Alaskan House Speaker Mike Chenault last week raised an annoying question:
Why aren’t the Washington politicians who oppose Arctic oil drilling also battling Boeing’s production of passenger jets “if they are truly concerned about the effects of emissions of carbon dioxide from commercial activity”?
Aviation is among the world’s leading single contributors to greenhouse gases. How is extracting Arctic oil bad when building aircraft – which heartily consume oil – is good?
That irritating question leads straight to Gov. Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade legislation, which has stumbled in this session but isn’t down for the count. Some version of the proposal will be revived, at least as a ballot measure.
Cap-and-trade is designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by granting companies allowances – fixed units – for the gases released by their operations. Total emissions are capped, and the government periodically ratchets the cap downward to reduce overall greenhouse gas production. When a company cuts emissions, it can sell its surplus allowances to companies that won’t or can’t cut them. The tightening cap and the market mechanism create financial incentives to reduce carbon pollution.
Inslee’s plan would encompass the state’s biggest gas dumpers – those that emit the equivalent of more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year – and would exact taxes from them. They would thus start paying for something they’ve always gotten for free: the privilege of releasing industrial byproducts into an atmosphere owned by the public.
Translating cap-and-trade into a workable system is likely to get messy, though.
One problem with doing it on the state level is the disconnect between means and ends. A cap-and-trade system in Washington alone, where hydropower already limits the carbon footprint, would have next to no impact on global climate change. Its purpose would be moral – to provide “leadership and a model for other jurisdictions,” according to Inslee’s bill.
Chenault’s Arctic-vs.-Boeing jibe points toward another problem: Some carbon dioxide producers are more popular and politically connected than others. Some are more beneficial than others.
On Inslee’s list of the state’s biggest carbon polluters, for example, are the University of Washington and Washington State University. Under his scheme, they’d be taxed. They’d also be pressed to shrink their carbon footprints, buy allowances or offset their emissions, perhaps by planting forests.
The costs would be borne by taxpayers or tuition-paying students. That’s a much harder sell than, say, forcing lower emissions at an unpopular coal plant.
Lawmakers would also feel pressed to bend the rules when compliance might force major employers to lay off workers. Inslee’s plan includes ways to soften the human impacts, but it will be hard to fully cushion workers in industries where the fundamental science might make compliance very costly.
Washington’s pulp mills, cement factories and aluminum plants all rely on carbon-intensive chemical processes. They can tighten things up, switch to different fuels or whatever, but they are always going to produce high levels of carbon dioxide unless they shift to entirely new technologies, which may prove prohibitively expensive. As the statewide cap keeps squeezing, they may not be able to afford carbon-reducing offsetting projects.
Can a cap-and-trade system accommodate industries that must emit carbon dioxide? Would the Legislature tolerate the eventual loss of paper, aluminum and concrete plants? Could such industries be saved without playing favorites?
It’s no surprise that Inslee’s bill didn’t go anywhere this year: The idea of cap-and-trade is a still new to the public. In theory, it is beautiful. It seems bound to produce losers as well as winners, though. Washington needs the details and a realistic accounting of its downsides as well as its virtues.