Obama’s EPA finds itself embroiled in a controversy that recalls the Bush Administration: trying to control what the agency’s employees can say about climate change. Today’s controversy is more limited, and more nuanced, than earlier ones. EPA is no longer asking its employees to deny that climate change exists. Instead, EPA has asked two of its attorneys to stop identifying themselves as EPA experts when they publicly criticize a cap-and-trade system for regulating greenhouse gases. Still, I wonder why EPA cares.
EPA previously allowed the attorneys to criticize cap-and-trade as private citizens. The two wrote letters and opinion pieces claiming cap-and-trade doesn’t work, primarily because companies can buy “offsets” that allow them to continue operations without reducing their emissions. They claim a carbon tax would work better than cap-and-trade.
Their writings have not had much effect on the debate in Congress and elsewhere. So the two recently switched from the written word to YouTube, posting a carefully produced video in which they more assertively cite their EPA credentials and experience to justify their critique of cap-and-trade. And as Grist recently noted, EPA took the bait.
EPA should stop worrying about the two attorneys. The two fail to recognize that cap-and-trade works fine when it’s done right. In fact, EPA itself runs one of the most successful cap-and-trade programs in the world. Several years ago, EPA needed to reduce smog in the eastern US. Instead of using typical command-and-control regulations, EPA created the NOx Budget Trading Program. Just last month, EPA released a report on the results achieved by that program. According to EPA, “summertime NOx emissions from power plants and large industrial sources were down by 62 percent compared to year 2000 levels and 75 percent lower than in 1990.”
And the emitters were able to achieve these reductions at a lower cost by trading with other emitters who had cheaper options for compliance. Smithsonian magazine reported a recent estimate that businesses paid only $3 billion to achieve emission reductions that would have cost them $25 billion under traditional command-and-control regulation.
The two attorneys don’t even need to worry about companies finding ways to avoid compliance with the system. Last year, only two emitters failed to comply out of 2,568, even then by only a modest amount. This is not a system full of loopholes.
Finally, the two attorneys ignore the fact that their own agency, under the Obama administration, will get to write the rules for how companies comply with a carbon cap-and-trade system. Both the Waxman-Markey and Boxer-Kerry bills require EPA to write rules regulating how companies can use “offsets” to comply with the system. Surely the agency can write rules that make this cap-and-trade system work as well as the NOx system the agency already runs.
And one more thing: As Grist reports, many experts think that the alternative — a carbon tax — may not achieve the emission reductions we need. We can only guess what carbon price might lead to the right amount of emission reductions. We’ll get the tax revenues we predict, but not necessarily the carbon reductions.
So the two attorneys should lighten up on their criticisms. But even if they don’t, EPA should stop worrying about them so much.