April 14, 2009

Cap and Trade, CO2, and the Economy

Posted on April 14, 2009 by David Tripp

Cap and Trade for air pollution emissions reductions has a proven track record as an effective tool in reducing pollution – but can it work on CO2? Sulfur dioxide (SO2), perceived in the 1980s as the major air pollution threat, was reduced by 10 million tons over a 10-year period starting in 1990, according to EPA, without extensive delays and litigation associated with other environmental campaigns. How did it work so well? The marketplace, backed by the Clean Air Act, was used to create incentives for companies to reduce their SO2 emissions and earn “credits” for each ton of SOeliminated. Those credits could then be sold to other companies which needed more time to meet SOClean Air standards.

How did the overall reductions occur? Using the implementing authority of Title IV of the Clean Air Act, 42 U.S.C. § 7651, successive “Phase-down” reductions of SO2 emissions were required. Under Phase I, (1995) certain large emitters of SOwere to reduce the concentration of SO2 in their emissions to 2.5 lbs/mm Btu, or less. Later, in Phase II, (2000), all emitters above 75MW capacity were to reduce SO2 emissions to 1.2 lbs/mmBtu, or less. To help incentivize early compliance, and reduce the economic impact on individual companies, the companies making reductions were issued a credit for each ton of emissions reduction, and could apply the credit to use at another unit owned by the company, keep the credit for future use, or sell the credit through a market established by the Chicago Board of Trade. EPA reports that with these incentives, the national total of SO2 air emissions has been reduced by 50% since 1990.

            Does President Obama want to reduce CO2? You betcha! In August, 2002, then-Senator Obama proposed a reduction of CO2 from 1990 levels by eighty percent, to occur by 2050. The same goals appeared during the Presidential campaign. This is a very ambitious and potentially costly goal. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated a cost of $15 billion to the national economy over 10 years to meet this ambitious goal, but if certain economic safeguards are used, a deficit reduction savings of $80 billion could occur.

            A big change has occurred since then – Obama, as President, has stated Goal Number 1 is to restart the economy. This is a goal shared by nearly all. Congress and the President have begun implementing a stimulus package which would put nearly a trillion dollars into the economy, facing criticism that the debt burden this will place on future investors and generations will frustrate economic recovery. At the same time, Congress and EPA are intent on legislative or administrative action to reduce CO2.

            Can Cap and Trade work to reduce CO2 in a money-constrained economy? Political leaders appear to have concluded that CO2 reductions must be implemented quickly, and Cap and Trade may be the most efficient vehicle, and has been shown to work under the Clean Air Act model for SO. A more pointed question is whether Cap and Trade for CO2 should be utilized to generate a tax revenue stream to reduce the national deficit. During his March 24, 2009 news conference, Obama made reference to a budget outline he had sent to Congress earlier, which included hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue to the government through implementation of Cap and Trade. This plan was dubbed a “Cap and Tax” approach to CO2 reduction. In the latest development, in a Senate vote on April 2, 2009, 67 members of the Senate voted to require at least 60 votes to adopt any new cap and tax on carbon energy. These political maneuverings appear to emphasize the momentum by Congress, with public support, to adopt some form of Cap and Trade for CO2 that does not become a hidden tax or result in economic dislocations or hardships on a national or wide-scale regional basis.

            What are the safeguards needed to implement Cap and Trade, but not damage the economy? Most of these have been identified already:

·                    Safety valve provisions. National and regional economic disruptions caused by CO2 reduction requirements should be eligible for relief through any new legislation. Loss of jobs, disruption of the potential for job creation or job preservation and similar hardships should be grounds for flexibility on deadlines and enforcement actions.

·                    Realistic goals should be adopted. President Obama’s earlier proposed eighty percent reduction now may seem more than the country can afford. Congress should adopt more realistic goals, and be prepared in the future to make adjustments if needed.

·                    Research and development for carbon capture and storage must be accelerated. The stalemate over finding and proving technologies to capture CO2, and to safely sequester CO2 should be addressed in setting national priorities, something akin to the World War II stimulus for factories to supply war material.

·                    A “Price-Anderson”-style act for risks associated with carbon storage or sequestration should be adopted. Only when developers, investors and financiers learn they can avoid major, long term liability or loss of equity in the event of an unplanned release of CO2, will the markets be encouraged to get behind carbon capture and sequestration.

            These are not insolvable problems. Realistic goals, flexibility in the design and implementation of a national Cap and Trade system for CO2, and allowing the market to work as it did for SO2 reductions should reduce CO2 significantly without impeding economic recovery.

Tags: Air


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