February 02, 2010

Regional Climate Programs in Line for Shakeup, Voluntary Markets To Remain

Posted on February 2, 2010 by Deborah Jennings

By Deborah Jennings and Andrew Schatz, DLA Piper US LLP[1]

As comprehensive climate legislation stalls in Congress, increased attention is being paid to alternative climate regimes, particularly the prospect of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation and regional and voluntary climate initiatives. Regional initiatives have faced their share of challenges during their infancy and, to varying degrees, may incur more with the development of a federal cap-and-trade program or EPA regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions under the Clean Air Act (CAA).

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and the California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) are the most advanced climate initiatives in the U.S. California’s AB 32 requires measures to reduce California’s GHG emissions by 174 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, or 29%, by 2020. California recently issued a draft cap and trade regulation covering 600 of the state’s largest industrial and electric generating stationary sources. The RGGI program is more mature with a cap-and-trade program that commenced in 2009. It “stabilizes” CO2 levels during 2009-2014 and reduces emissions 10% by 2019.

In its first year, RGGI has generated several concerns. Unlike other cap-and-trade programs, such as the NOx Budget Trading Program, which distributed allowances to regulated entities, but incentivized them to invest in emission controls, RGGI states decided to sell emissions allowances. Under RGGI, a utility must both purchase allowances and pay for emission controls. The sale of allowances makes RGGI look more like a tax on energy and inevitably will lead to higher energy costs. 

RGGI’s offset program is also restrictive, thereby narrowing compliance options. Although the model rule provides for use of offsets for reduction of emissions in certain categories such as landfill methane capture and afforestation, this opportunity is undercut by the requirement to demonstrate economic “additionality.” To be useable, these offsets must have been generated by projects that are not “economically attractive absent the revenue stream provided by an emissions offset.” This subjective test does not recognize the reality that many of these projects are economically marginal and need more than one source of revenue. This economic additionality requirement undercuts the creation of offsets. 

Noticeably absent from RGGI is Pennsylvania, one of the largest coal-fueled utility states in the Northeast.  Because    Pennsylvania and other big coal states are included in larger electricity dispatch regions, CO2 regulation and increased cost on RGGI utilities will result in increased demand for electricity from the unregulated utilities in the same power region. A clear example of this is PJM, which oversees electric supply in the coal states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, as well as the RGGI states of Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. Untaxed electricity with   high carbon-content from non-RGGI generators will be preferred and sold in larger quantities than more expensive power, thereby undercutting the objective of reducing emissions. This is the “leakage” phenomenon.

RGGI and other state and regional regulatory climate programs may be eliminated under proposed federal climate legislation. The House bill specifically pre-empts state and regional cap-and-trade programs between 2012 and 2017. Pre-emption concerns may already be impacting the RGGI market, where prices for 2012 allowances are barely above the Reserve Price. 

In the meantime, EPA is forging ahead with its own GHG regulations. Last Fall, it made a GHG  “endangerment” finding and required quantification and reporting of GHG emissions. EPA will soon finalize the regulation of GHGs from light-duty vehicles, setting in motion a statutorily required process to regulate GHGs from major stationary sources that are modified or constructed. Among the class of stationary sources that will be affected are municipal solid waste landfills, which are the source of approximately one fourth of methane emissions in the US. Once regulated by EPA, construction or modification of these sources would require GHG control and would no longer generate “offset” allowances because controls would be now required by law.

Notwithstanding potential federal climate policy, the voluntary carbon markets should continue to flourish based on experience to date. Global voluntary carbon markets nearly doubled in 2008 and are expected to increase. Europeans purchased half of these offsets for noncompliance purposes.  This continued interest in voluntary markets is partly motivated by individuals and corporations choosing to reduce their carbon footprint. Our law firm, for example, has purchased carbon credits since 2008 to offset air travel emissions as part of a Sustainability Initiative. As national awareness of climate issues continues to grow, voluntary carbon markets are likely to expand and thrive.

[1] The views presented in this article are the authors’ alone and not DLA Piper US LLP or its clients.

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