When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks

Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber, professor at MIT for two decades. Professor Gruber, one of the country’s leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as “Obamacare.”

A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” His key point was that the program’s “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Is that a controversial or even unique observation?

A Truism of Political Economy

Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy’s benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy’s benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.

The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. In the United States, Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards (or “CAFE standards”) have been a bipartisan Congressional success, despite the fact that the costs they place on the American public per unit of fuel savings are vastly greater than the costs of a commensurate increase in gasoline taxes. Likewise, when conservative opponents of CO2 cap-and-trade wanted to stop the House-passed bill in its tracks, they resorted to demonizing it as “cap-and-tax.”

So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial, and its enunciation ought not lead to the terrible attacks that he suffered. He doesn’t need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.

Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

I have written before at this blog about the reasons why I support my university’s decision not to divest its endowment of its fossil-fuel company holdings. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but will note that I have gone out of my way not to draw conclusions or make recommendations about what other universities or other institutions ought to do in this regard, including when I agreed to write an essay on the subject for Yale Environment 360. My analysis and conclusions were not developed in spite of my decades of research, teaching, and outreach on global climate change policy; rather, they were developed because of my years of work in this area.

There are people, some of whom I greatly respect, who have different perspectives on this issue, and have come to very different conclusions than have I. We have essentially agreed to disagree. They haven’t cast aspersions on me, nor I on them. As my writings on this topic have illustrated, there are many facets to the issue, including economics, politics, ethics, and even religion. No one has cornered the market on wisdom.

And What About the Keystone XL Pipeline?

Likewise, on a quite different topic, on January 8, 2015, Coral Davenport wrote a story in the New York Times about the political debates in Washington regarding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and stated that “… most energy and policy experts say the battle over Keystone overshadows the importance of the project as an environmental threat or an engine of the economy. The pipeline will have little effect, they say, on climate change, production of the Canadian oil sands, gasoline prices and the overall job market in the United States.” She went on to quote me (accurately) as having said, “The political fight about Keystone is vastly greater than the economic, environmental or energy impact of the pipeline itself. It doesn’t make a big difference in energy prices, employment or climate change either way.” What I said was consistent with the evidence at the time (note, however, that as oil prices fall, the possibility increases that the Canadian oil sands would be uneconomic to develop without the pipeline). Once again, the analysis is not one-dimensional, and reasonable people can respectfully disagree.

When Policy Debates Become Personal Attacks

But these two topics – the Keystone XL pipeline and fossil-fuel divestment – have increasingly become engulfed in highly-charged campaigns and exceptionally heated political debates. As part of this, my integrity was recently attacked, because of my views.  A young and – I’m sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard’s divestment policy, are because “Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association.”

The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 “Outside Activities” that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that’s another story altogether).

But what about the four he did choose to highlight? First, I am very proud of my work supported by Chevron and the closely-related Western States Petroleum Association, in which I have carried out a series of analyses studying how to strengthen and improve California’s climate policy under AB-32. That’s right – developing and assessing ways to make the AB-32 cap-and-trade system and the related suite of “complementary policies” more environmentally effective, more cost-effective, and more equitable (I’ve written about this work several times at this blog).

Likewise, my work supported by Duke Energy began a decade ago when I helped the former CEO bring home to his senior management the importance of climate change and the importance of well-designed public policies (in particular, carbon cap-and-trade) to address it. All of my subsequent work supported by Duke Energy likewise has focused on the design of better market-based instruments – cap-and-trade – to reduce CO2 emissions.

And, finally, what about Exelon? This was interesting and important work I carried out with my friend and colleague, MIT Professor Richard Schmalensee, Dean Emeritus of the Sloan School of Management (I wrote about this work at this blog and at the Huffington Post). In 2011, with support from Exelon, Professor Schmalensee and I analyzed EPA’s proposals for new rules to regulate the interstate transport of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emitted from electric power generation facilities. You can read in detail about our multi-faceted assessment, but the bottom-line is that we provided strong support for a stringent rule. Our brief summary at the University of Pennsylvania’s RegBlog concludes: “In sum, while imposing incremental costs to achieve reductions in SO2 and NOX emissions, the Transport Rule would produce significant benefits in terms of improved health outcomes, and better environmental amenities and services, which studies estimate significantly outweigh the costs.”

Sadness and Empathy

It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite sad – that someone would suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL were somehow due to my having received previous support for analytical work for an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist’s original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the essay you have just read.

This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.


Personal Attacks: An Even Sadder Epilogue

It’s nearly two months since I wrote the essay above, but a series of recent events prompts me to add this sad epilogue.  My family and I have recently been subject to cyber-bullying, harassment, and threats, because of my public stance in support of Harvard’s decision not to divest from its endowment portfolio its holdings of fossil-fuel company stocks.

