Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein gets climate bill wrong
In a laudable attempt to draw more elite media attention to the Waxman-Markey bill — which, like all things “environmental,” has not exactly been a preoccupation of the political cable/blog/op-ed axis — Washington Post business writer Steven Pearlstein makes a hash of a few important facts.
Pearlstein says the Waxman-Markey bill will create “create dozens of new government agencies with broad powers to set standards, dole out rebates and tax subsidies, and pick winning and losing technologies.” By my math, “dozens” means 24 or more, but I can’t even come up with a handful. EPA will monitor CO2 and issue permits. FERC will regulate the carbon trading market. The Department of Energy will establish efficiency standards, do new research, and expand smart grid and electrical vehicle support programs. These aren’t new agencies.
There is a new Carbon Storage Research Corporation [S114(b)] run by EPRI. There’s an Offsets Integrity Advisory Board [S731] to consult on quality and standards for offsets. There might at some point be a clean energy and/or infrastructure investment bank to help finance new green projects. But most of the regulating is being done by existing departments and agencies.
Pearlstein’s hyperbole is par for the course these days. Lots of people have taken to exaggerating the complexity and opacity of the bill based primarily on its page length (one wonders how many have read it, or even a summary). Waxman-Markey does a great many things (thus the many pages), but most of them are described fairly clearly and constitute reasonable evolution of existing regulatory authority. This isn’t to say there aren’t complexities — important questions remain to be answered about coal plant performance standards and EPA authority, for example — but the bill is not the impenetrable Rube Goldberg mechanism so many in the press caricature.
Pearlstein is mixed up about the choices in climate policy as well. Apparently Paul Portney, former president of Resources for the Future, told him there are three options in reducing emissions: a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, and other regulations, standards, and investments (so-called “complementary policies”). Not sure if Portney said exactly that, but if he did, he’s mixed up too. That’s like saying your sandwich choices are chunky peanut butter, creamy peanut butter, or jelly.
Then Portney/Pearlstein adds to the confusion by saying Waxman-Markey uses a mix of all three policies, but that’s not right either. The carbon title of the bill is a cap-and-trade system, full stop. It’s a declining cap and tradable permits. Features that might have made it slightly more tax-like, e.g. 100 percent auction of permits, were rejected. There’s no tax in the mix.
The cap-and-trade system is, in fact, packaged in a large bill with a whole range of complementary policies. But why should expect (or want) otherwise? Climate policy cannot live by carbon pricing alone. [See, from the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center: “Cap and Trade is Not Enough: Improving US Climate Policy” (PDF), or Holmes Hummel, “The Essential Role of Complementary Policies in Climate Policy Design” (PPT).]
The climate policy stool has three legs: a price on carbon, complementary regulations and standards, and public investment. It would be unwise to pick one at the expense of the others just to make a bill tidier or fewer pages in length. If anything, the third leg — investment — needs to be bulked up in the bill.
All that said, Pearlstein is absolutely to be commended for recognizing that:
Something very important has been happening this week — more important, if you can believe it, than what Nancy Pelosi knew about waterboarding or why Kris Allen scored his upset victory on “American Idol.”
So damn true. Let’s hope Pearlstein can get a few more of his colleagues interested. One of the things that would have made the bill better is a lot more sunlight, and that only comes with relentless (and accurate) press exposure. After all, he’s dead on about this:
Given the bill’s scope and complexity, just getting it out of committee is a monumental achievement on the part of its principal authors, Democrats Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts. To do so, they had to make numerous compromises and concessions to powerful special interests and regional voting blocs that would be most affected by the transition to a system in which companies and consumers are forced to pay, indirectly, for the environmental damage they cause. Waxman and Markey are wily and experienced politicians, so it is a fair assumption that the bill their committee passed last night in a 33-25 vote is pretty close to what the U.S. political system is now willing to accept.
Producing a better bill than Waxman-Markey would require a few changes in the political landscape, one of which is a political media that takes the bill and the issues it addresses seriously.