Columns » Ernest Dumas

For a bearable world

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Here is some fantastic news for your great-grandchildren but maybe only a medium-sized development for you.

Prospects that Congress will pass and President Obama will sign a bill capping and in some way taxing carbon emissions are looking much better now than a while ago when Arkansas's senators helped torpedo an effort to put the issue on a fast-track in the Senate by using the budget process to avoid a Republican filibuster this fall.

Sixty votes to halt a filibuster may prove to be a surmountable hurdle after all. Senators Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor and Democrats from other coal-swilling states may come around on a bill that has not been diluted to pointlessness. There may be 60 Democrats in the Senate by fall, and a few moderate Republicans who have supported the idea of cap and trade, like John McCain, may get over their pique from the election and join them.

For your great-grandchildren, it should mean a slightly more bearable world. An energy bill that features a cap-and-trade mechanism for carbon emissions under which utilities and other producers of greenhouse gases would pay for permits to emit them is working its way through the House of Representatives. It calls for reducing the 2005 level of greenhouse gases 20 percent in 11 years and 83 percent by mid-century. If the United States' sudden leadership on climate change can influence Asia and Latin America the pace of global warming may slow dramatically. Europe is far ahead.

For you, it will mean a higher cost of living although the legislation will almost certainly use part of the proceeds of the big carbon assessment to help you pay the bills until the country is more or less weaned from fossil fuels. The carbon trade system will send a price signal that ultimately will make all of us, not just the utilities, more efficient energy users.

The carbon penalty will fall heavily on states of the Midwest and South, where most of the electricity is generated by coal, but on states like California and the eastern seaboard it will have little impact other than auto fuel and the generally inflationary impact on the price of manufactured goods. Arkansas falls a little on the coal side. Electric bills will take a good jump. Utility pricing tends to punish low-income people more severely. They happen to have the least efficient homes, appliances and cars. A 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions might take as much as $750 of the annual income of the poorest fifth of Arkansas families, those earning in the neighborhood of $15,000.

Addressing the differential in impact across the country will be the hardest thing for Congress to do. Lawmakers tend to get the best deal for their own people. Can New York and California lawmakers, whose states burn almost no coal to produce electricity, go along with a rebate system that favors states like West Virginia, where people get 98 percent of their electricity from coal?

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities last month gave the House Energy and Commerce Committee an elaborate system for rebating much of the $80 billion a year that would be collected from cap and trade. Rather than use the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which distributes subsidies to low-income people through the utilities (and which usually leaves Arkansas in the cold), it would use the existing tax infrastructure to send regular rebates to families, through checks, employer withholding, VA, Social Security or the electronic benefit system for those on public assistance.

Arkansas will fare a little worse than others because it has done less than nearly all the states — all but three in fact — to encourage energy conservation.

Some people in Arkansas will have it worse than others, for example the poor people on the grid of Southwestern Electric Power Co. and the other owners of the big coal-powered generating plant near Hope. They are already facing a 17 percent hike in their utility bills to finance the plant's construction. It is one of the few coal plants that will go on line after the 2005 threshold year. Other states — either the companies or the state regulators — have halted new coal plants in the face of a growing consensus that we should not be fueling the climate crisis.

The state Pollution Control Commission will approve an air permit for the plant this summer, having already given the owners the go-ahead to build it without formal state approval. The idea is that if it can go on line by 2011 it might be grandfathered in any statutory or regulatory scheme that restricts growth in carbon dioxide production. That won't happen, as David Newbern, the Public Service Commission member who dissented in giving the companies a certificate of need in 2007, tried to tell them.

Newbern may be remembered wistfully when the 113,000 customers of Swepco begin to get their bills. Everyone else, here and around the globe, also will pay a little extra for the state regulators' imprudence.

The Public Service Commission and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality said that the 5,280,000 tons of carbon dioxide that the plant will puff into the atmosphere each year along with the sulfur, mercury and nitrogen oxide would do a level of harm to the environment that they found “acceptable,” which is the standard that Arkansas law applies. Newbern called their example to Arkansas people and the nation in approving the plant in the face of the knowledge they had of its consequences “unconscionable.” People will soon appreciate his word for it.

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