As the Waxman Markey Carbon Cap and Trade bill winds its way through Congress, our government is finally about to take action on our unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels …….. Or so it would seem.
But we should be paying attention not to the rhetoric, but rather the realities of the legislation. What matters is not the pretty sound bites or the presumed good intentions of the supporters behind legislation, but rather the actual legislation itself. As always in the legislative sausage making process, “the devil is in the details”.
The current Waxman Markey legislation is another truly audacious handout to the Wall Street traders and speculators, and to the nation’s largest carbon emitters, the two groups who stand to benefit most from this legislation. And unfortunately, the political compromises that evolved to give carbon free offsets to refineries, utilities and other major polluters along with all the other give aways will render the overall cap and trade effort effectively useless in actually reducing carbon emissions, as the European system has already proven to be.
What is being proposed in this legislation is one of the world’s largest derivatives markets, with complex rules being made up in a mad rush and Wall Street lobbyists very heavily engaged in the rule making. US Commodities Future Trading Commissioner Bart Chilton is quoted by the Financial Times as predicting carbon markets would become ” the biggest of any derivatives product in the next four to five years.”
One would have hoped Congress learned something from the fiasco created by the derivatives market for subprime mortgages. Unfortunately it seems they haven’t. There is a very good reason that environmentalist organization Friends of the Earth titled their report on Cap & Trade “Subprime Carbon”. In a CNBC video on “The Carbon Challenge”, former Governor and DNC Chairman Howard Dean declares “I am terrified of a Bernie Madoff in the Cap and Trade business who is selling stuff that doesn’t exist”.
This legislation is evolving to be even worse than the Washington solutions for the economic crisis, a record of terrible public policy that I thought would be impossible to challenge. After looting our children’s future handing trillions of tax-payer dollars to the Wall Street firms most responsible for the worlds worst economic problems since the Great Depression, our leaders in Washington are now about to hand additional hundreds of billions of dollars in direct subsidies to the companies most responsible for carbon emissions.
President Obama’s proposal for Cap and Trade was for all allowances to be auctioned to the highest bidder and proceeds largely used to offset the impacts of higher energy costs to citizens, an inevitable near term reality of effective emissions policy. Though not as effective as a straight carbon tax, that would be decent policy. However instead of following the President’s guidance, Congress is now deciding to hand carbon allowances out for free to the industries that currently emit the most carbon.
The Wall Street Journal quotes the President saying just in March “If you’re giving away carbon permits for free, then basically you’re not really pricing the thing and it doesn’t work — or people can game the system in so many ways that it’s not creating the incentive structures that we’re looking for.” White House Budget Director Peter Orszag was even more clear in his March testimony to Congress: “If you didn’t auction the permit, it would represent the largest corporate welfare program that has ever been enacted in the history of the United States”.
Under Waxman Markey, eighty five percent of initial carbon allowances would be simply given away. Estimates are that those initial allowances could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually. This is a massive handout. Effectively, instead of rewarding utility companies and independent power producers who have led the utility industry in developing wind and other clean energy projects over the last decade, Congress is proposing to hand a large portion of these huge subsidies to their competitors who stuck with the dirtiest possible technology. In a report on Cap and Trade, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that some of these companies could see their market capitalization double and triple almost instantly on the receipt of these free handouts. That’s not a bad reward for companies that maintained the worst emissions policies absolutely as long as possible.
As a real solution, rather than Cap and Trade, a straightforward carbon tax is favored by the vast majority of economists, as well as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, NDN, Tom Friedman, James Hansen, Paul Volker, Joseph Stiglitz, William Ruckelshaus, Al Gore, Ralph Nader and a huge majority of knowledgeable people on all sides of the political spectrum who have actually explored the issue. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu also favored a carbon tax up until his political appointment. A straightforward carbon tax is also favored by almost all business groups other than utilities and other polluters angling for massive free carbon credit handouts.
So the fundamental question is the one the New York Times asked: “How did cap and trade……. become the policy of choice in the debate over how to slow the heating of the planet? And how did it come to eclipse the idea of simply slapping a tax on energy consumption that befouls the public square or leaves the nation hostage to foreign oil producers?”
