Ed Markey

As an upstart state rep from Malden, Mass, Ed Markey had the temerity to support rules reform, which got him kicked him out of his office by Speaker Tom McGee. Markey set up desk, chair and phone in the statehouse hallway and burnished an image of integrity which vaulted him to the top of a crowded Congressional primary field – running under the slogan, “They can tell Ed Markey where to sit, but no one tells him where to stand” – to capture the Congressional seat he still holds.

When he hit DC in 1976, his patron, House Speaker Tip O’Neil, told him something to the effect of “sit down, you’ll get your chance.” Well, now is the chance for the brash truth-teller whose character still comes through on occasion, as in his rousing speech at Powershift 2009. But to paraphrase Cromwell, Markey seems to have sat too long.

The bellwether for measuring climate policy is whether it guarantees a near-immediate halt to coal emissions (without further ramp-up of oil) through effective domestic measures and a global strategy under US leadership.

This can be done by three means:

  1. a sharp reduction in demand for coal energy (through efficiency and massive expansion of competitive non-carbon emitting energy sources — or economic slowdown),
  2. shutting down coal burning, and/or,
  3. allowing coal burning with technology that guarantees that emissions will not enter the atmosphere.

The Markey/Waxman American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 discussion draft (ACESA) promises to do all three, but does nothing of the sort. In fact, Ed Markey has presented us with a clever roadmap for maintenance of coal.

To check this assessment I went for a second opinion to the most reliable source for sharp political analysis on US climate policy, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCE), which observed

… [our objective] is to fashion a national greenhouse gas emissions reduction policy that… preserves fuel diversity as a means of promoting greater energy independence. To that end, we are encouraged that the [ACESA] discussion draft focuses on the key role that coal plays in meeting growing U.S. electricity needs.

It is an iron-bound rule of Congressional action that no regulatory measure shall move unless there is something scarier out there. To the coal industry, that “something scarier” is apparently the threatened US EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court tactfully ruled in a suit brought by NRDC that the EPA had failed to provide an adequate rationale for declining to regulate greenhouse gases, but didn’t insist that they do anything in particular about it, so the Bush administration simply ignored the ruling.

Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, responding to a Sierra Club petition, recently issued a “declaration of intent to regulate” greenhouse gases. The move is both a genuine effort by EPA staffers to address the unfolding crisis and a calculated move by the Obama administration, as New York Times analysts Kate Galbraith and Felicity Barringer put it, to “pressure Congress to pass federal legislation that could supplant the agency’s plan or guide how it was carried out.”

The decision provoked apoplectic responses from industry. US Chamber of Commerce front man on climate, Bill Kovacs railed that regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act “will require a huge cascade of permits and halt a wide array of projects, from building coal plants to highway construction.”

That sounds pretty good to me, but it has the tinny quality of “protest too much.” In the ordinary course of things, it is worries over aggressive and varied state action that drives an industry to seek protection under federal regulation, not the threat of federal regulation under existing law. Anyone with experience implementing federal environmental law knows that even moderately determined and resourceful interests have a variety of creative and effective means to bollix up environmental regulation. The coal industry must be accounted a master at the game and should have no reason to fear EPA regulation more draconian than Congress is likely to mete out, so why not stick with the so far successful tobacco industry strategy and stiff arm every effort to regulate or legislate?

Granted, cap and trade opens new loopholes and room for creative shenanigans, as EPA enforcement officers Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel note:

… the complex [cap & trade] system of permits and offsets would be extremely difficult to police. A lack of effective enforcement (virtually impossible for offsets given the murky standards for additionality and plans to allow international trading) will encourage fraud and make the program a sham, while interest groups with a stake in the program fight to maintain and to “fix” it.

Even so, the inherent risks of allowing any legislation to move in Congress are high, so by what calculus does the coal industry conclude that Markey/Waxman is a good, or at least interesting bet? I count five factors in a quick read.

  1. It solidifies a 2°C target increase in global temperature as US policy, despite a flood of recent climate science demonstrating that this level of warming will be catastrophic.
  2. It defines the central criterion for federal action, not in terms of coal emissions impact on rate of global warming, but by progress in developing technology for carbon capture and storage.
  3. It makes the federal government responsible for developing that technology and overcoming objections (i.e. to siting).
  4. It treats coal on an equal plane with other fossil fuels.
  5. It ramps up demand for electricity (in sections promoting electrical vehicles).

I’m sure there are perfectly satisfactory rationales on each point; the sort of policy minutia which enables US environmentalists to look at every forest as a collection of trees, but there can be no mistaking the overall thrust. As the ACCE cheerfully put it, Markey/Waxman establishes “the key role that coal plays in meeting growing U.S. electricity needs,” and that is more than enough basis to declare the thing a disaster.

Joe Romm gives the thing a B+, casually brushing aside the sections clearly designed for coal maintenance, commenting that “if the bill is written well, rather then seeing new coal plants, we will see a drop in coal consumption as coal is backed out by renewables.” I respectfully suggest that this is an expression of hope, not a realistic assessment of Markey/Waxman. No measure is ever strengthened in Congressional deliberation. What we have now in hand is the high water mark of 20 years of moderate US environmentalist advocacy – the US Climate Action Partnership is credited directly in the bill – and it has failed.