Cap and Trade Hopefulness @ Kiplinger Energy Confab

Pragmatism has been a nearly unanimous message at the McCormick Energy Conference, a gathering for working reporters this week organized by Ohio State University’s Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism (and largely funded by the McCormick Foundation). We need a price on carbon to drive the rethinking of energy in the U.S., and the cap-and-trade system built into energy legislation under consideration in Congress is the best hope to get that price in place.

At least that’s what the speakers argued. I remain concerned by the threat of enduring low carbon prices.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), which cleared the House in June and is pending in the Senate, calls for a 17% reduction in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from their 2005 level — far below the 20% reduction from 1990 levels that Europe is working towards thanks to substantial growth in US emissions under President George W. Bush. That goal is achievable, according to a panel composed of ClimateProgress blogger and Center for American Progress fellow Joseph Romm, OSU economist Andy Keeler, and Bruce Braine, a D.C.-based vp/strategic policy analysis for primarily coal-fired utility giant American Electric Power (based in Columbus, OH and thus well represented at the meeting).

Keeler rejected scare-mongering reports that ACESA would hit U.S. competitiveness and jobs: “ACESA is not going to fundamentally change the way we live.” Romm bet that the price of carbon emissions allowances would remain low through 2020.

But is it enough? Will the low cost of progress of ACESA send the wrong signal, driving easy short-term actions such as burning a little more natural gas in place of coal, but failing to drive investment in the as-yet-unproven technologies needed in the decades to come (ACESA calls for an 80% emissions cut by 2050)? The speakers were not concerned, but I am.

AEP, for example,  is counting on carbon capture and storage to make largescale emissions reductions post-2020, yet Braine acknowledged that ACESA’s carbon price wouldn’t drive it forward any time soon. It would signal, he says, “that it doesn’t make sense to invest at this point.” Economists in Europe have concluded that  an enduring low carbon price marks a failing of their emissions trading system.

As for the prospects for passage in time to support the global climate negotiations in Copenhagen this December? Braine bets that the health debate had “derailed the timing” for Senate consideration of ACESA, probably back to early 2010. Romm predicts it has a 50/50 chance of passage unless President Obama commits to pushing it “the way he has with healthcare.”

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