In particular, the most recent message sent to me said in part: “You may be assured that I will have a lot to say about your vocal public support of Harvard’s fossil fuel investments, … and that I have a particular interest in making sure that [your] financial connections to the fossil fuel industry are made fully public …” This threat to tarnish my reputation by publicizing a supposed conflict of interest is striking for a number of reasons:

  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have carefully explained my reasons for supporting Harvard’s decision not to divest;
  • In several essays at this blog and elsewhere, I have been completely up front about receiving support for (publically available) analytical work I’ve carried out for private-sector companies (and have long provided a list of all outside engagements at my website);
  • In the essay above, I documented the fundamentally pro-environment, policy-analytic work I had done for the specific companies mentioned; and
  • The claim that my position regarding Harvard divestment has somehow been influenced by my work with an oil company and an industry trade association defies logic.

The last item on this list – the fundamental illogic of such a claim – merits explanation. People on all sides of the divestment issue (including leaders of the student movement, and including the person who wrote the threat I quoted above) acknowledge that divestment will have no direct financial impacts on the respective companies. Rather, the merit of divestment that is most frequently cited by supporters is its symbolic value. Because divestment has no financial impacts on the fossil-fuel companies, those companies don’t care much about it. They would not care one way or the other what I might have to say on the topic. Hence, even if I did want to curry favor with those companies, that would not lead me (or anyone else) to take a particular position on the divestment issue.

The more important question to ask is whether my research, teaching, and outreach initiatives on climate change economics and policy have been biased by my having carried out consulting assignments for an oil company and trade association (two of a hundred outside engagements over the past several years)? That is, if there really was a conflict of interest, then in an effort to make those companies happy, I would presumably pull my punches regarding recommendations of what does matter to those companies – public policies that will reduce their profits by increasing their costs of doing business and/or by reducing demand for their products. But nothing could be further from the truth!

For a decade or more, my research, teaching, and outreach have focused on more enlightened, stronger, and better climate change policies. I have been outspoken in regard to the pressing need for well-designed carbon-price instruments at the national and sub-national levels, and for the need for better, more effective international climate policies, both under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and through other venues. This is reflected in my published research, my teaching, and my outreach efforts, including through this blog.

It is ironic, offensive, and sad that anyone would suggest that my support of Harvard’s divestment position is somehow tied to my outside engagements. That suggestion – and the recent threats I have received – defies logic and is contradicted by the record.

What are the Benefits and Costs of EPA’s Proposed CO2 Regulation?

­On June 2nd, 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.  This is potentially significant, because electricity generation is responsible for about 38 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions (about 32 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions).

On June 18th, EPA published the proposed rule in the Federal Register, initiating a 120-day public comment period.  In my previous essay at this blog, I wrote about the fundamentals and the politics of this proposed rule (EPA’s Proposed Greenhouse Gas Regulation: Why are Conservatives Attacking its Market-Based Options?).  Today I take a look at the economics.

Cost-Effective, Perhaps – but Efficient?

The proposed rule grants freedom to implementing states to achieve their specified emissions-reduction targets in virtually any way they choose, including the use of market-based instruments (the White House has referenced cap-and-trade in this context, although somewhat obliquely as “market-based programs,” and state-level carbon taxes might also be acceptable – if any states were to include them in their plans to implement the regualtion).  Also, the proposal allows for multistate proposals and for states and regions to establish linkages among their state and multi-state market-based instruments.  Some questions remain regarding the temporal flexibility (banking and borrowing) that the proposed rule will allow, but it’s reasonable to conclude at this point that although EPA may not be guaranteeing cost-effectiveness, it is allowing for it, indeed facilitating it.  As Dallas Burtraw of Resources for the Future has said, the proposed rule ought to be judged to be potentially cost-effective.

Cost-effectiveness (achieving a given target at the lowest possible aggregate cost) is one thing, but economists – and possibly some other policy wonks – may wonder if the proposal is likely to be efficient (maximizing the difference between benefits and costs).  This is a much higher mountain to climb, and a particularly challenging one for a regional, national, or sub-national climate-change policy, given the global commons nature of the problem.

The Challenge of this Global Commons Problem

GHGs mix globally in the atmosphere, and so damages are spread around the world and are unaffected by the location of emissions.  This means that any jurisdiction taking action – a region, a country, a state, or a city – will incur the direct costs of its actions, but the direct benefits (averted climate change) will be distributed globally.  Hence, the direct climate benefits a jurisdiction reaps from its actions will inevitably be less than the costs it incurs, despite the fact that global climate benefits may be greater – possibly much greater – than global costs.

(An Aside:  This presents the classic free-rider problem of this ultimate global commons problem:  It is in the interest of no country to take action, but each can reap the benefits of any countries that do take action.  This is why international, if not global, cooperation is essential.  See the extensive work of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.)

