Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore)Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)Tucked away in the frantically assembled and hastily passed bailout bill of Sept. 2008 was a little-noticed provision that would empower the National Academy of Sciences to do a “carbon audit” of the U.S. tax code, scoring tax provisions according to their impact on the national carbon footprint. But the audit — brainchild of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) — never got underway, because Congress never appropriated any money for it. Until now, anyway: the “minibus” just approved by the House set aside $1.5 million for the NAS to get started.

The program is based on the old saw that what gets measured get done. Said Blumenauer’s office:

Only by understanding how the tax code offers either negative incentives to pollute more–or positive incentives to improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions–can we meet our global warming reduction goals. For example, subsidies for oil companies increase climate pollution while incentives for renewable energy tend to reduce America’s carbon footprint. But what about more complex questions about the interaction of incentives for larger homes, for heavier cars, or for parking subsidies? This audit will help answer the question of how much global warming pollution the tax code causes.

I chatted with Rep. Blumenauer about the provision on Thursday.

Why a carbon audit?

Part of dealing with our carbon pollution is understanding what policies contribute to it. People understand transportation impacts, impacts from energy utilization and farming practices, but one area that has as significant an impact as any is our tax code. What does the federal government do, with the way that it collects revenues, with incentives and penalties, that has an impact? We have some suspicions but we wanted to make sure that it wasn’t a matter of speculation but cold, hard data.

Is it going to get underway now?

Well, I hope so. Given the mysteries of the governmental process, you never really count on something happening until after it’s happened. But we’ve got three things going in our favor. First, we have now funded the study. Second, the NAS has people who know how to do this stuff, and I think there will be people there interested in it. Third, we have an administration that is actually serious about reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

Any idea when the data will be released?

No. Part of what we want to do now that it’s approved is follow up with the NAS, gently, making clear that people are watching and seeing if there’s anything we can do to help.

How will this help in shaping the tax code?

This is important data for me as a member of the Ways and Means Committee. In the next congress, things have to happen with the tax code — we can’t just go on auto-pilot. There are provisions expiring, there are revenue demands, there are lots of forces at work now, so there will be changes. There’s an opportunity for reform. Having this information is going to be an extraordinarily valuable tool to do our job right.

Do you have particular provisions in the tax code in mind, ones you think might come in for more scrutiny?

I do suspect that a provision I’ve been trying to get out of the tax code for several years now — we call it the Hummer Loophole, where we give tax advantages for people to buy the biggest, heaviest, most polluting vehicles on the planet — will show up as having no redeeming features relative to carbon impacts. But I really am not going into this with an agenda. I’m not trying to pick out my favorite targets.

It’s no mystery what a carbon audit would reveal about fossil fuel subsidies though, right?

But quantification — that’s way that this needs to be looked at. This will help policymakers in EPA, administrators in Treasury, it’s going to help people in the legislative branch fine-tune our proposals. You’ll have many applications — you can’t beat having good solid information. I’m excited we got to this point.