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Alternative Facts: 6 Ways President Trump’s Energy Plan Doesn’t Add Up

Photos by lovnpeace and KarinKarin

This blog was co-authored with Jonathan Camuzeaux and is the first in an occasional series on the economics of President Trump's Energy Plan

Just 60 days into Trump’s presidency, his administration has wasted no time in pursuing efforts to lift oil and gas development restrictions and dismantle a range of environmental protections to push through his “America First Energy Plan.” An agenda that he claims will allow the country to, “take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

Putting aside the convenient roundness of this number, the sheer size of it makes this policy sound appealing, but buyer beware. Behind the smoke and mirrors of this $50 trillion is a report commissioned by the industry-backed Institute for Energy Research (IER) that lacks serious economic rigor. The positive projections from lifting oil and gas restrictions come straight from the IER’s advocacy arm, the American Energy Alliance. Several economists reviewed the assessment and agreed: “this is not academic research and would never see the light of day in an academic journal.”

Here is why Trump’s plan promises a future it can’t deliver:

1. No analytical back up for almost $20 trillion of the $50 trillion.
Off the bat, it’s clear that President Trump’s Plan relies on flawed math. What’s actually estimated in the report is $31.7 trillion, not $50 trillion, based on increased revenue from oil, gas and coal production over 37 years (this total includes estimated increases in GDP, wages, and tax revenue). The other roughly half of this “$50 trillion” number appears to be conjured out of thin air.

2. Inflated fuel prices
An average oil price of $100 per barrel and of $5.64 per thousand cubic feet of natural gas (Henry Hub spot price) was used to calculate overall benefits. Oil prices are volatile: in the last five years, they reached a high of $111 per barrel and a low of $29 per barrel. They were below $50 a barrel a few days ago. A $5.64 gas price is not outrageous, but gas prices have mostly been below $5 for several years. By using inflated oil and gas prices and multiplying the benefits out over 37 years, the author dismisses any volatility or price impacts from changes in supply. There’s no denying oil and gas prices could go up in the future, but they could also go down, and the modeling in the IER report is inadequate at best when it comes to tackling this issue.

3. Technically vs. economically recoverable resources
The IER report is overly optimistic when it comes to the amount of oil and gas that can be viably produced on today’s restricted federal lands. Indeed, the report assumes that recoverable reserves can be exploited to the last drop over the 37-year period based on estimates from a Congressional Budget Office report. A deeper look reveals that these estimates are actually for “technically recoverable resources,” or the amount of oil and gas that can be produced using current technology, industry practice, and geologic knowledge. While these resources are deemed accessible from a technical standpoint, they cannot always be produced profitably. This is an important distinction as it is the aspect that differentiates technically recoverable from economically recoverable resources. The latter is always a smaller subset of what is technically extractable, as illustrated by this diagram from the Energy Information Administration. The IER report ignores basic industry knowledge to present a rosier picture.

4. Lack of discounting causes overestimations
When economists evaluate the economic benefits of a policy that has impacts well into the future, it is common practice to apply a discount rate to get a sense of their value to society in today’s terms. Discounting is important to account for the simple fact that we generally value present benefits more than future benefits. The IER analysis does not include any discounting and therefore overestimates the true dollar-benefits of lifting oil and gas restrictions. For example, applying a standard 5% discount rate to the $31.7 trillion benefits would reduce the amount to $12.2 trillion.

5. Calculated benefits are not additional to the status quo
The IER report suggests that the $31.7 trillion would be completely new and additional to the current status quo. This is false. One must compare these projections against a future scenario in which the restrictions are not lifted. Currently, the plan doesn’t examine a future in which these oil and gas restrictions remain and still produce large economic benefits, while protecting the environment.

6. No consideration of environmental costs
Another significant failure of IER’s report: even if GDP growth was properly estimated, it would not account for the environmental costs associated with this uptick in oil and gas development and use. This is not something that can be ignored, and any serious analysis would address it.

We know drilling activities can lead to disastrous outcomes that have real environmental and economic impacts. Oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez have demonstrated that tragic events happen and come with a hefty social, environmental and hard dollar price tag. The same can be said for natural gas leaks, including a recent one in Aliso Canyon, California. And of course, there are significant, long-term environmental costs to increased emissions of greenhouse gases including more extreme weather, damages to human health and food scarcity to name a few.

