By: Eileen Claussen and Jim Rogers
March 31, 2009
This article originally appeared in the National Journal's Energy & Environment Experts Blog.
Let’s get one thing straight: Though not perfect, we like the way President Obama and his team are addressing the potential catastrophe of climate change.
The Administration unequivocally accepts the underlying science. They realize that the cost of not acting will be far greater than the cost of taking responsible action – and that the longer we wait, the greater the costs will be for American consumers. Their emissions goals are ambitious but achievable, as is the timetable to meet them. And we agree that cap and trade is the right way to go. It’s based on common sense capitalism: it puts a price on carbon and rewards facilities that can reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at the lowest cost, even as it provides incentives for others to find more economic ways to reduce their own emissions.
Where we temporarily part ways is when it comes to the Administration’s proposal calling for a full auction of emission allowances. How these allowances are distributed doesn’t change the overall environmental goal set by the cap. We believe it is critical that a number of them be used to reduce price impacts on households and businesses – in the early years of the program. Just this week Chairmen Waxman and Markey released a discussion draft of energy and climate legislation that leaves open how we can best address this critically important issue.
In all states, electricity is distributed by local companies regulated by public service commissions whose fundamental purpose is to protect consumers and keep electricity rates low. We recommend protecting households and businesses that purchase electricity from utilities by providing allowances to the regulated distribution companies during a transition period.
There is little question that an auction, in which allowances to emit specified amounts of carbon are sold to the highest bidders, will result in a price spike for electricity in some regions. That price spike will hit households and businesses the hardest, and for some, it will be very tough to manage.
We believe we need a climate change plan that protects against price spikes in electricity bills. Our plan would effectively curb carbon, limit the risk of price volatility, target relief to those who need it most, and take advantage of the distribution companies’ and public service commissions’ ability to deliver energy efficiency.
During the transition period from granting allowances to a full auction, there would be no windfall for utility companies or their investors. The legislation itself and actions by public service commissions would guarantee it. On the flipside, there would not be huge price increases for electricity in coal-fueled states and a much smoother transition to a cleaner economy. If this approach is not taken, the whole argument for climate change legislation could be moot – senators and representatives from those states might effectively kill legislation mandating cap and trade.
Overall, we think a cap-and-trade system that shifts from granting allowances to a full auction over time will provide the most reasonable transition to the low-carbon and thriving economy we all desire. To help ensure a smooth transition, granting allowances and auction revenues should be used to help cushion workers, households, and vulnerable industries from volatile prices. It should also support the development of critical low-carbon technologies like carbon capture and storage, and assist in efforts to better adapt to the climate change we are already beginning to experience.
With a price on carbon, energy companies will more rapidly invest in clean technologies, as long as they can be certain that future regulations neither bankrupt them nor mandate that they bet on specific untried technologies. It will also help them look deeper into renewable sources of energy, be they solar, wind, hydropower, or even agricultural waste. They will rethink nuclear power which, despite its scary image, is actually a safe, clean way to generate electricity.
We know that some of those technologies still need the kinks worked out, and that others remain prohibitively expensive. But this is where the government could use some of the revenues that it gets from auctioning allowances to other emitters now, and to utilities and competitively challenged manufacturers down the road.
We’re not ostriches, and we’re not Pollyannas. We know there is a cost to addressing climate change, and that this cost will filter down to big business, to small business, and to households. Utilities that buy carbon allowances or shift to lower-carbon generating options will have to increase their rates, but energy efficiency can lower customer bills even in the face of rate increases. And there will be far less economic upheaval if higher prices come gradually, which our transition program would ensure.