Friday, June 11, 2010

The EPA and CO2

Matthew Yglesias comments on recent Republican efforts to block EPA regulation of CO2 emissions (my emphasis):

“Yesterday by a vote of 47-53, Lisa Murkowski’s resolution that would have prevented the EPA from listening to the scientific evidence that calls for Clean Air Act regulation [of] greenhouse gas emissions failed in the U.S. Senate. That’s nowhere near the [] number of votes you would need for such a thing to pass, but it’s also bleak news for the prospects of a decent energy reform bill.

“Which means I think we’re at the point where progressive[s] need to start learning to love Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. It would be preferable to do a comprehensive overhaul of America’s energy policy and construct an economy-wide carbon pricing system, but you really can make a fair amount of progress under the EPA path and try to focus legislative attention on efficiency measures and other things that are outside the EPA’s purview but also a good deal less controversial than carbon pricing. The problem is that there’s a risk that more moderate measures than Murkowski’s could still substantially hamstring this approach.”
I guess EPA CO2 regulation makes a certain amount of policy sense. If you want less CO2 to be emitted you have to figure a way of making emitting it more expensive, and if you can’t pass a straight carbon tax or a cap-and-trade bill, you can at least raise the costs of emissions through EPA rule-making authority under the Clean Air Act. It’s possible that this approach could generate enough environmental benefit to justify the extreme inefficiency of any command-and-control rule the EPA is likely to devise. But I’m having a hard time seeing how aggressive EPA rule-making is part of a viable political strategy to improve environmental policy over the long term.

As I understand it, the administration’s political strategy is to induce Congress to pass climate control legislation by threatening to impose extremely cumbersome and politically unpopular administrative regulations if it doesn’t. Why should that impress a unified Republican congressional caucus that opposes any effective tax increase, or those Democrats who might grant that climate legislation would make sense under better economic conditions, but fear that it makes neither economic nor political sense under present conditions?

The administration is telling the Republicans, in effect, we will shoot ourselves in the foot politically (and probably kill our chance of carrying coal-dependent states) by promulgating unpopular EPA regulations if you don’t vote for legislation that: (1) you oppose ideologically; (2) may well expose you to a primary challenge; and (3) will take 2/3 majorities in both houses of Congresses to change as long as Obama stays in the White House.  Moreover, after they're promulgated, those regulations can be annulled at the stroke of a pen by a Republican president in January 2013, or gutted behind the scenes in the usual way by energy-industry and coal-dependent state lobbying.  That's about as empty as a threat can get.

Democratic senators from red-states and congressmen from Republican-leaning districts are more likely to view the administration’s pitch less as a threat than a gift. If there’s going to be CO2 regulation, they’ll be more than happy to have the administration take most of the political heat for it. But what does the administration get in return? As far as I can see, EPA regulation doesn’t give Democratic congressmen any incentive to cast unpopular votes on environmental legislation down the line. Bad EPA regulation could make that less likely than it is now by discrediting all environmental regulation.

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