The Bottom Line: The $50 Trillion is An Alternative Fact but the Safeguards America will Lose are Real
These factors fundamentally undercut President Trump’s promise that Americans will reap the benefits of a $50 trillion dollar future energy industry. Most importantly, the real issue is what is being sacrificed if we set down this path. That is, a clean energy future where our country can lead the way in innovation and green growth; creating new, long-term industries and high-paying jobs, without losing our bedrock environmental safeguards. If the administration plans to upend hard-fought restrictions that provide Americans with clean air and water, we expect them to provide a substantially more defensible analytical foundation.

Also posted in Markets 101, Politics, Trump's energy plan| Leave a comment

How Companies Set Internal Prices on Carbon

This post was co-authored with Elizabeth Medford

Despite the uncertainty created by the recent election, companies around the globe are demonstrating a commitment to keeping climate change in check. More than 300 American companies signed an open letter to President-elect Trump urging him not to abandon the Paris agreement. Others are acting on their own to reduce emissions in their daily operations, by setting an internal price on carbon.

The number of companies incorporating an internal carbon price into their business and investment decisions has reached new heights, a recent CDP report shows, with an increase of 23 percent over last year. The more than 1,200 companies that are currently using an internal carbon price (or are planning to within two years) are using them to determine which investments will be profitable and which will involve significant risk in the future, as carbon pricing programs are implemented around the world. Sometimes, they also use them to reach emissions reduction goals.

Not all carbon prices are created equal, and companies differ in how they set their specific price. Here’s a look at some of these methods:

Incorporating Carbon Prices from Existing Policies

 Some companies set their carbon price based on policies in the countries where they operate. For example, companies with operations in the European Union might decide to use a carbon price equal to that of the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) allowances, and those operating in the Northeastern United States might adopt the carbon price that results from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative market.

ConocoPhillips, for example, focuses its internal carbon pricing practices on operations in countries with existing or imminent greenhouse gas (GHG) regulation. As a result, its carbon price ranges from $6-38 per metric ton depending on the country. For operations in countries without existing or imminent GHG regulation, projects costing $150 million or greater, or that results in 25,000 or more metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, must undergo a sensitivity analysis that includes carbon costs.

Using Self-Imposed Carbon Fees

Others take a more aggressive approach by setting a self-imposed carbon fee on energy use. This involves setting a fee on either units of carbon dioxide generated or a proxy measurement like energy use. These programs also often include a plan for using the fees such as investment in clean energy or energy efficiency measures. This can be an effective method for incentivizing more efficient operations.

Microsoft, for example, designed its own system to account for the price of its carbon emissions. The company pledged to make its operations carbon neutral in 2012 and does so through a “carbon fee,” which is calculated based on the costs of offsetting the company’s emissions through clean energy and efficiency initiatives. Each business group within Microsoft is responsible for paying the fee depending on how much energy it uses. Microsoft collects the fees in a “central carbon fee fund” used to subsidize investments in energy efficiency, green power, and carbon offsets projects. Still, by limiting carbon fees to operational activities, Microsoft has yet to address a large chunk of their emissions.

Setting Internal Carbon Prices to Reach Emissions Reduction Targets

 Other companies set an internal carbon price based on their self-adopted GHG emissions targets. This involves determining an emissions reduction goal and then back-calculating a carbon price that will ensure the company achieves its goal by the target date. This method is a broader approach focused more on significantly reducing emissions while also mitigating the potential future risk of carbon pricing policies.

Novartis, a Swiss-based global healthcare company, uses a carbon price of $100/tCO2 and cites potential climate change impacts as a motivator. The company has its own greenhouse gas emissions target, which it is using to cut emissions to half of its 2010 levels by 2030. These internal policies mean that Novartis, which is included in the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), has been able to sell surplus allowances and thus far avoid an increase in operating costs.

Where we go from here

 While these internal carbon pricing activities are welcome – and we hope they continue – they are not sufficient to reduce greenhouse gases to the degree our nation or world requires. Like these forward thinking companies, nations around the world, including the United States, need to consider the costs of inaction, including the climate-related costs, to avoid short-sighted investments. Ultimately, we will need public policies that put a limit and a price on carbon throughout the economy.

The spread of internal carbon pricing could signal greater support for carbon pricing by governments. But companies can do more: the ultimate test of a company’s convictions and commitment to carbon pricing might be their willingness to advocate for well-designed, ambitious policies that achieve the reductions we need.

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Ensuring Environmental Outcomes from a Carbon Tax

How can we ensure that a carbon tax delivers on its pollution reduction potential? An innovative, new idea could provide greater certainty over the environmental outcome.

