model? Will EPA walk it back? Will enough American voters demand that Congress act on their behalf? You’ll jut have to tune in again and again, and again, to find out.

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One Response to “Not Dead Yet: More Options for Cap and Trade”

  1. Great blog – awesome post

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