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R.I.P., Cap-and-Trade?

Prospects for the once-favored climate-change legislation appear to have gone up in smoke.

by
Bill Straub

Bio

December 24, 2012 - 1:37 pm

Prospects for the revival of cap-and-trade legislation in the upcoming Congress as a tonic for global climate change appear to be going up in smoke.

Democrats anticipate that some package addressing greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s coal-fueled power plants will likely emerge next session. But getting any proposal through the Republican-controlled House is dubious and it’s extremely unlikely that lawmakers will specifically reconsider cap-and-trade.

“Cap-and-trade may reappear in the House of Representatives but it has no chance of passing,” said Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), prime sponsor of the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2010, which came within an eyelash of being enacted, acknowledged that the form of any legislation looking to tackle climate change remains unclear.

“We have an obligation to our children and future generations to cut our carbon pollution to address this serious issue,” Waxman said. “I am receptive to any approach that can get the job done although I think market-based approaches can be the most effective. I will continue to offer to work with Republicans and Democrats in 2013 in hope that we might still be able to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Cap-and-trade, which carries the support of President Obama, represents an effort to limit the emissions of the greenhouse gases from power plants. More than 97 percent of the world’s climate researchers believe global warming is both real and man-made, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Under the plan, the federal government determines an appropriate amount of emissions that can be released and issues permits – also known as carbon credits — to each plant setting a cap on the amount of pollutants they can emit.

In some instances it’s anticipated that some plants won’t be able to meet the government-established pollution limits. Those power generators would then have to purchase – or trade for — permits from other plants that come in under their caps.

In effect, under cap-and-trade, those plants that exceed their allowances are punished financially while those who successfully reduce their emissions are rewarded through the sale of its permits.

Obama proposed funding a cap-and-trade initiative in his 2010 budget. The legislation creating such a system, sponsored by Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), passed the House in 2009 while the chamber was still under Democratic control. But it stalled in a Senate that, despite a Democratic majority, couldn’t withstand a Republican filibuster. Led by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whose state, it often is said, runs on coal, the GOP successfully resisted.

Now, the Democratic margin in the Senate has shrunk and Republicans have assumed control in the lower chamber. What’s more, the chairmen of the two House panels that would have jurisdiction over cap-and-trade – Rep. Fred Upton, (R-Mich.) of the Energy & Commerce Committee, and Rep. Doc Hastings, (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee — are vocal opponents.

Upton in particular questions whether man contributes to global warming. Eban Burnham-Snyder, spokesman for the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, said it is “a gross understatement” to say the two chairmen oppose the cap-and-trade effort.

“Anything is possible, of course,” Burnham-Snyder said. “There’s still a great appetite with Congressman Markey and others like Congressman Waxman, who was the other sponsor of the bill, to try to set limits on greenhouse gas.”

Democratic lawmakers prefer cap-and-trade, Burnham-Snyder said. But they’re open to other ideas.

Republican concerns stem from the fear that cap-and-trade will increase energy costs by as much as 65 percent, leading some to characterize the system as “cap-and-tax.” It could also result in increased unemployment and prove a drag on the economy. Whitfield cites the cap-and-trade effort as further evidence of the Democrats’ war on coal.

Cap-and-trade originally was a Republican concept, implemented during the administration of President George H.W. Bush to address sulfur dioxide pollution widely thought to cause acid rain.

That history has led Obama to speculate that recent GOP opposition has more to do with his support for the concept than concerns over its impact on the economy. The president essentially ignored the issue during his recent successful re-election campaign but he cited Republican obstruction during an address before an Associated Press luncheon in Washington on April 3.

“Cap and trade was originally proposed by conservatives and Republicans as a market-based solution to solving environmental problems,” Obama said. “The first president to talk about cap and trade was George H.W. Bush.  Now you’ve got the other party essentially saying we shouldn’t even be thinking about environmental protection; let’s gut the EPA.”

Ironically, some evidence exists suggesting that cap-and-trade not only isn’t necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but that it might serve as an impediment to reduction. A study by Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan,

Washington-based group that conducts research on environmental issues, maintains the U.S. already is on course to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets without cap-and-trade. By 2020, according to the report, emissions will have declined by 16.3 percent from 2005 levels.

Cap-and-trade, had it passed, according to Resources for the Future, would have resulted in lower reductions.

Dallas Burtraw, prime author of the report “U.S. Status on Climate Change Legislation,” said new greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act that took effect absent cap-and-trade and improved vehicle performance standards are contributing to the decline.

But Waxman maintains additional steps are necessary, noting that “our nation experienced 11 climate-related disasters this year that cost more than $1 billion each.”

Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.
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