EPA’s Proposed Greenhouse Gas Regulation: Why are Conservatives Attacking its Market-Based Options?

This week, the Obama Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its long-awaited proposed regulation to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from existing sources in the electricity-generating sector.  The regulatory (rule) proposal calls for cutting CO2 emissions from the power sector by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Fundamentals in Brief

Through a carefully designed formula, EPA’s proposal lists specific targets for each state, under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. States are given broad flexibility for how to meet their targets, including:  increasing the efficiency of fossil-fuel power plants; switching electricity dispatch from coal-fired generating plants to natural gas-fired generating plants; developing new low-emissions generation, such as new natural gas combined cycle plants, more renewable sources (wind and solar), nuclear, or coal with carbon capture and storage; and more efficient end-use of electricity.

States are also given flexibility to employ (in their implementation plans to be submitted to EPA) any of a wide variety of policy instruments, including but by no means limited to market-based trading systems.  Furthermore, states can work together to submit multi-state plans.

The proposed regulation will be finalized after receipt of comments one year from now (June 30, 2015).  Then states will have until July 2016 to submit their plans, and can request one-year extensions (or two-year extensions for multi-state plans). Compliance commences in 2020.

A Big-Picture Assessment of the Proposed Rule

Let’s start by acknowledging that the proposed policy will be less effective environmentally and less cost-effective economically than the economy-wide approach the Administration previously tried with the Waxman-Markey bill, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, but failed to receive a vote in the U.S. Senate.  Electricity generation is responsible for about 38 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions, and about 32 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Given ongoing political polarization in Washington and the inability of Congress to approve that more comprehensive and more cost-effective approach, this is probably the best the administration could do.  Together with the motor-vehicle fuel efficiency and appliance energy efficiency standards previously put in place, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

More broadly, the importance of these U.S. moves in the international context should not be underestimated.  Although the United States accounts for only about 17% of global CO2 emissions (second to China’s 26% in 2010), these steps by the U.S. government can help international efforts to bring the large emerging economies (China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, and Mexico) on board for a future (Paris, 2015) agreement under the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action.

Domestically, EPA’s proposed state-by-state approach does not guarantee cost-effectiveness, because under the formula employed, marginal abatement costs will initially vary across states.  However, freedom is given to the states to employ market-based instruments, in particular, cap-and-trade systems (with carbon taxes presumably also an option).  And EPA has emphasized its willingness to consider multi-state implementation plans (think, for example, of the existing Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative – RGGI – the cap-and-trade system operating in nine northeast states; and the likelihood of a future linked policy bringing together California’s AB-32 cap-and-trade system with policies in Oregon and Washington).

The ability of states to develop under EPA’s rule such linked systems of market-based instruments, as well as the freedom for states and regions to subsequently establish linkages means that although EPA may not be guaranteeing cost-effectiveness, it is certainly allowing for it, indeed it is facilitating it.

Response from Environmental Advocacy Groups and Industry

Much of the response this week has not been surprising.  The major environmental advocacy groups have been supportive of the proposed rule, despite the fact that they would prefer even greater ambition.  Many in industry have also offered praise for the approach, particularly because of the flexibility that EPA has given for the means of achieving emissions reductions.  In fact, some electricity-sector executives have been supportive, precisely for this reason, and appear to be encouraging the adoption of cap-and-trade systems.  At a minimum, leading electric utilities, including some that are fossil-heavy, such as FirstEnergy Corporation and American Electric Power, Inc., have taken a “wait-and-see” attitude, rather than attacking the proposal.

Also not surprising has been strong opposition from the coal industry, as well as some prominent industry trade associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  Once the rule has become final (about a year from now), lawsuits will surely be filed by some of these private industry opponents and by a number of resistant states.

I will leave it to the lawyers to comment on the likely grounds of those anticipated lawsuits, as well as their probabilities of success.  But, clearly, for the plan to succeed it will need to survive those legal challenges, which will work their way through the courts over several years.

Also, a significant change in the senate majority and in the party holding power after the next presidential election could result in progress being slowed to a crawl, if not the abandonment of the approach proposed by the current administration.

None of that is particularly surprising, but what should be surprising is the fact that conservative attacks on EPA’s proposed rule have focused, indeed fixated, on one of the options that is given to the states for implementation, namely the use of market-based instruments, that is, cap-and-trade systems.  Given the demonization of cap-and-trade as “cap-and-tax” over the past few years by conservatives, why do I say that this fixation should be surprising?

