The Two Fatal Flaws of a Cap-less Climate Bill

March 01, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

The tripartisan Kerry-Graham-Lieberman Senate climate squad made a splash this weekend with its decision to drop cap-and-trade from its (eventual) legislative proposal, instead imposing carbon controls on various polluting sectors of the economy. As Brad Plumer points out, this isn’t necessarily bad news for environmental advocates; treating the country as a monolithic source of pollution certainly overlooks the important distinctions between, say, electric utilities and gas-guzzling Hummers.

As I see it, though, there are two main problems with this approach:

First, we have to take for granted that any major energy and climate legislation in Congress will be hijacked by special interests. This happened with the House cap-and-trade bill, which saw huge numbers of pollution permits handed out for free to utilities, coal generators, oil refiners, etc. But under cap-and-trade, no matter how many permits you give away, no matter how much revenue the government loses that could have been spent on valuable clean energy investments, you still have a firm economy-wide emissions cap to show for it — a guarantee that the United States will emit over 80 percent less carbon in 2050 than it does now.

With this proposal, though, it looks like we lose that. If electric utilities successfully lobby the Senate and get it to weaken their emissions target by 20 percent, and coal companies win a 15 percent reprieve, well then you’ve just taken a huge step back in the country’s commitment to fight global warming. It’s possible that when we actually see the text of the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill, there will be some provision to prevent this kind of manipulation, but I’ve yet to see anything to that effect.

Second, there’s the annoying truth that you can keep taking the teeth out of climate legislation, but you’re still not going to get many — if any — more Republicans or conservative Democrats to vote for it. Case in point from The Washington Post:

Even some moderate Republicans, seen as possible supporters of a new climate bill, remain opposed to the idea of putting a price on carbon, which Lieberman still calls “sine qua non,” or an essential ingredient, of any such bill. Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), said the senator, who has opposed cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, could support pricing carbon “potentially at some point, but not at the moment.”

Which is Congress-speak for: Sure, I’d consider voting for climate legislation, but not until after the midterm elections, when the Democratic majority will be sufficiently reduced to make passing a comprehensive climate bill impossible. At which point I’ll oppose it because “it simply doesn’t have the votes.”