“The answer is not to be found in the study of economics or environmental science, but in the realm where most policy debates are ultimately settled: politics.”…………….
“[Cap and trade] is almost perfectly designed for the buying and selling of political support through the granting of valuable emissions permits to favor specific industries and even specific Congressional districts. That is precisely what is taking place now in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has used such concessions to patch together a Democratic majority to pass a far-reaching bill to regulate carbon emissions through a cap-and-trade plan.”
Bottom line, as Greg Mankiw, Harvard economist and author of the economics text book used in the majority of university economics courses points out: “Cap-and-trade = Carbon tax + Corporate welfare.”
We should also recognize that as part of the Waxman Markey deal, Congress will require state and regional emissions programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), that were carefully designed and negotiated over years, will be put on hold for at least five years. It is truly unfortunate that just as the RGGI program is getting off the ground, it will be derailed in order to enable corrupt political shenanigans like this.
It is hard to imagine how congress can pretend to justify enriching the worst polluters in the country and entrenching the market positions with the massive handout now working its way through Congress.
As I argued here, it seems to me a far better response is to endorse the alternative bipartisan bill: H.R. 2380 The Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009 which was recently introduced by Representatives Inglis, Flake and Lipinski.
The Miami Herald reports that that H.R. 2380 “would initially impose a tax of $15 a ton of carbon dioxide on the producers and distributors of gasoline, natural gas and coal, with the tax rising to $100 a ton over three decades. The tax increases would be offset by equivalent cuts in payroll taxes, with employers and employees sharing the reductions equally.”
Inglis, Flake and Lipinski calculate that under their bill, customers of coal fired utilities would see cost increases of 83.5 percent in the first year. They address that direct impact to consumers with an offset to the regressive payroll taxes that impact people and jobs most directly.
Unlike Waxman Markey, The Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act is both rational and real market oriented legislation. The fundamental premise of the Inglis, Flake and Lipinski bill is to dependably and significantly reduce carbon emissions and realistically stimulate the economy and job growth – all with no net increase in taxes. Perhaps the details around the specific numbers should be debated more. But unlike Waxman Markey, the fundamental principle is sound environmental policy and sound economic policy. And at the very outset it is far more serious than Waxman Market in actually putting a real and very predictable price on carbon emission.
A meaningful carbon tax at the federal level coupled with encouraging ongoing experiments in Cap and Trade at the state and regional effort, like RGGI, would be a far more rational approach to these issues than the original Waxman Markey bill and certainly far more rational than the cynical counterproductive corruption that it has evolved into.
I find it disheartening when very knowledgeable leaders that I usually respect seem eager to accept an ineffective policy based on political expediency. My own idealism suggests that we should hold out for real solutions, less subject to manipulation and corruption. That idealism is born from very real experience of a project developer trying to build good projects in the face of the morass of unintended consequences coming out of the traditional cynical process of political horse trading.
Over the years, the environmental and clean energy communities have been comprised of very practical idealists. If we are to settle for lousy solutions merely because they are politically expedient when they in fact have no practical value, then we well on our way down the slippery slope and are just another part of the problem rather than part of any solution.
In “Is Cap and Trade a Dead Policy Walking?”, Robert Shapiro of the progressive think tank NDN suggests that “after Wall Street’s meltdown, the proposition for another round of the financial merry-go-round that produced the worst economic crisis in our lifetimes seems either very naive or very cynical”. He also suggests that “for years, many politicians and environmental leaders have believed that any kind of tax to deal with climate change would be dead on arrival. That may be changing, especially if the tax is paired up with rebates to take away much of its political sting. More importantly, the costs and lessons of the financial crisis may effectively swamp the prospects for cap-and-trade. If cap-and-trade has become a dead policy walking, those who care deeply about climate change will find that a carbon tax system has become the last, reasonable policy standing”.
In an article entitled “Coal, Electric Industries Big Winners in Climate Bill Deal” , the Washington Independent points out that organizations who signed on to support Waxman Markey just weeks ago are already pulling away as they see the problems with the emerging legislation: “Janet Keating, executive director of the West Virginia-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said in a statement Friday. “There are some costs that are too high to pay when it comes to the environment, clean air and clean water. We urge Congress to either fix the Waxman-Markey bill or dump it and start over.””
