Good, Bad, or Worse Then Nothing

The case against the American Power Act from Gar Lipow:

1) Bills only getter better when they don’t make things worse from the beginning:

All the cases I can find of weak reforms that grew stronger over time avoided one flaw that is prominent in Kerry-Lieberman. No matter how weak they were, they contained no features that made parts of the problems they were trying to solve worse. The 1957 Civil Rights act did not increase Jim Crow in limited areas to buy off racist Senators. The original Social Security act did not repeal any existing pensions, nor weaken any existing protections for workers or old people.

And APA makes things worse:

The nominal target has already been more than halfway met just by emissions reductions from the current recession and existing “command & control” legislation. Most of the remaining target could be met by offsets, legal counterfeit do-it-yourself emission permits. So at best the bill would produce few, if any, real cuts – nowhere near the reduction claimed in the nominal cap. Worse, many types of offsets could end increasing emissions even before they served as permission to continue burning coal.

For example, we may see ethanol (which has higher greenhouse gas emissions per mile than gasoline) credited as a carbon offset. Or we may see types of forestry which might release centuries of banked carbon from trees and soil credited as carbon reductions. The protection of offset additionality is phrased in stern generalities with specifics left to regulators. So we don’t really know what would or would not be allowed. In an age of regulatory capture, that is not good news.

Even worse, the KL bill repeals the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The usual reply from KL supporters: “That old thing? We weren’t using it anyway. And that broom is missing a few too many bristles to sweep clean.” That misses two points. However weak or strong that authority is, it is the only leverage to get climate legislation through a 60-vote Senate. Pass weak legislation that eliminates the EPA, and what will you use as leverage to strengthen it? Especially after you start seeing big agriculture and forestry garnering massive profits from the counterfeit permit industry (otherwise know as offsets). And while EPA authority does not include the ability to reduce emissions in as optimum a path a we would like, the EPA certainly has authority to reduce emissions by more than the KL bill does.

I’d suggest the issue EPA reductions vs. KL really hinges on how far into the future you’re talking about. Since KL is so weak in terms of what counts as an emission reduction and how little reductions we get in the next ten years even modestly successful reductions created by EPA regulation, would result in a lower emissions path by 2020. But going further the dynamics would probably start to shift in favor of APA.

I say probably because the offset market could expand enough to nullify even the harder limits and the EPA path doesn’t involve cutting off any additional programs. Most people think the offset market couldn’t get that big/ineffective and in political environment where it did EPA regulation would have similar problems.

It’s hard to see either path making a strong case for improving the future, passing a bad bill would reduce the urgency for action, but another failed bill hurts the cause. The scenario I most want to avoid is a wide acceptance within the environmental community of a bad bill that doesn’t pass, laying the ground work for an even worse bill in the future.


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