Senator Whitehouse Reintroduces Carbon-Tax Bill

Jun 18, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

In December 2014, Rhode Island’s U. S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse introduced an excellent carbon-tax bill into the Senate, and I wrote a generally laudatory blog about the legislation.

On Wednesday, June 10, 2015, Senator Whitehouse reintroduced a similar, but somewhat more refined, version of the bill, S-1548.  Here is a link to the text of the bill; and here are the high points (with the relevant page numbers for those who are interested).

Senator Whitehouse’s bill imposes a tax on carbon emissions.  This alone is a very big deal, but there are two aspects that make it even better.

First, the carbon tax starts at the hefty rate of $45 per ton, and ratchets up at the rate of 2% per annum, plus inflation.  [Page 4, line 21; page 15, line 3.]  It is worth comparing this to the clearing price of carbon in the most recent auction in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that all six New England states are part of, $5.50 (RGGI Auction 28, held June 3, 2015).  That is, the price of carbon in the Whitehouse bill starts more than 700% higher than the carbon price under RGGI, and it goes up from there.  Most economists believe that society will have to price carbon emissions at a minimum of $82 per ton in order to achieve the carbon-emission reductions necessary to avert a climate disaster.  The ramp-up provided for in the Whitehouse bill gets us further than that, to $88.23 by 2050 (before factoring in inflation).

Second, RGGI applies only to the electricity sector; the Whitehouse bill applies to the entire economy.  [Page 15, line 3.]  Nationally, the electricity sector is the largest emitter of carbon; but here in New England the sector of the economy that is both the largest contributor of carbon pollution and the fastest growing is not electricity but the transportation sector.  Thus, the fact that Senator Whitehouse’s S-1548 affects the entire economy is critically important.

Although my December blog was generally quite laudatory about Senator Whitehouse’s carbon tax bill last year, I did note one major problem, the provision on so-called “Border Adjustments.  I said:

This provides that any mined or manufactured goods that are exported from the U.S. get a full refund on the carbon tax paid . . . The bill creates a perverse incentive to mine zillions of tons of coal for export to China; and drill zillions of new oil and gas wells to export the oil and gas to China. No carbon tax is paid on that coal (or oil or gas), but when the coal is burned in China, the carbon goes into the same atmosphere as if it were burned in the United States. (That is, climate change is a global problem, not a U.S. problem.)

Unfortunately, in this year’s bill that problem has not been fixed; the identical provision appears in S-1548.  [Page 11, lines 7 – 16.]  This was not a small problem last year, and it is not a small problem this year.

This year, Senator Whitehouse’s bill is revenue neutral, and this fact may appeal to fiscal conservatives.  (Although last year’s bill purported to be revenue neutral, it did allow for some expansion of government programs; this year the bill purports to be revenue neutral and actually is.)  Here is where the money would go:

  • The bill cuts the top marginal corporate tax rate from 35% to 29%. [Page 24, line 14.]
  • The bill provides a $500 tax credit per taxpayer ($1,000 for couples filing jointly) [page 26, line 7], to be adjusted for inflation. [Page 27, line 17.]
  • The bill provides an analogous $500 benefit to Social Security recipients and veterans program beneficiaries who might not qualify for the tax credit otherwise. [Page 29, line 6.]
  • The bill provides up to $20 billion per year to the states for distribution to low-income households, rural families, and workers in industries (like coal mining and oil drilling and refining) who will be especially hurt as the economy transitions away from reliance on fossil fuels. [Section starting on page 31.] This last point is especially important because it seeks to mitigate the effects of the change on vulnerable workers.

Senator Whitehouse is serious about climate change.  He has now given over 100 weekly speeches on the Senate floor addressing one subject only:  climate change (and the urgency of addressing it).

