The Political History of Cap and Trade

How an unlikely mix of environmentalists and free-market conservatives hammered out the strategy known as cap-and-trade

In the '80s, the challenge was to limit acid rain from power plants; now, it's to cut carbon emissions. (Walter Bibkow / Photo Library)
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It would be an odd alliance. Gray was a conservative multimillionaire who drove a battered Chevy modified to burn methanol. Dan Dudek, the lead strategist for EDF, was a former academic Krupp once described as either "just plain loony, or the most powerful visionary ever to apply for a job at an environmental group." But the two hit it off—a good thing, given that almost everyone else was against them.

Many Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffers mistrusted the new methods; they had had little success with some small-scale experiments in emissions trading, and they worried that proponents were less interested in cleaning up pollution than in doing it cheaply. Congressional subcommittee members looked skeptical when witnesses at hearings tried to explain how there could be a market for something as worthless as emissions. Nervous utility executives worried that buying allowances meant putting their confidence in a piece of paper printed by the government. At the same time, they figured that allowances might trade at $500 to $1,000 a ton, with the program costing them somewhere between $5 billion and $25 billion a year.

Environmentalists, too, were skeptical. Some saw emissions trading as a scheme for polluters to buy their way out of fixing the problem. Joe Goffman, then an EDF lawyer, recalls other environmental advocates seething when EDF argued that emissions trading was just a better solution. Other members of a group called the Clean Air Coalition tried to censure EDF for what Krupp calls "the twofold sin of having talked to the Republican White House and having advanced this heretical idea."

Misunderstandings over how emissions trading could work extended to the White House itself. When the Bush administration first proposed its wording for the legislation, the EDF and EPA staffers who had been working on the bill were shocked to see that the White House had not included a cap. Instead of limiting the amount of emissions, the bill limited only the rate of emissions, and only in the dirtiest power plants. It was "a real stomach-falling-to-the-floor moment," says Nancy Kete, who was then managing the acid rain program for the EPA. She says she realized that "we had been talking past each other for months."

EDF argued that a hard cap on emissions was the only way trading could work in the real world. It wasn't just about doing what was right for the environment; it was basic marketplace economics. Only if the cap got smaller and smaller would it turn allowances into a precious commodity, and not just paper printed by the government. No cap meant no deal, said EDF.

John Sununu, the White House chief of staff, was furious. He said the cap "was going to shut the economy down," Boyden Gray recalls. But the in-house debate "went very, very fast. We didn't have time to fool around with it." President Bush not only accepted the cap, he overruled his advisers' recommendation of an eight million-ton cut in annual acid rain emissions in favor of the ten million-ton cut advocated by environmentalists. According to William Reilly, then EPA administrator, Bush wanted to soothe Canada's bruised feelings. But others say the White House was full of sports fans, and in basketball you aren't a player unless you score in double digits. Ten million tons just sounded better.

Near the end of the intramural debate over the policy, one critical change took place. The EPA's previous experiments with emissions trading had faltered because they relied on a complicated system of permits and credits requiring frequent regulatory intervention. Sometime in the spring of 1989, a career EPA policy maker named Brian McLean proposed letting the market operate on its own. Get rid of all that bureaucratic apparatus, he suggested. Just measure emissions rigorously, with a device mounted on the back end of every power plant, and then make sure emissions numbers match up with allowances at the end of the year. It would be simple and provide unprecedented accountability. But it would also "radically disempower the regulators," says EDF's Joe Goffman, "and for McLean to come up with that idea and become a champion for it was heroic." Emissions trading became law as part of the Clean Air Act of 1990.

Oddly, the business community was the last holdout against the marketplace approach. Boyden Gray's hiking partner John Henry became a broker of emissions allowances and spent 18 months struggling to get utility executives to make the first purchase. Initially it was like a church dance, another broker observed at the time, "with the boys on one side and the girls on another. Sooner or later, somebody's going to walk into the middle." But the utility types kept fretting about the risk. Finally, Henry phoned Gray at the White House and wondered aloud if it might be possible to order the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a federally owned electricity provider, to start buying allowances to compensate for emissions from its coal-fired power plants. In May 1992, the TVA did the first deal at $250 a ton, and the market took off.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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