Cap and Trade

There is a must-read opinion column in the Washington Post this morning by Robert J. Samuelson.  It’s entitled The Bias Against Oil and Gas.  It is spot-on.

Energy is critical to the healthy functioning of the U.S. economy.  It is, therefore, a crucially important issue for President Obama to get right–to address in a rational manner.  The point here is that Obama’s “bias” against oil and natural gas will have consequences.  These consequences include failure of his “energy policy” and quite possibly failure of his economic policy upon which so much, even rhetorically, rides on the over-estimated potential of renewable energy.  Worse yet, it means that Republicans may be handed an issue, when oil prices once again soar (and oil prices will again soar, trust me), that gets them re-elected before they deserve to be.  The loser will be the country.

The point here, and I am certain the prime motivation behind Mr. Samuelson penning the piece he did, is that there is time to correct course.  There is still time to get it right.

There are a couple of reasons in particular why someone as brilliant as Mr. Obama has gotten this issue so terribly wrong.   One, and at the top of my list, is that our president doesn’t really understand energy policy.  This is understandable.  Although Illinois is an oil and natural gas producing state, it is not Texas.  While once a significant producer, Illinois’ production has declined and oil’s economic significance to the state is limited.  Additionally, spending a career in Chicago and so little time as a Senator representing the entire state, President Obama has had little opportunity to be educated.  Thus he, like most Americans, has learned about energy not by first hand experience but by what he’s been informed about energy, and particularly about oil and natural gas, by popular culture.  Popular culture tells us that oil is dirty and is bad for people and the planet and the way to move ahead is to not drill any more dirty oil wells.  It tells us that solar and wind are clean and abundant and we must only try harder and that will be our future.  As nice as this sounds, however, it is myth.

Another reason Obama has this wrong is alluded to in Mr. Samuelson’s column.  It is the power of the environmental groups and the fact, quoting Mr. Samuelson that “[t]o many environmentalists, expanding fossil fuel production is a cardinal sin.”  Given that environmental groups are an important contituency of the Democratic Party, Democrats are loathe to challenge its orthodoxy.  Yet a rational energy and economic policy demands a overt challenge.  Unless challenged it will lead the country down a path that does not lead to energy self-sufficiency.  It will lead to even more oil imports in the years ahead.

Expanding domestic oil production is not inconsistent with our country’s, and the world’s need, to limit the burning of fossil fuels in the years ahead.  That need is properly addressed through legislation that will begin to put a cost on the burning of fossil fuels so as to discourage its use.  In the meantime, the goal of this country needs to be moving as much production as it feasibly can back to this country.  We must never lose sight that every barrel not produced at home will otherwise have to be imported.  And every barrel of oil imported amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of jobs going overseas.

Energy and economic policy will only work if built on a rational foundation.  It is time to re-lay the footings and begin to construct an energy policy that has architectural grounding.   


I have very few complaints about our President and the job he’s been doing.  To date, Mr. Obama, while perhaps overreaching at times, has managed to hit the political sweet spot more often than not.  He is, by and large, managing to do the right thing.  His high polling numbers reflect this.  Where he has completely missed the boat, however, is energy policy.  What he is proposing for the country will simply not work.  What the Obama administration has proposed is fantasy, dangerous fantasy.  My critique here is not to declare opposition but to advocate in favor of a course correction.  What’s been proposed is good, indeed, admirable, but it is not sufficient to accomplish the administration’s stated goals.

A couple of recent Op-eds are useful in helping to explain why what Obama is proposing will not work as represented.  The first appeared last week in the Washington Post.  Authored by James Schlesinger and Robert L. Hirsch, it is entitled Getting Real on Wind and Solar.  The second was in this morning’s Washington Post.  It is Robert J. Samuelson’s Selling The Green Economy

As I’ve said many times before on this blog, what the country needs to do, in addition to that which has been advocated by Mr. Obama in incentivizing and encouraging the development of new and clean energy technologies, is to recognize the inevitability of fossil fuels in our economy for the next two decades.  This is cold, hard reality.  Given this reality, the focus needs to be producing more oil and particularly cleaner burning natural gas, here on the North American continent.  For U.S. energy policy to finally succeed the country must face down the twin enemies of overseas imports of oil (this because our transportation sector is so heavily dependent on oil – 96%) and carbon emissions.  Increasing domestic production of both oil and natural gas, while not meeting the second goal–decreasing carbon emissions–, is our only viable alternative if we are to succeed with goal number one — decreasing foreign imports.  It will be through our climate change policy that we reduce emissions either through implementation of a cap and trade system or a carbon tax.  This will be what reduces our use of fossil fuels.  In the meantime, moving more energy production onshore in North America not only increases domestic energy security, it gives our economy a gigantic boost in the form of dollars circulating in America instead of being shipped abroad.  We can no longer afford the money drain.

