Earlier this week, when Barack Obama released his excellent new energy plan, I said this:

… with his promise to auction 100% of cap-and-trade credits, Obama has put himself out ahead of all the other frontrunners. He deserves the praise he’ll get for it.

John Edwards

John Edwards.
Photo: kk+ via flickr

Afterwards, the John Edwards campaign contacted me protesting that on permit auctions, as on so many other policy landmarks, Edwards was there first.

I was a bit suspicious at first — when Edwards’ plan first went online, it said a "portion" of the permits would be auctioned to raise $10b for a New Energy Economy fund. Since then, he’s said several things in speeches that make it sound like all the permits would be sold. For instance, in the MoveOn town hall he said: "What I propose is this, that we cap carbon emissions in the United States of America, that every year we ratchet that cap down. Under the cap, we auction off the right to emit any greenhouse gases." At the Google forum, he said: "What I would do is, below the cap, I would actually auction off the right to emit any greenhouse gases.”

You’ll note that there’s still a little wiggle room in these quotes, but the campaign says there’s no question: “John Edwards believes it’s wrong when oil and power companies earn massive profits by polluting our atmosphere,” said Edwards’ spokeswoman Colleen Murray. “We need to give them a reason to stop. As Edwards has been saying for months, his plan will require businesses to buy permits for all of their carbon pollution after a short transition period.”

Good to clear that up. The website seems to have been updated as well. It now says:

Edwards will auction off a portion of the pollution permits to raise $10 billion a year for a New Energy Economy Fund to jumpstart clean, renewable, and efficient energy technologies and create 1 million jobs. Other permits will be sold or given away initially. After a short transition period, all the permits will be sold. [my emphasis]

I was curious about this “short transition period,” so I chatted for a bit with the Edwards policy folks. The idea, apparently, is that there will be industries that need to make substantial infrastructure investments in order to begin reducing emissions. Edwards doesn’t want to just put them out of business, so for a short time — less than five years — they would be granted permits to help them pay for the investments. After that short period, however, all permits would revert to auction. There will, it was emphasized, be no grandfathering of coal plants that are hurriedly built in the interim.

Seems reasonable enough.

I was also curious if Edwards had any more detailed plan about what would be done with the $30-$50b raised by the auction, beyond the $10b that would go to the fund. At least for now, it seems, there is no more detailed plan on the record.

Anyway, the broader point is this: Whatever his electoral fortunes, Edwards has played an indispensable role in this campaign. On issue after issue — energy, poverty, health care — he has led the pack with bold progressive policy proposals. In doing so, he’s pushed the envelope and made it safe for the other major candidates to strengthen their own plans. He is at least partly to thank for the fact that "80% by 2050" is the standard target for emission reductions rather than an activist wet dream. He was, it seems, the first to recognize the benefits of auctioning permits. He was the first to propose a major cleantech investment fund. The first to propose banning non-IGCC coal plants. And so on. Whether he gets the nomination or not, he’s laid the groundwork for a strong progressive administration. Thanks, Johnny!