On June 2nd, EPA released its 376-page Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) of the proposed “Clean Power Plan” rule, the same day it released the 645-page proposed rule itselfAn RIA is essentially a benefit-cost analysis, required for significant new Federal rules by a series of Executive Orders going back to the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and reaffirmed by every President since, including most recently President Obama.

Given the fundamental economic arithmetic of a global commons problem, it would be surprising – to say the least – if EPA were to find that the expected benefits of the proposed rule would exceed its expected costs, but this is precisely what EPA has found.  Indeed, its central estimate is of positive net benefits (benefits minus costs) of $67 billion annually in the year 2030 (employing a mid-range 3% discount rate).  How can this be?

Two Answers to the Conundrum

First, EPA does not limit its estimate of climate benefits to those received by the United States (or its citizens), but uses an estimate of global climate benefits.

Second, in addition to quantifying the benefits of climate change impacts associated with CO2 emissions reductions, EPA quantifies and includes (the much larger) benefits of human-health impacts associated with reductions in other (correlated) air pollutants.

Of course, even if benefits exceed costs at the given level of stringency of the proposed rule, it does not mean that the rule is economically efficient, because it could be the case that benefits would exceed costs by an even greater amount with a more stringent or with a less stringent rule.  However, if benefits are not greater than costs (negative net benefits), then the rule cannot possibly be efficient, so I will stick with the all-too-common Washington practice and simply ask whether the analysis indicates a winner or a loser at the proposed rule’s given level of stringency.  In other words, the question becomes, “Is the proposed rule welfare-enhancing (even if it is not welfare-maximizing)?”

Now, let’s take a look at the numbers from these two key aspects of EPA’s economic analysis and the issues surrounding the calculations.

U.S. versus Global Damages

There are surely ethical arguments (and possibly legal arguments) for employing a global damage estimate, as opposed to a U.S. damage estimate, in a benefit-cost analysis of a U.S. climate policy, but until recently all Regulatory Impact Analyses over several decades had focused exclusively on U.S. impacts.

In a recent working paper, “Determining the Proper Scope of Climate Change Benefits,” Ted Gayer, Vice President and Director of Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Kip Viscusi, University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management at Vanderbilt University, review the history of RIAs, including their virtually exclusive focus on national impacts (defined by geography or U.S. citizenship) in benefit and cost estimates of regulations.

In the context of a conventional RIA, it does seem strange – at least at first blush – to use a global measure of benefits of a U.S. regulation.  If this practice were applied in a consistent manner – that is, uniformly in all RIAs – it would result in some quite bizarre findings.  For example, a Federal labor policy that increases U.S. employment while cutting employment in competitor economies might be judged to have zero benefits!

Another example, this one courtesy of Tim Taylor via Ted Gayer:  Under global accounting, if a domestic climate policy had the unintended consequence of causing emissions and economic leakage (through relocation of some manufacturing to other countries), that would not be considered a cost of the regulation (and with diminishing marginal utility of income, it might be counted as a benefit)!

On the other hand, a counter-argument to this line of thinking is that the usual narrow U.S.-only geographic scope of an RIA is simply not appropriate for a global commons problem.  Otherwise, we would simply restate in economic terms the free-rider consequences of a global commons challenge.  In other words, a domestic-only RIA of a climate policy could have the effect of “institutionalizing free riding,” to quote my Harvard Kennedy School colleague, Professor Joseph Aldy.  Of course, if global benefits are to be included in a regulatory assessment, it can be argued that global costs (such as leakage) should also be considered.

I leave it to legal scholars and lawyers to debate the law, and I defer to the philosophers among us to debate the ethics, but let’s at least ask what the consequences would be for EPA’s analysis if a U.S climate benefits number were used, rather than a global number.  For this purpose, we can start with EPA’s estimates (from Table ES-7 on page ES-19 and Table ES-10 on page ES-23 of its Regulatory Impact Analysis of the proposed rule) for 2030 benefits and costs, using a mid-range 3% real discount rate.  The estimated (global) climate benefits of the rule are $31 billion.

In order to think about what the domestic climate benefits might be, we can turn to the Obama administration’s original calculation of the Social Cost of Carbon in 2010, where the Interagency Working Group estimated a central global value for 2010 of $19 per ton of CO2, and noted (and explained in more detail in a subsequent scholarly paper by several members of the Working Group) that U.S. benefits from reducing GHG emissions would be, on average, about 7 to 10 percent of global benefits across the scenarios analyzed with the one model that permitted such geographic disaggregation.

(The Interagency Working Group also suggested that if climate damages are simply proportional to GDP, then the U.S. share would be about 23%.  However, given the IPCC’s prediction of highly unequal geographic distribution of climate change effects worldwide, combined with the exceptionally heterogeneous nature of climate sensitivity among the world’s economies, which vary from those with trivial reliance on agriculture to those dominated by their agricultural sectors, I find the argument behind this second approach unconvincing.)

