Plan B for Climate Policy?: A PPI Series

By / 4.22.2010

PPI has long been a proponent of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to confront the problem of climate change. But as the fortunes of cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate fade, we need to begin looking at other options before Congress. In the first post of this series, we looked at the Cantwell-Collins “cap-and-dividend” bill. This post examines the Carper-Alexander “3P” plan introduced this February, a bill that regulates only non-greenhouse-gas pollutants that some have suggested could be expanded into an electric-sector carbon cap-and-trade plan.

In early February, Sens. Tom Carper (D-DE) and Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced what we will call the “3P” (P for pollutant) bill, which tightens emissions of SO2, NOx and mercury from coal and oil-fired power plants through cap-and-trade markets. While the bill covers only non-greenhouse-gas pollutants, it has been discussed as a possible template for a climate bill targeting the electricity sector — or “4P.”

Carper-Alexander is nothing radically new. Considering how knowledgeable the American public is about cap-and-trade in general, it’s a safe bet to say most people don’t know that there is already a cap-and-trade market working to reduce air pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants in the U.S. as we speak.

If you’ve ever had any discussions about market solutions to pollution problems, then chances are you’ve heard about the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which established a pollution reduction market to address acid rain in the Northeast. Specifically, it created a cap-and-trade market for sulfur dioxide (SO2: primarily responsible for acid rain, not a greenhouse gas) and nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2, both commonly labeled NOx: harmful to humans, primary precursor to ground-level ozone, which is a greenhouse gas) for the eastern half of the country. Since its inception in 1990, it has impressively reduced acid rain problems at much lower costs than initially predicted. It is the example advocates and economists point to when discussing how cap-and-trade can help control greenhouse gas emissions. This program was further strengthened in 2005 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued the Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR), which established permanent caps and aggressive reductions for SO2 and NOx emissions beyond the Clean Air Act.

Designed to protect human health, CAIR is in poor health itself. A D.C. Circuit Court in 2008 found it failed to follow Clean Air Act statutory mandates and vacated the rule. The court then reinstated it under the stipulation that the EPA make some significant changes. The EPA is currently retooling CAIR to bring it in line with the court ruling. Just like with carbon emissions, however, it would be nice if Congress stepped up to the plate and made a law that clearly told the EPA how to administer these regulations. Unlike on carbon emissions, there’s a chance Congress can act relatively quickly.

The Basics

The Carper-Alexander bill sets a 3.5 million ton cap for a national market of SO2 emissions in 2012, then ratchets it down to two million tons in 2015 and 1.5 million tons in 2018, an 80 percent reduction of 2008 emissions. This final limit would remain unless after 2021 the EPA finds a lower cap is needed to protect public health.

The NOx market would operate slightly differently, as the country would be split into two zones, with the eastern states and western states each getting their own NOx market. The eastern market will face a cap of 1.39 million tons in 2012, which will tighten to 1.3 million tons by 2020. The western market will be capped at 510,000 tons in 2012, cranking down to 320,000 ton by 2020. When combined, the two markets will reduce NOx emissions from 2008 levels by 53 percent. The bill calls for mercury to be reduced by 90 percent by 2015, but it is not regulated in a market. Rather, the bill sets a cap for mercury (no trading) and leaves it to the EPA to promulgate the program rules.

A 4P bill could be very similar to the 3P proposal. Likely, the bill would establish a single market for CO2 emissions from power plants with reduction goals for future years, likely extending out to 2020. The bill could possibly call for New Source Performance Standards on all four pollutants for new plants. It might also include offset provisions for CO2 production. This legislative approach could be appealing if a more comprehensive proposal fails to gain support in the Senate and legislators begin to look for smaller-scale, more piecemeal approaches to emissions reduction.

The Good

The 3P bill takes aggressive action to reduce harmful air pollutants that derive from the combustion of fossil fuels, namely coal and oil, for electricity generation. Even though it targets only non-greenhouse gas pollutants, 3P could actually lead to indirect climate change benefits. While pollutants capped under the bill can be lowered through the use of filters and other technologies, a 3P scheme could also spur plant upgrades, the retirement of older (and dirtier) plants, and fuel-switching to less carbon-intensive sources, including natural gas, renewables, nuclear and hydropower — all of which would lead to lower carbon emissions. By successfully applying a cap-and-trade system for mitigating environmental damages, 3P also reinforces the notion that these systems can work in the real world without harming the economy.

Furthermore, 3P saves the EPA from legal limbo by clearly establishing the reduction goals for SO2, NOx and mercury emissions over the next 10 years and providing clarity for both firms and regulators. The bill also seems politically innocuous — even infamous climate change denier Sen. Jim Inhofe has said vaguely positive things about it. If the Obama administration goes looking for a bipartisan win on the environmental front, it may look to push the 3P.

The Bad

As already mentioned, 3P is not a climate bill, though it may have some indirect climate benefits. But even a 4P climate bill would be less than ideal. If CO2 were added to the 3P’s list of targeted pollutants, the bill would still fall short as it would regulate only the electricity sector — transportation, manufacturing and other carbon-emitting sectors would evade regulation. Electricity generation accounts for roughly one-third of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., meaning that a 4P bill would still be far less preferable than an economy-wide cap-and-trade system.

Additionally, were a 4P bill to be structured similarly to the current 3P bill, it would give a great deal of authority for market design and administration to the EPA as CO2 would technically be regulated under the Clean Air Act. Regardless of your opinion about the EPA’s ability to properly administer a massive emissions market, it’s a political sticking point, as highlighted by current proposals to strip EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

The Upshot

The 3P bill could provide a viable pathway for carbon regulation of the electricity sector. If the highly anticipated tri-partisan climate bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) does not create the kind of momentum for climate and energy legislation the authors are hoping for (more on that in the next entry), one option could be for the Senate to take a more piecemeal, sector-by-sector approach, in which a 4P bill (SO2, NOx, mercury and CO2) moves forward.

Both Carper and Alexander have sponsored carbon emissions legislation specific to electricity generation in past sessions of Congress. Both those bills called for electricity-specific cap-and-trade markets to reduce carbon emissions. Carper has signaled he’s open to incorporating his bill into a broader climate bill, though it’s unclear if he meant including CO2 in the structure of his bill or working the SO2, NOx and mercury caps into another piece of legislation.

The Carper-Alexander bill provides a simple structure, and clarifies existing regulations within EPA. It would not be an ideal approach to emissions reduction, but if all else fails, it could provide a workable jumpstart. The Clean Act Air showed that cap-and-trade can work once before, and it might have a chance to do it again.

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