Environmental groups and their followers need to lose the certainty that supporting domestic production, offshore and onshore, is yielding to the enemy.  It isn’t.  It is facing the fact that the country can no longer afford foreign imports, which is and has been for years the default when domestic production is stymied.  Instead, we need to bring the production home and focus on reducing carbon emissions through enactment of workable climate change legislation.  It can work.  We simply need to make it national policy. 

The nay-sayers on climate change came out in a big way today with a full page advertisement in the Washington Post and New York Times under the sponsorship of the Cato Institute.   I suspect they are wrong but in the interest of laying it all out there, I think it is important to consider the advertisement and the argument that’s being made.  Perhaps they are right and the rest of us are wrong.  The consequences of them being wrong, however, will likely be catastrophic.

I must also question their involvement with the nay-sayers on this issue.  Who can argue with the Cato Institute’s motto of “free markets, liberty and peace”.  In my view, however, Cato has become much more than its motto.  It has become the home of the rigidly ideological libertarian.  While I can understand that libertarians, who possess a general aversion to government, might chafe at any solution to a problem that necessarily involves a large role for government, I am deeply suspicious in this case that it is Cato’s ideological rigidity more than any science that’s at play here.  It would appear that what’s happening is that Cato and its ideological brethren would rather deny the problem (and science) than accept the inevitable government involvement that would be required should the problem and the science be accepted.       

I suggest that instead of denying climate change that a much better and productive focus for Cato would be on how government can best address the phenomena.  I am firmly in the camp that believes that “cap and trade” as a solution to climate change is folly and that the only viable solution, and the only one that truly relies on market forces, is the carbon tax.  For a variety of reasons beyond climate change a carbon tax, is an idea that needs to be given the most serious consideration.  

It is my view that the American public will neither understand nor ultimately accept the massive government bureaucracy that will be required to administer a cap and trade system.  We would be better off doing it right in the first place with a carbon tax.  For decades we have been subsidizing the internal combustion engine by refusing to attach to the price of gasoline, through a tax, the cost to our government of keeping gasoline inexpensive.  This subsidization has notably included the billions of dollars in defense expenditure required each year to keep the middle east “secure”.  Their have been other notable consequences of this subsidization.  The low cost of gasoline has wreaked havoc on our countryside and our road systems with the burgeoning of suburbia, what I call “McMansions in the burbs”.  This lifestyle is and always has been unsustainable, made possible only by government subsidization of oil imports.  A carbon tax, implemented by government but relying on the market appears to me to be the soundest solution, and a solution that Cato with its ‘less government’ philosophy could help to promote if it weren’t already aligned with the nay-sayers on climate change.  Cato may come to regret this alignment as the train toward climate change legislation moves forward.  I’d argue they could play a much more important role in shaping that solution than they are playing in denying its necessity.

Cato and other libertarians need to quit denying the underlying reality and direct their anti-government instincts toward solutions to climate change that minimize the role of government and emphasize the role of the market.    

I’ve worked in the energy policy arena for most of my career and consider myself an expert.  I’ve been able to see what works and what doesn’t.  I am convinced that in dealing with climate change what this country does not need, at least not without much more public scrutiny, is a massive and bloated “cap and trade” mechanism to control greenhouse gas emissions.  I am deeply concerned that the public will never understand it as it’s far too complex and requires far too much bureaucracy in order to work.  It is entirely too “command and control” for my liking.

In a refreshing editorial this morning in the Washington Post, the Post editorial staff calls on Barbara Boxer to make good on her pledge to ‘start afresh’ on climate change legislation by “giving a tax on carbon a fair hearing”.  I could not possibly agree more.  The piece is entitled Climate Change Solutions: Senator Boxer is open to everything — except what might work best.

The great appeal of cap and trade is its ability to set clear limits on greenhouse gas emissions.  A carbon tax will take much more trial and error and extrapolation of data in order to determine how effective its been in achieving carbon emission reduction targets but the tax itself will be relatively clear and transparent.  There would also be a bigger public sales job in convincing people they need to pay a tax on energy.  However, cap and trade, make no mistake, will end up raising energy prices as well and the public will never understand how it works or, I predict, trust it.

At the very least, the carbon tax needs to be publicly debated and cap and trade juggernaut slowed enough to allow this debate and a greater public debate about cap and trade and what the mechanism would require in terms of a managing bureaucracy.  The time to begin that process is now.  Bravo to the Post for making this a priority.  It is about time.