Taking the midpoint of the Obama Working Group’s 7-10% range, U.S. damages (benefits) may be estimated to be 8.5% of global damages, which would reduce the $31 billion reported in the new RIA to about $2.6 billion, which is considerably less than the RIA’s estimated total annual compliance costs of $8.8 billion (assuming that the states facilitate cost-effective actions).  This validates the intuition, explained above, that for virtually any jurisdiction, the direct climate benefits it reaps from its actions will be less than the costs it incurs (again, despite the fact that global climate benefits may be much greater than global costs).

There are plenty of caveats on both sides of this simple analysis.  One of the most important is that if the proposed U.S. policy were to increase the probability of other countries taking climate policy actions (which I believe is probably the case), then the impacts on U.S. territory of such foreign policy actions would merit inclusion even in a traditional U.S.-only benefit-cost analysis.  More broadly, although it has been traditional to use a U.S.-only benefits measure in RIAs, the current guidelines for carrying out these analyses from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (Circular A-4) requires that geographic U.S. benefit and cost estimates be provided, but also allows for the optional inclusion of global estimates.

Pending resolution (or more likely, discussion and debate) from lawyers and philosophers regarding the legal and ethical issue of employing domestic benefits versus global benefits in a climate regulation RIA, it is essential to recognize that there is an even more important factor that explains how EPA came up with estimates of significant positive net benefits (benefits exceeding costs) for the proposed rule (and would have even if a domestic climate benefits number had been employed), namely, the inclusion of (domestic) health impacts of other air pollutants, the emissions of which are correlated with those of CO2.

Correlated Pollutants and Co-Benefits

The Obama Administration’s proposed regulation to reduce CO2 emissions from the electric power sector is intended to achieve its objectives through a combination of less electricity generated (compared with a business-as-usual trajectory), greater dispatch of electricity from less CO2-intensive sources (natural gas, nuclear, and renewable sources, instead of coal), and more investment in low CO2-intensive sources.  Hence, it is anticipated that less coal will be burned than in the absence of the regulation (and more use of natural gas, nuclear, and renewable sources of electricity).  This means not only less CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere, but also decreased emissions of correlated local air pollutants that have direct impacts on human health, including sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), and mercury (Hg).

It is well known that higher concentrations of these pollutants in the ambient air we breathe – particularly smaller particles of particulate matter (PM2.5) – have very significant human health impacts in terms of increased risk of both morbidity and mortality.  The numbers dwarf the climate impacts themselves.  Whereas the U.S. climate change impacts of CO2 reductions due to the proposed rule in 2030 are probably less than $3 billion per year (see above), the health impacts (co-benefits) of reduced concentrations of correlated (non-CO2) air pollutants are estimated by EPA to be some $45 billion/year (central estimate)!  (By the way, I assume that the co-benefits estimated by EPA are based upon a comparison with a business-as-usual baseline that includes the effects of all existing EPA and state regulations for these same local air pollutants.  If not, the RIA will need to be revised.)

The Bottom Line

The combined U.S.-only estimates of annual climate impacts of CO2 ($3 billion) and health impacts of correlated pollutants ($45 billion) greatly exceed the estimated regulatory compliance costs of $9 billion/year, for positive net benefits amounting to $39 billion/year in 2030.  This is the key argument related to the possible economic efficiency of the proposed rule from the perspective of U.S. welfare.  If EPA’s global estimate of climate benefits ($31 billion/year) is employed instead, then, of course, the rule looks even better, with total annual benefits of $76 billion, leading to EPA’s bottom-line estimate of positive net benefits of $67 billion per year.  See the summary table below.

The Obama Administration’s proposed regulation of existing power-sector sources of CO2 has the potential to be cost-effective, and if you accept these numbers, it can also be welfare-enhancing, if not welfare-maximizing.

That said, I assume that proponents of the Obama Administration’s proposed rule will take this assessment of EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis as evidence of the sensibility of the rule, and opponents of the Administration’s proposed actions will claim that my assessment of the RIA provides evidence of the foolishness of EPA’s proposal.  So it is in our pluralistic system (not to mention, in the context of the political polarization that has gripped Washington on this and so many other issues).


Benefits and Costs of EPA’s Proposed Clean Power Plan Rule in 2030

(Mid-Point Estimates, Billions of Dollars)

Climate Change Impacts

Health Impacts (Co-Benefits) of Correlated Pollutants plus …



Domestic Climate Impacts

Global Climate Impacts

  Climate Change

$ 3

$ 31



  Health Co-Benefits



Total Benefits

$ 3

$ 31



Total Compliance Costs

$ 9

$ 9

$ 9

$ 9

Net Benefits (Benefits – Costs)

– $ 6

$ 22

$ 39

$ 67


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.