The House Energy and Commerce Committee plans to mark up legislation next week that would create a "cap and trade" program to reduce the emission of gases that cause global warming ("greenhouse" gases). While President Obama favors auctioning off permits to pollute and then using the proceeds largely to offset the resulting costs for consumers, the Energy and Commerce Committee seems ready to give a large portion of those permits away to utility companies for free.
Why "Cap and Trade"?
The idea behind a cap and trade program is that the federal government could cap the overall amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted into the atmosphere (and reduce that cap each year) and allow market forces to determine how the reduction in emissions can be made most efficiently.
For example, if a manufacturer finds that it can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions at its facilities very cheaply, it can then sell permits it doesn't need to another company that finds emissions reductions to be prohibitively expensive. The overall reduction in emissions would probably come with less costs to the overall economy than would be the case if the federal government simply mandated every company to reduce emissions by a set amount.
Impact on Consumers
Greenhouse gases are produced by the burning of fossil fuels like coal to provide electricity, and also by burning fossil fuels like petroleum to transport nearly every product we buy. This means that limiting the overall amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted into the atmosphere could increase the costs of just about all consumer goods. If implemented properly, this would, in turn, provide new incentives for manufacturers, consumers, and energy companies to become much more energy efficient.
The overall added costs to consumers could be offset through refundable tax credits (an approach favored by President Obama and the House Ways and Means Committee). The result would be that energy and energy-intensive services and products would be more expensive relative to other things, but the overall buying power of consumers would not be diminished. As the Congressional Budget Office has pointed out, this is particularly important for low-income people, because they are forced to spend a larger portion of their income (or all of their income) on consumption and will therefore feel a larger impact.
The CBO has also explained that the cost increases for consumers are likely to occur whether the emissions permits are auctioned off to companies or simply given to the companies for free. Greenhouse gas emitting companies would be able to charge higher prices either way as a result of the cap. President Obama proposed in his budget outline that all of the emissions permits be auctioned to companies so that the resulting revenue can be used largely for a tax rebate (an extension of his Making Work Pay Credit) that would offset the increased costs for consumers.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has analyzed the sorts of steps that can be taken to offset these regressive impacts, which would involve tax rebates for most people but would also require boosting other existing programs for people who would not be reached by tax rebates.
Energy and Commerce Committee Moving in the Wrong Direction
Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Edward Markey (D-MA), chairman of the subcommittee handling the issue, have put forth legislative language that currently does not address whether all the permits would be auctioned or not. But media reports indicate that they are currently negotiating language that would give away as much as 40 percent of the permits to utility companies, which would be required to pass on savings to their customers.
There are many, many problems with this approach. To take just a couple: Less than half of the increased costs that consumers would face as a result of cap and trade would come from higher utility bills. Blunting the effects of cap and trade for electricity would force larger greenhouse gas reductions in other energy-intensive parts of the economy, which might raise the total costs of reducing emissions.
The President was right to propose that 100 percent of greenhouse gas emission permits should be auctioned off rather than given away for free. Hopefully, the cap and trade program that emerges will be much closer to what the President outlined.