Enviros flail over FOIAed Treasury documents

by Marlo Lewis on September 17, 2009

A headline in yesterday’s evening edition of Greenwire (subscription required) declares: ”Treasury; enviros go on offensive against media reports of cap-and-trade costs.” In fact, enviros went on defense.

As has been widely reported (e.g. here, here, here, and here), CEI, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), obtained two Treasury Department documents discussing the cost of a cap-and-trade program. The first of these documents, dated 11/6/08, states (p. 1) that the administration’s plan to auction all allowances under a cap-and-trade program “could generate federal receipts on the order to $100 to 200 billion annually.” It further states (p. 2) that, “Economic costs will likely be on the order of 1% of GDP, making them equal in scale to all existing environmental regulation.”

To put these numbers in perspective, CBS reporter Declan McCullagh said that a cap-and-trade program costing $200 billion annually would be ”equivalent to hiking personal income taxes by about 15%,” or an “extra $1,761 per household.” As you can imagine, cap-and-traders went ballistic.

Greenwire faults McCullagh for neglecting to “state that Obama publicly stepped back from a 100% auction of allowances as the House negotiated and passed a climate bill that gives away more than three-quarters of the allowances for free during the program’s first years. The House legislation auctions only 18% of the allowances until about 2020.”

Greenwire quotes Treasury official Alan Kreuger, Harvard economist Robert Stavins, Josh Dorner of Sierra Club, and Tony Kreindler of Environmental Defense Fund, all asserting that McCullagh’s analysis is incorrect, because both the Obama plan and the House bill would return billions of dollars to taxpayers from auction permit sales.

Three points are in order here. First, Obama has not abandoned 100% auctioning.  OMB’s Mid-Session Review of the federal budget (Table S-11) projects “climate revenues” from “emission allowance auctioning” of $626 billion during 2010-2019. That’s slightly lower than the $645.7 billion in climate revenues projected in the President’s Budget(Table S-2). But the difference results from a technical adjustment, not a change in policy to accommodate the Waxman-Markey bill. The Mid-Session Review is an official statement of administration policy; it assumes 100% auctioning of emission allowances.

Second, the whole issue of auctions vs. free allocations is largely a distraction. Whether emission allowances are auctioned or distributed free of charge, the emissions cap determines the total number of allowances, and the market (supply and demand) determines allowance prices. The 11/6/08 Treasury memo is quite clear on this point: “Emission allowances under a cap and trade system are valuable assets regardless of their allocation method (analogous to revenue under an equivalent tax policy).”

As the cap tightens, the supply of allowances declines, allowance prices increase, and energy prices increase. Consequently, consumer spending, GDP, job creation, and wages all decrease relative to what they would be in a non-carbon-constrained economy. 

These impacts are the intended effect of a cap-and-trade program, and they occur regardless of whether allowances are auctioned or given away. The Heritage Foundation’s analysis of the Waxman-Markey bill, for example, assumes the allowance allocation scheme outlined in Reps. Waxman and Markey’s May 14, 2009 Memorandum, “Proposed Allowance Allocation.” The allocation formula in the final legislation passed by the House in June differs only in the details. The Heritage analysis projects significant economic impacts by 2035:

  • Gasoline prices will rise 58% (or $1.38/gallon) above the baseline forecast, which already contains price increases;
  • Natural gas prices will rise 55%;
  • Heating oil prices will rise 56%;
  • Electricity prices will rise 90%;
  • A family of four can expect to pay $1,241 more for energy costs per year;
  • Including taxes, a family of four will pay$4,609 more per year;
  • A family of four will reduce its consumption of goods and services by up to $3,000 per year, as its income and savings fall;
  • Aggregate GDP losses will be $9.4 trillion;
  • Job losses will be nearly 2.5 million; and,
  • The national debt will rise an additional $12,803 per person.

Third, returning part of the revenues from auction sales to households via tax rebates does not ensure low economic impact. Payments for auctioned permits are not the only cost of Waxman-Markey. A bigger cost is the damage done to the economy via higher energy prices. Even with the distribution of allowance revenues to households and other interests, the Heritage Foundation finds Waxman-Markey’s damage to the economy exceeds $9 trillion in the first 24 years.

 A reductio ad absurdum may help clarify this. Imagine that we tax milk at $30,000/gallon and rebate the tax revenue directly to each citizen. Bill Gates buys one gallon per year and nobody else buys any. The tax is returned to the 300 million residents of the United States and each gets $0.0001.

Proponents thus conclude that there is no economic impact. They overlook a whole slew of devastating costs: Lost profits and jobs in the dairy sector, lost tax revenues from the dairy industry, higher unemployment benefit payments, poorer nutrition and health, etc.

Claims that Waxman-Markey is a bargain once you consider the taxpayer rebates are similarly bogus.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: