The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote later this week on the “American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009” (H.R. 2454, “Waxman-Markey” or “ACESA”). We cannot endorse the bill. The hundreds of provisions in ACESA’s 1,000-plus pages do not add up to the steps needed to avert catastrophic climate disruption. Moreover, the bill’s emissions trading provisions create vested interests that would block future reforms.
A growing chorus of environmental and progressive voices is urging Congress to overhaul or scrap the bill. For example, the Progressive Democrats of America and Friends of the Earth are urging their supporters and members of Congress to oppose Waxman-Markey. To see their action alerts, click here and here.
There is little hope of shifting to a low-carbon economy without a clear, transparent price on carbon emissions. While ACESA’s proponents claim that its cap-and-trade provisions “put a price on carbon,” the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that CO2 allowances would rise to only $26 per ton a decade from now. That equates to a puny 26 cents a gallon of gasoline — in ten years! And ACESA neutralizes increases in the price of coal-generated electricity by giving 35% of the pollution permits to local electricity distribution companies (LDCs) with instructions to pass on that value to consumers. If utilities pass through allowance value to customers, that will suppress the all-important price signal, and if utilities keep the free allowances they’ll reap a windfall.
The Carbon Tax Center advocates revenue recycling to protect consumers, particularly those with lower incomes, while still providing an effective price signal. In contrast, ACESA’s free allowances to LDCs would not only mute the price signal, but would enrich commercial and industrial firms that use 60% of electricity.
Effective climate legislation is urgently needed, and the upcoming Copenhagen treaty negotiations plus EPA’s process to regulate greenhouse gas emissions have created a much-needed sense of urgency in Congress. But ACESA’s complex, opaque and volatile cap-and-trade provisions are the wrong way to start an international system of carbon pricing. Trying to link cap-and-trade systems across borders would lead to instability, incentivize lax regulation and enforcement, and promote outright fraud as countries compete to become the cheapest supplier of allowances and offsets. We believe that clear U.S. commitments to specific emissions reductions and to funding for international efforts would set the stage for meaningful negotiations far more effectively than trying to build an international treaty around the convoluted structures embodied in ACESA.
As if these major flaws aren’t enough, ACESA has these as well:
1) Weak cap further weakened by offsets: ACESA’s greenhouse gas pollutant standard represents reductions of only 1-4% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 68-71% below 1990 levels by 2050. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the industrialized nations must cut far more aggressively to maintain atmospheric CO2 levels at or below 450 parts per million to avoid severe climate impacts including widespread drought, deadly storms, pervasive flooding, and sea level rise inundating entire cities and triggering massive refugee crises.
Weak greenhouse gas reduction goals in ACESA are further undermined by the two billion tons of carbon “offsets” available annually — up to two-thirds from international sources. If fully utilized, these offsets will allow U.S. emissions to keep increasing until at least 2040. Moreover, carbon offsets are difficult to monitor and enforce, raising serious doubt about their environmental value. [Ed note: As of 6/24, ACESA’s offset provisions have been further weakened by the Agriculture Committee.]
2) Weak Renewable Energy Standard: ACESA’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) appropriately focuses on electric utilities and originally mandated that 25% of U.S. electricity come from renewable sources by 2025. That made sense, since the coal-fired electricity sector is the U.S. largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The bad news is that the mandate has now been watered down to just 15% by 2020, a level barely greater than “business-as-usual.” In addition, ACESA now defines “renewable energy” to include waste incineration and also authorizes a “Clean Energy Deployment Administration” to fund dirty energy like nuclear power and coal.
3) Handouts for the Coal and Oil Industries: Through free allowances and a hidden utility tax, the coal industry would receive approximately $150 billion over the lifetime of the bill for “deployment” of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology that presently doesn’t exist and for technological and economic reasons may never materialize. Even if feasible and economical, CCS would require far more coal to be mined, transported and burned to produce the same amount of electricity. Coal mining is destroying communities throughout Appalachia and in other coal mining regions. In addition, ACESA would also give approximately $24 billion to oil refiners under the pretext that the world’s most profitable industry needs still more financial assistance.
4) ACESA over-compensates trade-exposed energy-intensive industries: ACESA allocates 15% of allowances to energy-intensive trade-exposed industries at least through 2025. While some industries merit protection from competitors in unregulated markets, a number of studies indicate that these industries can improve energy efficiency within a few years and that ACESA’s assistance is roughly double the additional cost that energy intensive firms would face.
5) Pre-emption of EPA Authority: ACESA would pre-empt EPA’s authority to regulate sources of greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, while also overriding stronger laws at the state and regional levels. By disabling this regulatory backstop, ACESA thus ensures that its failure as climate policy will be catastrophic.
Overhaul or Scrap ACESA
The need to address climate change is urgent, but that urgency should not be used as an excuse to pass seriously flawed legislation. Congress should skip ACESA’s complexities and go back to the drawing board to develop a revenue-neutral carbon tax, managed price or cap-and-dividend approach.
Photo: James Dennett / Flickr.