The Irony of Conservatives Targeting Cap-and-Trade

Not so long ago, cap-and-trade mechanisms for environmental protection were popular in Congress. Now, such mechanisms are denigrated. What happened?  Professor Richard Schmalensee (MIT) and I recently told the sordid tale of how conservatives in Congress who once supported cap and trade had come to lambast climate change legislation as “cap-and-tax.” Ironically, in doing this, conservatives have chosen to demonize their own market-based creation.

In the late 1980s, there was growing concern that acid precipitation – the result of SO2 and, to a lesser extent, nitrogen oxides (NOx) reacting in the atmosphere to form sulphuric and nitric acids – was damaging forests and aquatic ecosystems, particularly in the northeast U.S. and southern Canada. In response, the U.S. Congress passed (and President George H.W. Bush signed into law) the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. Title IV of this law established the SO2 allowance-trading system.

By the close of the 20th century, the SO2 allowance-trading system had come to be seen as both innovative and successful.  However, the successful enactment and implementation of the SO2 cap-and-trade system in 1990 combined with the subsequent Congressional defeat of CO2 cap-and-trade legislation 20 years later has produced a striking irony. Market-based, cost-effective policy innovation in environmental regulation – in particular, cap-and-trade – was originally championed and implemented by Republican administrations from that of President Ronald Reagan to that of President George W. Bush.  But in recent years, Republicans have led the way in demonizing cap-and-trade, particularly as an approach to limiting carbon emissions.

For a long time, market-based approaches to environmental protection, such as cap-and-trade, bore a Republican label.  In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan’s EPA put in place a trading program to phase out leaded gasoline. It produced a more rapid elimination of leaded gasoline from the marketplace than had been anticipated, and at a saving of some $250 million per year, compared with a conventional no-trade, command-and-control approach. Not only did President George H.W. Bush successfully propose the use of cap-and-trade to cut SO2 emissions, his administration advocated in international forums the use of emissions trading to cut global CO2 emissions (a proposal initially resisted but ultimately adopted by the European Union). In 2005, President George W. Bush’s EPA issued the Clean Air Interstate Rule, aimed at reducing SO2 emissions by a further 70% from their 2003 level. Cap-and-trade was again the policy instrument of choice.

From Bi-Partisan Support to Ideological Polarization

When the Clean Air Act Amendments were being considered in the Congress in 1989-1990, political support was not divided on partisan lines. Indeed, environmental and energy debates from the 1970s through much of the 1990s typically broke along geographic lines, rather than partisan lines, with key parameters being degree of urbanization and reliance on specific fuel types. Thus, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 passed the Senate by a vote of 89-11 with 87% of Republican members and 91% of Democrats voting yea, and passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 401-21 with 87% of Republicans and 96% of Democrats voting in support.

But twenty years later, when climate change legislation was receiving serious consideration in Washington, environmental politics had changed dramatically, with Congressional support for environmental legislation coming mainly to reflect partisan divisions. In 2009, the House of Representatives passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454) – the Waxman-Markey bill – that included an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to cut CO2 emissions. The Waxman-Markey bill passed the House by a narrow margin of 219-212, with support from 83% of Democrats, but only 4% of Republicans. In July 2010, the Senate abandoned its attempt to pass companion legislation. In the process of debating this legislation, conservatives (largely Republicans and some coal-state Democrats) attacked the cap-and-trade system as “cap-and-tax,” much as an earlier generation of liberals had denigrated cap-and-trade as “selling licenses to pollute.”

It may be that some conservatives in Congress opposed climate policies because of disagreement about the threat of climate change or the costs of the policies, but instead of debating those risks and costs, they chose to launch an ultimately successful campaign to demonize and thereby tarnish cap-and-trade as an instrument of public policy, rendering it “collateral damage” in the wider climate policy battle.

Today that “scorched-earth” approach may have come back to haunt conservatives.  Have they now boxed themselves into a corner, unable to support the power of the marketplace to reduce their own states’ compliance costs under the new EPA CO2 regulation?  I hope not, but only time will tell.

Author: Robert Stavins

Robert N. Stavins is the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Director of Graduate Studies for the Doctoral Program in Public Policy and the Doctoral Program in Political Economy and Government, Co-Chair of the Harvard Business School-Kennedy School Joint Degree Programs, and Director of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.