Some Labor Principles for Climate Change Legislation

Posted on May 20, 2019 by Eugene Trisko

The Democratic takeover of the House has rekindled hopes for climate change legislation, notwithstanding major hurdles in the Senate and the White House. While little but incremental progress is likely over the foreseeable future, the legislative concepts now being developed may gain greater traction after the 2020 general election.

Labor unions have participated in all major climate legislative developments since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and were involved in the drafting of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology and other provisions of the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate bill. Labor has consistently advocated for a comprehensive, economy-wide legislative solution to climate change. However, it is essential that any such legislation also be crafted to provide for worker adjustment assistance programs to address job displacement impacting families and communities.

Unions in the energy space are concerned about the adverse job implications of potential carbon tax legislation. Carbon taxes create uncertainties about market responses and lack assurance that advanced emission mitigation technologies such as CCS could be deployed in time to avert massive dislocation of workers in the petroleum, coal, rail, and mining sectors.

Any carbon tax legislation necessarily must include significant revenue set-asides for worker adjustment and community redevelopment assistance. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that more than two million workers are directly employed in 14 vulnerable fossil fuel-related industries, with annual wages and benefits of some $180 billion. An additional seven million indirect jobs are in support industries and communities.

Major energy unions also are concerned about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the “Green New Deal” and by proponents of “Keep It in the Ground.” Legislation addressing the complex issues of carbon emission reduction must address: a) the tremendous impact such legislation will have on millions of fossil fuel-reliant jobs across America; and b) the costs and full recompense required to mitigate the effects of the loss of those jobs on workers, families and communities.

Speaker Pelosi has indicated that an emission allowance trading program such as that developed in the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill is a good starting point for discussions about future climate legislation. Updating and improving that bill could offer strong technology incentives while delivering significant longer-term emission reductions. A revamped allowance-based program could reflect the following principles:

1) All major emitting sectors (utilities, industrial, transportation) should be covered by a national trading program based on an upstream allocation of allowances  - i.e., to utility generating units, gas pipelines, oil refineries, etc.;

2) The rate of decline for any cap (sectoral or national) should to be assessed in light of the cost and availability of technologies for reducing CO2. In the case of electric utilities, a longer time frame for reductions can be justified based on lengthy engineering and construction lead-times - the transportation sector similarly requires long lead-times due to the gradual rollover of vehicle fleets;

3) A bonus allowance program for technology retrofits at utility and industrial units, similar to that employed in Waxman-Markey and the 1990 acid rain program, would complement the CCS incentives that Congress recently enacted in 45Q tax credit legislation;

4) Allowance auctions should be avoided as they constitute a form of double taxation on emitting sectors: first, compliance must be achieved through investments in control measures, and second, allowances must be purchased through an auction system;

5) Any economy-wide legislation should seek to maintain fuel diversity among "clean" fossil, nuclear, and renewable resources, with adequate 24/7 baseload generating capabilities. Reliance on large-scale battery storage to back up renewable power sources cannot provide assurance of grid stability over prolonged episodes of severe weather; and

6) Minimal limitations should be placed on emission allowance banking and borrowing to reduce overall compliance costs. Similarly, a broad variety of domestic and international offsets should be available, including initiatives to help reduce deforestation.

Legislation reflecting these principles may face fewer political hurdles than some of the more extreme proposals being advocated today. While current science informs a commitment to large-scale global reductions to meet aggressive climate targets, the U.S. should act in a manner consistent with the preservation and expansion of highly-paid skilled jobs in the energy and transport sectors. A technology-oriented path for achieving significant long-term reductions appears more politically and economically feasible than calls to eliminate all fossil fuel use within the next decade or two.

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NOTE: The writer is an adviser to several energy-related labor unions concerned about climate change legislation and regulation.