Back Door Climate Policy (or, Three Small Wishes for 2011)

By most accounts, the return of the Republican Party to power in the House of Representatives has ended all hope of enacting a comprehensive climate and energy bill in the near future. Attention has shifted to the Environmental Protection Agency, which must issue new regulations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks (and, presumably, from stationary sources as well) to levels that will guarantee public health and welfare. See Massachusetts v. E.P.A., 549 U.S. 497 (2007). Yet this path, too, seems uncertain—challenges by industry groups could easily bottle up the regulatory process until at least 2012, and the Administration itself has demonstrated its intention to move slowly and carefully in implementing new requirements on industry. Meanwhile, scientists’ predictions of sea level rise, species loss, and climate-driven population displacements as a result of climate change have gotten gloomier and gloomier. To put it mildly, this is not a good way to start the new year!

Yet all may not be lost. Instead of giving up all hope or (just as bad) ignoring the reality that there will be no comprehensive climate bill in the 112thCongress, environmentalists should put their energies into near-term, politically defensible (and by that I mean, “moderate-“ and “conservative-friendly”) policy changes that could continue to move the U.S. on a path to a more climate-friendly future. Below, I suggest three ideas that I believe are both achievable and important for long-term climate policy. I don’t mean to imply that these are the only common-sense, “moderate-friendly” policy changes that could pass in the 112th Congress. Rather, I think many progressives and environmentalists have overlooked the importance of the three ideas I propose below in their rush to move cap-and-trade over the goal line.

These suggestions may sound unambitious—especially when compared to comprehensive energy and climate legislation. But given that the most likely alternative is two years of partisan bickering, extended litigation, and the general stagnation of all climate policy, a moderate, consensus-based, step-by-step approach is our best option for rebuilding momentum toward comprehensive energy reform while putting in place behavior-altering policies that will continue to nudge our fossil-friendly economic system toward a fossil-free future. Also, passing comprehensive energy policy will be much easier in 2013 or 2014 if environmental groups are able to maintain and improve their credibility and their political relevance over the next two years. One way they can do this is by achieving small, visible victories that will promote climate protection while appealing to the broad, bi-partisan base of support we will ultimately need to pass a comprehensive climate bill.

So, without further ado, here are three ideas to get us started in 2011:

1. Safety Reform in the Fossil Fuel Industry

What does it involve? Ideas for reforming the safety and regulatory structure for “too-big-to-explode” fossil fuel extraction projects run the gamut. Most involve heavier oversight by government agencies as well as stiffer penalties for misbehavior, higher liability for disasters, greater protections for whistleblowers, and increased safety, technology, and insurance requirements. Other ideas include increasing research funding for safety and clean-up technologies, and authorizing citizen suits against agencies like the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement who are charged with overseeing safety at fossil fuel extraction facilities.

What are the climate benefits? Increasing the costs and economic risks of extracting fossil fuels in the U.S. will discourage or raise the cost of producing coal, oil, and natural gas, which will increase the cost of these GHG-emitting fuels and make renewable energy and efficiency more economical.

Why will it get traction? Recent high-profile fossil-fuel related disasters in the Gulf and West Virginia (not to mention Chile and New Zealand) have primed voters and TV talking heads to believe that oil and coal producers are dangerous and reckless. Local disputes over shale gas production and the potential for groundwater contamination have added fuel to the fire. The industry is ripe for safety reforms.

Who will support it? Nearly everyone outside of the fossil fuel industry supports safety reform. Insurance companies should like it, because it makes their policies safer bets; engineering companies should like it because it will mean additional work and research dollars directed their way. Those living nearby huge energy projects or in coastal areas will support certain measures if they believe that their homes and natural areas will be made safer.

