Death of Cap-and-Trade?

By / 7.8.2010

When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R- S.C.) recently declared cap-and-trade “dead,” he may have been more right than he realized. Graham was referring to the political prospects for carbon pricing in this Congress, but cap-and-trade has been the tool of choice for limiting emissions of other pollutants — like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides — for almost 20 years. The EPA proposed a rule yesterday that could sharply limit the role of trading in markets for those pollutants.

The proposed “transport rule” would replace the existing Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR). Both are aimed at reducing emissions that affect air quality not locally, but in downwind areas (hence the “transport” and “interstate” in their names). CAIR was issued under the Bush administration but comprehensively rejected by the D.C. Circuit Court in North Carolina v. EPA. CAIR has been in effect since the ruling, but as a zombie regulation. The EPA needs to replace it with a new rule that fits the court’s view of the agency’s powers under the Clean Air Act. The transport rule released yesterday is the agency’s attempt to do this. The rule is massive — 1,300 pages — and reads like a long-form response to the court’s opinion.

So what does this have to do with cap-and-trade? Among the court’s major objections to CAIR was the inability of the EPA to guarantee each state would reduce its emissions sufficiently to prevent interference with air quality downwind. The emissions trading systems set up by CAIR was to reduce emissions overall, and prevent problematic transport of pollution generally, but the EPA couldn’t promise, as the court read the statute to require, that each and every state would reduce emissions sufficiently. The reason for this is interstate trading. CAIR would have allowed emissions sources in different states to trade with each other. This has obvious benefits, as a bigger market is generally more efficient, but it is impossible to know in advance where the emissions reductions will occur. If it is unexpectedly cheap to reduce NOx emissions in Ohio and unexpectedly expensive in Kentucky, trading will happen and Ohio will make deeper cuts. Knowing in advance where reductions will be cheaper is hard (this lack of information is the reason for having a market in the first place). Generally, this lack of foreknowledge is not a problem, since the overall cost of emissions reductions is lower. Under the court’s reading of the Clean Air Act, however, the agency has to know the outcome in advance, at least at the state level.

The transport rule addresses this by largely eliminating interstate trading. Intrastate trading is still allowed, but the rule would only allow interstate trading at the margin, within relatively narrow “variability limits.” The EPA seems to be doubtful that even this small amount of interstate trading will be permitted by the courts. The new rule lists alternative options that do not include interstate trading at all.

It looks like we’ll be lucky if the final version of the new rule includes any interstate trading. Without interstate trading, the emissions reductions achieved by the new rule will be more expensive than they otherwise would be — possibly a lot more (I look forward to analysis from economists on exactly how much). Since the transport rule would replace both of the major cap-and-trade programs currently in operation in the U.S., this would mean an end to interstate emissions trading, at least for the 31 states affected by the new rule. It’s only a slight overstatement to say that cap-and-trade as we now know it would end.

It’s hard to accuse the EPA of timidity or error here. The agency attempted in CAIR to create an interstate market and was (somewhat surprisingly) kicked in the teeth for it by the D.C. Circuit. Though I and many other lawyers disagree with the D.C. Circuit’s reading of the Clean Air Act that led it to reject CAIR, the reading isn’t unreasonable, so it’s hard to place all of the blame on the courts either. Congress ultimately has responsibility for either creating markets for pollution reduction, or giving the EPA sufficient tools to create them itself. The transport rule released yesterday makes it clear that the EPA does not have the tools it needs.

At least some in Congress are aware of this problem, however. The three-pollutant or “3P” bill written by Sens. Carper (D-DE) and Alexander (R-TN) would create new national cap-and-trade markets for SO2, NOx and mercury (a new EPA mercury rule was also rejected by courts). If this bill were passed, it would hopefully include a fourth “P,” carbon, but even without it, the EPA would have the tools it needs. Without it, the transport rule appears to be the best the agency can do. Twenty years after the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act, that should be embarrassing.

This item is cross-posted at Weathervane.

Photo credit: Mhaithaca’s Photostream