You may not have noticed lately, but there are other major legislative initiatives, including climate and energy, on the Senate’s docket. One climate action bill that has received a lot of attention is the bill sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME). When the bill, officially called the Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal (CLEAR) Act, was first introduced in December, it caught the eye of some in the enviroblog world, but didn’t make much of an immediate splash in the Senate. Between the long build-up of the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham multi-partisan grab bag and the poorly understood Copenhagen outcome, however, it filled a vacuum with a poorly appreciated concept at the time: offsetting costs of climate legislation to consumers by cutting them a check.
Also known as “cap-and-dividend,” the Cantwell-Collins bill is pretty simple: starting in 2012, it would mandate monthly auctions of pollution permits, called carbon shares, to the first seller (producer or importer) of fossil fuel carbon into the economy. The bill sets a floor price (shares can’t be sold for less) of $7 and a ceiling price (shares can’t be sold more) of $21 in the first auction in 2012, with the cap lowering — leading to rising prices — over time.
Most of the revenue from these auctions is distributed back to citizens in the form of a monthly check, while the rest is placed in a Clean Energy Refund Trust (CERT) fund established by the bill for use on a variety of different purposes: energy R&D, climate change adaptation, non-CO2 greenhouse gas reductions, international forestry and agriculture offsets, carbon capture and storage projects. First sellers cannot trade carbon shares and carbon derivatives are prohibited. In addition, the legislation has economy-wide emissions reduction goals of 20 percent below 2005 levels in 2020, 42 percent in 2030, and 83 percent in 2050.
Advocates of Cantwell-Collins praise it for being simple and transparent. As has been noted by others, it is a mere 40 pages, certainly an easier read than Waxman-Markey, the behemoth, 1,400-page cap-and-trade bill passed by the House last June. It regulates fossil fuel-related CO2 as far “upstream” in the economic supply chain as possible, meaning that whoever produces or imports a fossil fuel is on the hook for the CO2 content. Under Cantwell-Collins, coal mines and oil producers are responsible for paying for carbon, which means that only about 3,000 facilities need to be regulated. This upstream approach is administratively more streamlined, affecting far fewer parties than Waxman-Markey, which regulates electricity producers, natural gas distributors and manufacturers (over 75,000 regulated facilities).
The CLEAR Act also rejects the convoluted system of free and auctioned allocations in Waxman-Markey for a straight-up auction of all carbon shares. All regulated parties must participate in open monthly auctions, the revenue from which is split 75-25 percent: 75 percent is redistributed per capita to every American citizen and 25 percent is placed in the CERT. Whether you agree with the approach or not, offering to cut a monthly check for every U.S. citizen is not a bad way to gain some political support. Also, from the perspective of regulated firms, the use of price floors and ceilings, also known as a price collar, would reduce future price uncertainty and help them better predict investment needs.
Finally, the bill is co-sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat. That bipartisan provenance could certainly help its chances for passage.
So with a bill that’s easy to read, easy to monitor and easy on the wallet, is there anyone who won’t like it? Well, anyone who favors hard targets for emissions reductions and anyone who believes in markets, for two. First, while the bill establishes economy-wide reduction goals as strong as Waxman-Markey, the auction system alone will not reach them. National emissions are capped at 2012 (note that it only caps CO2 emissions, unlike Waxman-Markey, which covered other greenhouse gases as well), and the cap doesn’t tighten until 2015, at which point it decreases by 0.25 percent that year, then by an additional 0.25 percent every corresponding year (so in 2016, the cap reduces by 0.5 percent, in 2017, 0.75 percent, etc).
This slow lowering of the cap will result in only five percent reductions below 2012 emissions by 2020, well short of the 20 percent reductions by 2020 goal. Even at that, the cap is not rock solid due to the price collar, which functions as a sort of safety valve. That is, if the auction price goes higher than the established ceiling price, then that essentially releases extra carbon shares for firms to bid on until the price falls back below the ceiling.
That means the remaining reductions to be met in 2020 will have to come from technology advances, land use offsets in forestry and agriculture, and reductions of non-CO2 gases, all of which are paid for by the CERT (which will be administered by the Department of Treasury). If we assume an initial carbon price of $15 in 2012 (a middle-range price, based on analyses done by the EPA and EIA), and the projected cap of roughly 7.2 billion carbon shares, then the CERT will get about $27 billion in the first year of the program.
That’s $27 billion to be split among all the uses listed above to help reduce emissions, as well as adaptation projects, energy efficiency efforts, and support for trade-sensitive industries and low-income families. The problem with a bill that’s only 40 pages is that it doesn’t have a lot of room for details — indeed, the CLEAR Act provides no guidance on how to prioritize uses of CERT funds. Although CERT funds will increase as the price of carbon shares rise, it will likely not even be close to enough to compensate for the majority of necessary carbon reductions.
A carbon market could mobilize private capital to help address some of these issues efficiently, instead of leaving all the choices and funding responsibility to the federal government. While it’s understandable that the public and politicians might still distrust markets in the wake of the recent financial collapse, the fact is that when it comes to finding inefficiencies and catalyzing innovation, nothing works better. But the “market” in Cantwell-Collins is simply an auction system. Unlike in Waxman-Markey, regulated firms can’t trade their permits, and carbon derivatives are strictly prohibited. These restrictions are going to severely limit the efficacy of the program to find the cheapest emissions reductions.
Also, there is a huge amount of risk in carbon markets (both in terms of accurate compliance and extreme events), so while they should be tightly regulated, derivatives are a necessary component because they allow firms to hedge against the risk of non-compliance or shifting standards. You will be hard-pressed to find any industry player who will advocate for a market without any trading, and there will need to be at least some industry support for any viable future climate legislation. Moreover, the monthly auction system may generate more carbon share price volatility than a continuous market, making it even more unattractive to firms.
Cantwell-Collins injects some great ideas into the climate policy debate that had not been prominently discussed before. If a policymaker wants to reduce the burden of increased energy costs on consumers, a direct rebate is an efficient and effective way to do it. The bill overall, however, is a somewhat naïve approach that does not fully appreciate the ability of markets to generate efficient emissions reductions and does not limit carbon emissions effectively. Its merits (simplified approach, upstream regulation, price collar) are outweighed by its limitations (extremely slow cap reduction, heavy reliance on CERT-funded reduction programs, draconian market restrictions). The CLEAR Act will continue to play a role in the climate debate of the Hill, but in its current form, it is unlikely to be the last bill standing.