Spinning the Defeat of Cap-and-Trade

by Marlo Lewis on August 11, 2010

in Blog

Barring the trickery of a lame duck conference committee, cap-and-trade is dead in the 111th Congress. Some blame Obama for not taking a more hands-on role. Others blame environmental groups for waging a $100 million lobbying campaign without winning a single GOP convert to the Kerry-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill. Others blame the allegedly “well-funded denial machine,” even though proponents, who include major corporations like British Petroleum, must have outspent CEI and its free-market brethren by more than 100 to 1.

Today’s Climatewire (subscription required) features interviews with Exelon Corp. VP Betsy Moler and Phil Sharp, President of Resources for the Future, who lament that Republican lawmakers, the “inventors” of “market-based” environmental policy, have turned against their own “invention.” If I catch their drift, Moler and Sharp are trying to spin GOP opposition to cap-and-trade as self-contradictory, hence as unstable, hence as reversible. As Climatewire reports, Moler is not ready to “throw in the towel” and Sharp entertains the hope that a “new kind of coalition” will emerge in the next Congress.

Now, let’s look at this notion, peddled by Moler and Sharp, that Republicans betrayed themselves and besmirched their own legacy by blocking cap-and-trade. Here’s how it’s discussed in Climatewire:

In an interview, Moler said that her deep disappointment was the rejection by Republican leaders in Congress of a market-based strategy for raising the price of carbon emissions, to speed transitions by power plants, industry and consumers to cleaner energy.

The Democrats called it “cap and trade.” Republicans labeled it “cap and tax,” and the change in one word proved lethal.

“The thing that just amazes me, confounds me, surprises me is how successfully the Republican leadership and a lot of the people who would be potentially negatively impacted have been in vilifying what have historically been market-based solutions,” Moler said.

Inventors Turn on Invention

“Cap and trade is really a Republican instrument that grew out of a lot of the Republican thought leaders as a market-sensitive, market-friendly, anti-command-and-control mechanism” to reduce sulfur- and nitrogen-based air pollution in the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. “Now, some of the same people who invented it have turned on it as an energy tax,” she said. “It’s a huge missed opportunity. I don’t know where you go next.”

Moler’sregret is seconded by Philip Sharp, president of Resources for the Future, who, as a Democratic House member from Indiana, stood with Moler in the 1990s in the energy deregulation campaign. Sharp was a pivotal factor in Congress’ adoption of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments and the 1992 Energy Policy Act, which opened the way for FERC’s electricity market orders four years later.

“I’m not here to say cap and trade is the only way to do this,” Sharp said in an interview. “It worked magnificently with SO2 and a couple of other instances.” Scaling it up massively to deal with economywide carbon emissions is another question. “We don’t know we can manage it as effectively,” he said.

“But what is really unfortunate in the public debate is that the current Republican leadership has overthrown one of the great Republican successes in this country [under President George H.W. Bush], to capitalize on the flexibility of the marketplace” in achieving regulatory change, Sharp said.

“I don’t think people appreciate the extraordinary challenge that represented and the difficulty of getting it done” in the 1990s, he said. Now, with the demise of that approach, Congress has invited U.S. EPA to step in on the climate front “and regulate the living [daylights] out of everything and see how well a modern economy works doing that.”

Moler and Sharp miss several key points.

First, the Title IV acid rain cap-and-trade program enacted under President George H.W. Bush is not the “magnificent” success they suppose it is. As Kenneth Green, Steven Hayward, and Kevin Hasset of the American Enterprise Institute note, prices of tradable sulfur dioxide (SO2) emission permits have been highly volatile: “SO2 trading prices have varied from a low of $70 per ton in 1996 to $1500 per ton in late 2005. SO2 allowances have a monthly volatility of 10 percent and an annual volatility of 43 percent over the last decade.”

Second, utilities participating in the SO2 emissions trading program could meet all or part of their obligations by purchasing low-sulfur coal and/or installing scrubbers, a commercially-proven emission control technology. In contrast, there is no low-carbon coal, and no commercially-proven technology to “scrub” carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions out of power plant exhaust streams.

Third, unlike sulfur, which is an impurity or contaminant in coal and oil, carbon is intrinsic to the chemistry of fossil fuels. Consequently, whereas emission control requirements for SO2 do not logically entail an unlimited agenda aiming at total abolition of the fuel, emission control requirements for CO2 do imply abolition as the ultimate objective. Such extremism is reflected in the apocalyptic rhetoric of the global warming movement, in petitions demanding that EPA establish national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS) for CO2 at 350 parts per million and for other greenhouse gases at pre-industrial levels (not even a global depression lasting several decades would be sufficient to lower CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm), and in Al Gore’s campaign to “repower America“ with “zero-carbon energy” within “ten years.” More pertinently, pull-out-the-stops, sky-is-the-limit regulation lurks in the Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Lieberman bills’ escalator clauses, which all but ensure that the explicit emission reduction target (83% below 2005 levels by 2050) would be superseded by more aggressive requirements.

Fourth, just because a “market-based” approach is more efficient, in principle, than command-and-control regulation does not in any way obligate Republicans to support Waxman-Markey or Kerry-Lieberman if those same Republicans oppose all regulatory climate policies.

Fifth, every Republican in the Senate voted for the Murkowski resolution to block EPA regulation of greenhouse gases via the Clean Air Act. So it’s silly to say that Republicans “invited U.S. EPA to step in on the climate front ‘and regulate the living [daylights] out of everything. . .’” President Obama threatened to veto both the Murkowski resolution and the much weaker Rockefeller bill, which would merely postpone EPA regulation of stationary sources of greenhouse gases for two years. It’s the Democratic leadership, not the GOP, that has “invited” EPA to make climate policy through the regulatory back door.

Finally, Republicans betray themselves (ask President George “Read My Lips; No New Taxes” Bush) when they vote for rather than against higher taxes. Because carbon is intrinsic to the chemistry of fossil fuels, a carbon cap-and-trade scheme is a virtual broad-based energy tax. The same cannot be said of the SO2 program, which was merely a virtual pollution tax. Moler and Sharp would like GOP lawmakers to believe they can win elections by becoming the Party of Energy Taxes. Fortunately, most Republicans don’t need much coaching to realize that is complete bunk.

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