As momentum intensifies around the world for action to fight climate change, the United States is emerging as a leader in the new low-carbon economy. But if we are going to reduce climate pollution at the pace and scale required — cutting emissions 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and at least 83% by 2050, on a path to zero net emissions —we need to roll up our sleeves on a new generation of ambitious climate policies that harness the power of the economy and American innovation. An emerging idea could be a game-changer for the prospects of a carbon tax to help tackle climate pollution.

Economics 101 teaches us that market-based policies, including cap-and-trade programs as well as carbon taxes, are the most cost-effective and economically efficient means of achieving results. Both put a price on carbon emissions to reduce dangerous pollution. Cap-and-trade programs place a “cap” on the total quantity of allowable emissions, directly limiting pollution and ensuring a specific environmental result, while allowing prices to fluctuate as pollution permits are traded. The “guarantee” that the cap provides is a primary reason this tool has been favored by EDF and other stakeholders focused on environmental performance. That U.S. targets are based on quantities of pollution reductions also speaks to the need for policy solutions tied to these pollution limits.

In comparison, a carbon tax sets the price per unit of pollution, allowing emissions to respond to the changes in behavior this price encourages. The problem, from an environmental standpoint, is that a carbon tax lacks an explicit connection to a desired pollution reduction target — and therefore provides no assurance that the required reductions will actually be achieved. We know that a carbon tax will impact emissions, but even the most robust modeling cannot provide certainty over the magnitude of that impact. Furthermore, fundamental factors like energy or economic market dynamics can change over time, affecting the performance of a tax. Because greenhouse gas pollution accumulates in the atmosphere over time, even being slightly off the desired path over several decades can produce significant consequences for cumulative emissions, and thus climate damages.

A new approach: Environmental Integrity Mechanisms (EIMs)

Two recently-released papers by the Nicholas Institute at Duke University and Resources for the Future (RFF) directly address this key concern with a carbon tax —and suggest an innovative path forward. They illustrate how a suite of provisions – we’ll call them “Environmental Integrity Mechanisms” or “EIMs,” though each paper uses different terminology – could provide greater levels of certainty regarding the emissions outcome, by allowing for adjustment of the carbon tax regime over time to course-correct and keep us on track for meeting our targets.

EIMs – if carefully designed – can play an important role in connecting a carbon tax to its performance in reducing pollution. They are a type of built-in insurance mechanism: they may never be triggered if the initial price path achieves its projected impact, but provide a back-up plan in case it does not.

These mechanisms are analogous to well-studied “cost containment” provisions in cap-and-trade that are designed to provide greater certainty over prices. Cost containment provisions are included in several successful cap-and-trade programs around the world. For example, California’s cap-and-trade program includes a price collar that sets a floor as well as a ceiling that triggers the release of a reserve of allowances.

EIMs are a parallel effort to introduce greater emissions certainty into a carbon tax system. With the recent publication of these two papers, EIMS are beginning to receive well-deserved greater attention. These provisions help bridge the gap between caps and taxes, merging the strengths of each to create powerful hybrid programs.

How EIMs might work

Let’s take a closer look at how these “EIMs” could work.

• First, the initial tax level and/or growth rate could be adjusted depending on performance against an emissions trajectory or carbon budget benchmark. This could occur either automatically via a simple formula built into the legislation, by Congressional intervention at a later date based on expert recommendations, or by delegation of authority to a federal or independent agency or group of agencies.

There are clear advantages to including an automatic adjustment in the legislation. This avoids having to go back to a sluggish Congress to act; and there is no guarantee that Congress would make appropriate adjustments. Moreover, Congress is likely to be loath to relinquish its tax-setting authority to an executive agency — and such delegation could even face legal challenges. Delegating tax-setting authority to an executive agency could also introduce additional political uncertainty in rate setting.

In designing such an automatic adjustment, policy makers will need to consider the type, frequency and size of these adjustments, as well as how they are triggered. The RFF paper in particular discusses some of the resulting trade-offs. For example, an automatic adjustment will reduce the price certainty that many view as the core benefit of a tax. On the other hand, by explicitly and transparently specifying the adjustments that would occur under certain conditions, a high degree of price predictability can still be maintained – with the added benefit of increased emissions certainty.

• Second, the Nicholas Institute brief discusses regulatory tools that could be employed if emission goals were not met –including existing opportunities under the Clean Air Act, or even new authority. The authors point out that relative to automatic adjustment mechanisms, regulatory options are more difficult to “fine-tune.” Nevertheless, they could provide a powerful safeguard if alternatives fail.