2. Embodied Greenhouse Gas Labeling for Consumer Products

What does it involve? Congress could authorize the EPA, the Department of Commerce, and other involved agencies to issue regulations for calculating and labeling embodied greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA has already promulgated a GHG reporting rule for fossil-intensive industries, see 40 C.F.R. Part 98 (2010), and numerous consumer goods are already subject to labeling requirements for safety, energy efficiency, etc. The new labeling law should also include provisions for spot inspections both in the U.S. and overseas and whistle-blower protections to ensure compliance with the regulations. The GHG reporting rule was authorized by the FY 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act, Pub. L. No. 110-161, Division F, Title II (2008), although a stand-alone bill would also do the trick.

What are the climate benefits? Before we can limit GHG emissions in the U.S. and abroad we must understand what products, industries, and regions are causing the problem. This was, in part, the motivation behind the mandatory GHG disclosure rules that were recently promulgated by EPA. In addition, the disclosure of this information will allow market forces to reward companies whose products are produced in a more climate-friendly manner. This will help to combat the inevitable “pollution haven” phenomenon that has enticed manufacturers into relocating their factories to countries with lax regulatory regimes. Finally, since reporting will inevitably play a role in any future cap-and-trade or carbon fee program, these reporting rules will help to prepare businesses for the coming regulatory system while allowing EPA to refine its own GHG reporting rules.

Why will it get traction? Climate change is a global problem. The atmosphere doesn’t care whether CO2 is emitted over Boston or over Bangalore. And, the biggest fear of U.S. manufacturers and workers alike is that the climate bill could force energy-intensive industries to shift production overseas to countries (like India and China) where they will not have to pay for their greenhouse gas emissions. These groups, as well as increasingly climate-conscious consumers, may well support a system that allows consumers to understand the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the domestic and imported products they consume.

Who will support it? Consumers will appreciate the additional information, but the real “special interest” supporters will be domestic manufacturers and their workers. As long as regulations are not too complicated or onerous, these manufacturers stand to gain from having their international competitors disclose the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the production and transport of their products to market.

3. Anti-Sprawl and Pro-Open-Space Appropriations

What does it involve? Numerous state and federal programs exist to fund the purchase of high-value conservation land as well as permanent easements to prohibit development of valuable open space. In addition, the Department of Transportation, in coordination with EPA and HUD, is authorized to issue a range of planning and construction grants for municipal and regional projects to invest in mass transit and smart planning. Funding for these programs is perennially uncertain, and often these environment-and-development friendly programs are first on the chopping block when budgets are tight. Rather than focusing on enacting brand new policies with uncertain benefits in the future, environmentalists would do well to focus their energy on funding near-term projects that will provide visible community benefits on which their Congressional sponsors can run for re-election. This involves focusing attention on the budget and appropriations committees in Congress as opposed to the authorizing committees—like Energy & Commerce or Environment & Public Works—where environmentalists often feel more comfortable.

What are the climate benefits? Open space and mass transit programs have helped to slow the exurban building frenzy that has increased driving times (and GHG emissions), paved over GHG-absorbing and aesthetically pleasing open space, and left older inner suburbs and urban areas hollowed out. Although sprawl must also be battled at the local, regional, and state level, there is much that federal legislation can do to counteract the pressures localities face to build new roads and authorize new housing projects in the outer suburbs. If we are serious about reducing transportation-related GHG emissions, we must get serious about tackling sprawl.

Why will it get traction? The local food movement, our increasing awareness of the importance of daily exercise for personal health, and commuter frustration with traffic have all increased the visibility of these issues. The persistent housing crisis—which was caused in part by residential overbuilding in suburban and ex-urban areas—combined with the pressure on families to downsize their dwellings and cut costs in the face of economic hardship have added additional weight to the arguments in favor of livable, walkable communities where housing is smaller, closer together, and more connected to mass transit. Such housing is also more likely to retain its value in a down economy and to provide easier access to changing job opportunities in urban centers.

Who will support it? Proponents of public transit, transit-oriented development, and farm- and open-land conservation are diverse. They range from bike-loving hippies and nature geeks to hard-nosed urban planners and economic development agencies, to generally conservative farmers and landowners who benefit from federal funding for land and easement purchases. Builders and manufacturers who specialize in transit-oriented development will also offer support.

In sum, it’s time to for progressives to think a bit outside the box. Happy 2011!

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