“Al Gore says support it. Paul Krugman says support it. Two Nobel Prize Winners. Who am I to question them?”

That is a question received, in more than one space, when it comes to the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) Act.

Well, with all due respect to the infallibility of a Nobel Prize Winner (Kissinger, ’73, James Watson, ’03, etc.), we should be clear that the bill, as drafted, falls far short of what is necessary and quite likely falls short of what is possible.

How can this be? How can a bill driven by two of the most passionate and knowledgeable House members fall short of the possible?

For one, perhaps it is because of a fundamental failure of those advocating serious action in regards to climate change. In short, as per Gore’s and many environmental organizations’ praise for the draft bill, there is a clear impression (if not reality) that those advocating for action are prepared to take scraps from the table rather than fight for and demand adequate legislative action.

In short, the mainstream reaction to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s passage of ACES last week has been: “YEAH, Congrats and Thanks to Waxman and Markey, oh, by the way, can we try to strengthen this a bit?”

Well, we need to ask ourselves a serious question: How does one “win”?

Do you win by saying “this ain’t what I want but YEAH” and then watching it watered down even further by attacks from anti-science suffering global warming deniers?

Or, do we get a stronger bill by reminding (STRONGLY) that this bill has tremendous shortfalls and does not even live up to basic principles?

What are some items to consider?

    * Joe Romm, who has been cheerleading Waxman-Markey recently (despite much on-the-record work that provides a basis for highlighting its inadequacies), says that it might (MIGHT) give us a 10-20% chance of stabilization at 450 ppm and avoiding catastrophic climate change. Hmmm … what wonderful odds. (Romm believes, with reason, that this is an improvement over the odds without Waxman-Markey. That Romm is strongly supportive gives pause to what might otherwise be harsher criticism and conclusions. And for those who aren’t aware, Romm’s Hell & High Water is perhaps the top book on the intersection of climate change and U.S. politics.)

    * The bill’s Renewable Electricity Standard (RES) doesn’t even meet the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest business as usual (BAU) analysis of renewable power in the U.S. system come 2020.

    * The bill’s 2020 target is such that it could well be met with zero actual reduction in US emissions from the EIA’s latest BAU analysis. (This is from a comment from the EIA’s acting director in a public session yesterday.)

    * The bill gives over $1 trillion in direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuel industries and about 1/10th that to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

    And, so on …

ACES Fails on Principle

Amid all this, we should recognize that this bill, despite all the hard work by good people, fails on basic principles.

    1. Scientifically Sound: The IPCC benchmark, which is quite likely far too conservative, calls for the developed world to cut emissions by 2020 by 25-40 percent below 1990 levels. (2005 levels, being used as a benchmark for Waxman-Markey, are about 14 percent higher than 1990.)

    Generously speaking, Waxman-Markey might achieve a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 and is more likely to be a near wash with those 1990 levels, leaving the United States significantly more polluting than the planetary system seems likely to be able to handle.

    2. Polluters Pay: A very basic element of any sensible climate policy is actually establishing a price for carbon (actually, any greenhouse gas) that will create economic incentives to reduce polluting.

    Waxman-Markey is stuffed with permit giveaways (especially in the near term) that simply violate what is a basic core principle. (Note: Revenues from making polluters pay certainly could be plowed back to help polluters cut their pollution (whether energy efficiency, new processes, renewables, etc). There could even be a discounted price (e.g., have “allowances” given at the “lowest” fee level) for some specific groups, but with placing some degree of costs.

    At the end of the day, it is fundamentally wrong to be handing over pollution permits. It is not just immoral, it is counterproductive to the very desires to help drive down pollution levels, ASAP. And, by the way, it is uncertain as to whether there will even be a meaningful price on carbon in the coming decade or so.

    (In the past week, crossing the desk have been assertions that the price will be essentially zero to, high end in 2020, $15 per ton of CO2, which is a near meaningless amount a decade+ into the future. Note that President Obama’s full budget submission to Congress, from just a week ago, called for 100% auction of permits and no giveaways.)

    3. Improves Social Equity: Waxman-Markey holds many elements seeking to reduce any fiscal impacts on lower-income Americans through giving away permits and reserving permits to help poorer Americans. But, this bill also gives 2 percent of permits to oil refineries and similar giveaways to other major polluting corporations. The overall balance is unclear.

    Grading it generously, ACES might merit a C- on Principle 1 (lookback provisions raise it from a D), perhaps a C on Principle 2 (yes, eventually, polluters are scheduled to pay, but there are a lot of giveaways), and gets an incomplete (or not yet graded) on Principle 3.

What Next?

I remain challenged. It is hard to scream “kill the bill” because we need to think, what next? And, the question is, where can we go from here? Are there paths to strengthen the bill?

At the stage where this is now, here are three proposed “strengthening items” that have, it seems, at least some potential if championed in Congress.

    1. Polluters’ Pay: This is a basic principle that is thrown to the winds with 85% of the initial allocations simply given away. This is a sensible, basic rallying cry item: that those polluting our atmosphere should pay at least, even if token to begin, a price for the damage that they are creating. (Note that these free allocations are rewarding those who have, over time, chosen higher pollution, over lower pollution, investment paths.)

    The House should institute a minimum fee to be paid for all given allocations, rather than simply giving them away. Why not a “base price” for 100% of permit auctions that would be the price paid allocated permits? As a notional suggestion, why not the year minus ten in dollars? Thus, in 2012, the “free” allocations would be charged, instead, a price of $2 per ton. For 100% coal-fired electricity, this would translate to a $0.001 cost per kilowatt hour. In 2013, that would increase to $0.0015 per kWh from 100% coal (remember, average U.S. energy mix is less than 50% coal).

    2. Gracefully Degrade Banked Permits: In the bill, unused permits are permanently bankable. Don’t pollute to the level expected in 2015, don’t worry, you can save that “authority to pollute” for decades and dump out more CO2 come 2035. Almost certainly, the ACES targets are inadequate and learning/real-world events will likely lead to striving to strengthen targets in the future. The permanent banking undermines the ability to strengthen the bill in the future.

    Why not institute a graceful decay of banked permits? Perhaps a 10% degrading per annum, starting six months after the year in which the permit was issued? This enables sensible business and institutional planning while offering an opportunity to help drive down future emissions.

    3. Tax Permit Allocations as Income: For all permit allocations that are not used for passing along to consumers or for energy efficiency/renewable energy investments, treat the difference between the “base polluters’ pay price” and the actual value of auctioned permits as revenue. A large share of the permits are being granted to private corporations, a grant of potentially huge amounts of value. Treating this as revenue, open to taxation, helps make this a more socially equitable piece of legislation.

These are three thoughts that, in their own way, help strengthen the bill along basic principle lines.

(Originally published at Get Energy Smart! Now!!!)

See also:

Clean Energy Climate Bill Gives Coal a Competitive Future

Climate Bill Wins Enough Votes to Pass, But at What Cost?

Young Advocates Call for Framing Shift on Waxman Bill

Utilities, Coal-State Dems are Wrecking Our Last Chance on Climate Change