• Finally, as the Nicholas Institute brief discusses, a portion of tax revenue could be used to fund additional reductions if performance goals were not being met. This approach could tap into cost-effective reductions in sectors where the carbon tax might be more challenging to implement (e.g. forestry or agriculture). The revenue could also be used to secure greater reductions from sectors covered by the tax — for example, by funding investments in energy efficiency. In a neat twist, the additional revenue needed to fund these emissions reductions would be available when emissions were higher than expected — that is, precisely when more mitigation was needed.

EDF’s take

Our goal is to reduce the amount of carbon pollution we put into the atmosphere in as cost-effective and efficient a manner as possible. This means putting a limit and a price on carbon pollution.

Even at this preliminary stage in the exploration of EIM design, one takeaway is clear: all carbon tax proposals should include an EIM with an automatic adjustment designed to meet the desired emissions path and associated carbon budget.

More work is needed to develop and evaluate the range and design of EIMs. And while a cap is still the most sure-fire means of guaranteeing an emissions outcome, this growing consideration by economists and policy experts opens a new path for the potential viability of carbon taxes as a pollution reduction tool in the United States.

The bottom line is this: The fundamental test of any climate policy is environmental integrity. For a carbon tax, that means an EIM.

Also posted in Markets 101, Uncategorized| 1 Response

The Atlantic's year-end feature "Hope & Despair"

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Reason for despair: Climate change. It’s the perfect problem: more global, more long-term, more irreversible, and more uncertain that virtually any other public-policy problem facing us. Climate change is a lot worse than most of us realize. Almost regardless of what we do on the mitigation front, we are in for a whole lot of hurt.

On the policy front, we have now talked for more than 20 years about how we need to turn this ship around “within a decade.” Not unlike the ever-elusive fusion technology, that hasn’t happened yet. Global carbon emissions declined slightly this year—for the first time ever without a global recession—but the trends are still pointing in the wrong direction. Worse, turning around emissions is only the very first step. It’s not enough to stabilize the flow of water going into the bathtub when the goal is to prevent the tub from overflowing. We need to turn around atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That means turning off the flow of water into the tub—getting net emissions to zero and below. It doesn’t help our efforts that many people seem to confuse the two. A study involving over 200 MIT graduate students faced with this same question revealed that even they confuse emissions and concentrations—water flowing into the tub and water levels there. If MIT graduate students can’t get this one right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Reason for hope: Climate change. Many signs point to some real momentum to finally tackle this momentous challenge.

The Paris Climate Accord builds an important foundation. It enables transparency, accountability, and markets to help solve the problem. Many governments are moving forward with pricing carbon: from California to China, from Sweden to South Africa, we see ambitious action to reign in emissions in some 50 jurisdictions. Meanwhile, lots is happening on the clean-energy front. That’s particularly true for solar photovoltaic power, which has climbed up the learning curve—and down the cost curve—faster than most would have expected only five years ago. That has also provided an important jolt for sensible climate policy. Then there’s R&D for entirely new technologies. Bill Gates leading an investment coalition with $1 billion of his own money is only one important sign of movement in that direction. The excitement for self-driving, electric vehicles is palpable up and down Silicon Valley, to name just one potentially significant example. In the end, it’s precisely this mix of Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and, of course, Washington that will lead—and, in part, is already leading—to the necessary revolution in a number of important sectors, energy and transportation chief among them.

Excerpt from The Atlantic's year-end feature on Hope and Despair: "Can the Planet Be Saved?"

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PBS NewsHour Making Sen$e with Paul Solman

Q&A accompanying a re-broadcast of a PBS NewsHour segment featuring Climate Shock:

Everyone is talking about 2 degrees Celsius. Why? What happens if the planet warms by 2 degrees Celsius?

Martin L. Weitzman: Two degrees Celsius has turned into an iconic threshold of sorts, a political target, if you will. And for good reason. Many scientists have looked at so-called tipping points with huge potential changes to the climate system: methane being released from the frozen tundra at rapid rates, the Gulfstream shutting down and freezing over Northern Europe, the Amazon rainforest dying off. The short answer is we just don’t — can’t — know with 100 percent certainty when and how these tipping points will, in fact, occur. But there seems to be a lot of evidence that things can go horribly wrong once the planet crosses that 2 degree threshold.

In “Climate Shock,” you write that we need to insure ourselves against climate change. What do you mean by that?