In “Subprime Carbon: Environmentalists Warn About the Next Big Bubble” the Wall Street Journal suggests that “one possible side effect of the financial-market fallout and concerns about more toxic assets” is “growing support for a straight carbon tax, rather than a complicated cap-and-trade plan.”
Once we get the “economic externalities” of fossil fuels somewhat accounted for in the marketplace that everyone participates in, we will start making real progress. Rather than supporting Waxman Markey’s politically created markets in which only specialized elites can play, truly effective policy would be simple, understandable and implemented in a manner that is very direct and clear in the normal economy that everyone makes transactions within. A straight forward carbon tax is the most effective and efficient way to do that.
Waxman Markey will massively increase costs of electricity and other major carbon emitting processes, but instead of providing a mechanism for average people to cover those costs, the benefits are all being handed to the carbon polluters for free. What single policy could more effectively turn citizens and voters away from trusting anything labeled with an environmental agenda in the future? It is insanity.
Despite the rhetoric, Cap and trade is not market driven policy, won’t reduce carbon emission and will never create what any real alternative solutions to carbon emission actually need to be successful – predictability in the market place.
Unfortunately, it seems that Simon Johnson, the former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund may be right in his Atlantic article, “The Quite Coup”, regarding who is really running both political parties of our government these days. But clearly Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill is exaggerating when he is widely quoted saying “The banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place”. Clearly the banks don’t own Congress outright. The utilities and oil companies still have significant ownership and control of our government.
In a recent blog post entitled Then and Now, Harvard’s Greg Mankiw points out very conflicting realities:
Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s cap-and-trade system will require all pollution credits to be auctioned. A 100 percent auction ensures that all large corporate polluters pay for every ton of emissions they release, rather than giving these emission rights away for free to coal and oil companies.
Under the House bill, only 15% of the emission permits will be auctioned initially. The rest of the permits will be given away — 2% to oil refiners, 5% to free-standing “merchant” coal plants, 9% to regulated natural-gas distributors, and so on.”
Mankiw then goes on to ask: “So, Mr President, the bill now being considered in Congress is in direct contradiction to your campaign pledge. Will you now please stand up for principle and issue a veto threat?”
Instead of defending their very clear and sensible positions of only a couple months ago, President Obama and Vice President Biden both praised the passage of Waxman Markey by the House Energy and Environment Committee.
If Congress and the President are not willing to stand up for principle and real solutions, then the rest of us have to demand they do.
Perhaps the main reason we should all support solutions that actually make sense is because citizens nationwide are becoming increasingly skeptical and cynical about government as a solution to anything at all. Anyone with doubts about that should just look at the results of the recent ballot initiatives in California. If we allow completely ineffective carbon legislation like the Waxman Markey bill to pass, that is really just another massive handout to Wall Street and other corporate political campaign contributors, it could be decades before voters allow Congress to attempt to do anything useful about all the problems associated with our fossil fuel addiction.
These issues are too important to settle for a feel good, green wash, ineffective pretense of a solution. Now is the time for the environmental and clean energy communities to unite with the general business community around a real solution far less subject to corruption.
Let’s find the courage to regain both our practicality and our idealism. Lets support something that not only makes environmental sense but also makes economic sense. Let’s demand Congress provide a real solution rather than selling out to the oligarchs that Simon Johnson describes. Their lobbyists are being very well served. Its time we all call our congressional representatives and senators and demand our voices be heard.
Lets demand very predictable and dependable higher levels of carbon taxes on those that should be taxed more rather than giving them massive corporate welfare. And lets demand real reductions in employment taxes to help put regular people back to work and help them pay for the increased costs of living that any meaningful carbon solution must inevitably entail.
Anyone actually paying attention knows it is past time to dump Waxman Markey and demand a real solution. Let’s join a very broad politically and economically sensible consensus and unite behind demanding passage of H.R. 2380 “The Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009”.