Among Industry, Surprising Support for a Carbon Price

By / 6.22.2010

In meetings I’ve had recently with folks representing industries from automobiles to energy to private equity, I’ve heard it over and over again. They want a price on carbon.

They want it because they want to make money through alternative energy. For that, they need predictability in supporting the companies that take risks and need capital to design and develop alternative fuel technologies.

They want it because they, their children, their grandchildren, their employees and their shareholders, like everyone on the planet, will suffer the externalities of a carbon-dependent economy.

And they want it because they’re good corporate citizens, and they want to do their part in easing the nation toward a lower-carbon future.

The question is whether carbon pricing will get any traction in the coming weeks from a White House that seems more intent on political calibration than on shaping the landscape itself.

Given the dynamism of the carbon-pricing movement, the twin mysteries today are, first, why the president didn’t press harder for what seems to be the consensus, industry-friendly position on carbon — a simple pricing mechanism — in his Oval Office speech last week, and second, whether he will do so in the coming weeks.

The politics of carbon have changed dramatically in recent weeks, as the nation continues to watch the spill billow in the Gulf. (If you haven’t yet done it yourself on your computer, click here for BP’s own mesmerizing and terrifying live feed). A recent, post-BP poll found that 63 percent of Americans support a bill with a carbon price, while only 29 percent oppose it. The environment has also improved for proposals like the “cap-and-dividend” bill recently offered by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) (and explained here on P-Fix by Danny Morris), which would price carbon with a net-neutral return to the taxpayers in the form of checks.

Meanwhile, the nation’s leading corporations continue to support a price on carbon. In April, before the spill, three of the nation’s largest oil companies — Shell, ConocoPhillips, and BP (this is even pre-oil spill) — as well as the Edison Electric Institute, a consortium of utilities whose members provide the bulk of the nation’s electricity, all announced their support for the Kerry-Lieberman legislation with a “hard price collar” for the price of carbon (including both a floor and a ceiling).

The fact is that many private corporations want a price on carbon. They want it because they believe the future is headed in a direction where carbon-producing technologies will simply have to be reduced, and they’d rather build their businesses around that future quickly rather than slowly.

However, there was no such leadership last week from the Oval Office. Of the transition from carbon, the president said:

There are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can’t afford those costs right now. I say we can’t afford not to change how we produce and use energy — because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security and our environment are far greater. So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party — as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels.

This clinical framing scarcely captures the urgency of the task. There is a golden opportunity now finally to get business and clean energy on the same page. The question is whether it will billow by and disperse, like the oil we’re all watching in the Gulf.

Photo credit: Michael Caven’s Photostream