Gernot Wagner: At the end of the day, climate is a risk management problem. It’s the small risk of a huge catastrophe that ultimately ought to drive the final analysis. Averages are bad enough. But those risks — the “tail risks” — are what puts the “shock” into “Climate Shock.”

Martin L. Weitzman: Coming back to your 2 degree question, it’s also important to note that the world has already warmed by around 0.85 degrees since before we started burning coal en masse. So that 2 degree threshold is getting closer and closer. Much too close for comfort.

What do you see happening in Paris right now? What steps are countries taking to combat climate change?

Gernot Wagner: There’s a lot happening — a lot of positive steps being taken. More than 150 countries, including most major emitters, have come to Paris with their plans of action. President Obama, for example, came with overall emissions reductions targets for the U.S. and more concretely, the Clean Power Plan, our nation’s first ever limit on greenhouse gases from the electricity sector. And earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a nation-wide cap on emissions from energy and key industrial sectors commencing in 2017.

It’s equally clear, of course, that we won’t be solving climate change in Paris. The climate negotiations are all about building the right foundation for countries to act and put the right policies in place like the Chinese cap-and-trade system.

How will reigning in greenhouse gases as much President Obama suggests affect our economy? After all, we’re so reliant on fossil fuels.
Gernot Wagner: That’s what makes this problem such a tough one. There are costs. They are real. In some sense, if there weren’t any, we wouldn’t be talking about climate change to begin with. The problem would solve itself. So yes, the Clean Power Plan overall isn’t a free lunch. But the benefits of acting vastly outweigh the costs. That’s what’s important to keep in mind here. There are trade-offs, as there always are in life. But when the benefits of action vastly outweigh the costs, the answer is simple: act. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing here.

And what steps should the countries in Paris this week take to combat climate change?

Martin L. Weitzman: If it were entirely up to me, I would have a very simple solution: negotiate one uniform price on carbon dioxide applicable to everyone. That doesn’t mean some imaginary world government would be in charge — not at all. Every country — every government — can implement their own policy, keep the revenue and decrease taxes elsewhere. But the price is universal across the world.

Gernot Wagner: Pricing carbon, of course, is indeed the answer. It’s the obvious one or at least it should be. Now, the negotiations themselves, of course, are messy, and there currently is no negotiation around a uniform, globally applicable carbon price. Instead, what’s happening is many large countries — the U.S., the EU, and chief among them China — are putting forward internal policies that will put a price on carbon and other greenhouse gases. That’s also where Paris comes in: putting a framework on all these country actions.

Are you hopeful?

Gernot Wagner: I am. The climate problem is, in fact, a lot worse than many people realize. The climate shock is real. But there are solutions. They work. They are getting better and cheaper by the day. And we are largely moving in the right direction.

Martin L. Weitzman: Climate change is an extremely difficult problem to solve, certainly among the most difficult I have seen in my lifetime. But I’m guardedly optimistic, yes.

Gernot Wagner: In the end, it’ll take Washington, Wall Street and Silicon Valley to make this right by pricing carbon, deploying clean technologies at scale and investing in research and development that will lead to new, even cleaner technologies we can’t yet even imagine. A lot is happening on all these fronts. A lot more, of course, needs to be done.

Originally published on the PBS NewsHour Making Sen$e blog, on December 3rd, 2015.

Also posted in 1000 words, Markets 101| Leave a comment

California Market at Three: All Grown Up and Thriving

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Camuzeaux and Derek Walker.

2960384757_155b4e2efa_zAs we pointed out in August, no news is good news when it comes to California’s cap-and-trade quarterly allowance auctions, which have been running effectively and without hiccups since November 2012. That’s right, last Tuesday’s auction marks the three-year anniversary of the program’s first auction, and the fifth time that California and the Canadian province of Quebec have conducted a joint auction. Time flies by when you settle into a routine, and another set of consistent, stable results indicates once again that California has a strong, well-functioning cap-and-trade program.

Steady results equal a healthy carbon market

Over 75 million current vintage allowances – which covered entities can use for compliance as early as this year – were offered at last Tuesday’s auction, and 100% of these allowances were purchased at a price of $12.73. This price, known as the settlement price, is 63 cents above the floor price set by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) for this auction, and is in line with previous auctions where allowances have cleared at prices slightly above the floor. In the advanced auction for 2018 vintage allowances – which can only be used starting in 2018 – over 10 million allowances were offered and 100% of these were purchased at a price of $12.65. Read More »

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