Two days before S-1548 was introduced, I heard Senator Whitehouse speak in Newport at the annual symposium of the New England Conference of Public Utilities Commissioners (NECPUC).  Although he could have addressed any subjects he wanted, Senator Whitehouse stuck to only one:  climate change.  He said, in part:

Eighty-three percent of Americans, including six in ten Republicans, want action on carbon emissions.  And with young Republican voters, more than half would describe a climate-denying politician as “ignorant,” “out-of-touch,” or “crazy.”

Having worked in the field myself for some years, I am not sure that Senator Whitehouse is entirely correct about the breadth of popular opinion on climate change.  But I am sure that he believes that himself, and is acting on that belief in a way that few elected officials at the national level are doing.

Some Powerful Words and Thoughts About Global Warming

Jun 15, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

These are dark days on the climate front.  Daily, we get new news about the impacts of global warming like a megabloom of tiny plants under Arctic sea ice, the first news of observations of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere passing the 400 parts per million mark, blowing past the “safe” level of 350 and taking greenhouse gases to levels not seen in 800,000 years.

And the policy front – where solutions are crafted and implemented – is a painful vacuum, especially at the level of the U.S. Federal government.

But there are glimmers of hope in the form of folks who tell the truth and frame a path forward.  One of them is U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor yesterday about the urgent need for action.  The other is author, activist and movement leader Bill McKibben, who was interviewed on stage last night during a live taping of the OnPoint radio show.

. . . and we need all the hope we can get.

When a Fact Check Goes Wrong and Misses the (Clean Energy) Point

Jan 16, 2012 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

The rise of dedicated public fact checking services like PolitiFact, and the Washington Post Fact Checker has been a generally good thing. However, these services can go astray when they decide that a statement which would be improved with clarification is “false” – a practice that weakens the “false” label when it is applied to an outright falsehood.

This unfortunate phenomena was on display when the Rhode Island edition of PolitiFact critiqued a comment by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about the interplay between the deployment of renewable energy resources like solar panels and ending U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels, like the oil that is refined into gasoline.

In their critique, the Providence Journal staff writing and editing the item examine comments that Senator Whitehouse made in support of federal tax incentives for renewable energy:

“Let me just bring it home,” Whitehouse said, as he referred to his notes. “In Rhode Island, this [grant program] has facilitated solar panel installations on three new bank branches. The TD Bank has opened up in Barrington, in East Providence and in Johnston, Rhode Island. Those projects created jobs, they put people to work, they lowered the cost for these banks of their electrical energy, and they get us off foreign oil and away, step by step, from these foreign entanglements that we have to get into to defend our oil supply.”

The Politi-Fact RI folks decide to look narrowly at the question of whether electricity production from solar panels always and consistently directly reduces use of oil.  This is definitely part of the story and, as I emphasized when I spoke to their reporter when he was working on the “piece, it is a direct relationship that used to be more present back in the days (not too many years ago) when more of our electricity came from oil. But is still a real relationship, especially during the days in the summer when air conditioning drives up electric demand to its highest levels of the year.  As ISO New England (the operator of the regional electric grid) told Politi-Fact RI “oil is used more on days when demand for power is high” although the reporters dismiss this reality (despite the fact that these peak hours are when air pollution is at its worst and the fact that the entire system is designed to meet that moment of peak demand) as “isolated.”

Senator Whitehouse was making three points, only one of which is addressed by the simple “displacement” analysis of what generation is pushed out by deployment of new renewable sources:

  • Moving to cleaner electricity generation from renewable sources like wind and solar is an essential piece in an overall conversion of our economy and energy system (including energy used to move the wheels on our cars, trucks and buses round and round) away from dirty and imported fossil fuels. In places like East Providence RI where TD Bank (as highlighted by Senator Whitehouse) is installing solar panels on the roof of their branches in close proximity to a Chevrolet dealer selling the Chevy Volt you can seeing that future taking shape.
  • Senator Whitehouse’s larger point about ending “foreign entanglements” is of particular significance, moving beyond the question of oil, to people in and around Rhode Island because the largest power plant in what is known in the wholesale electricity world as “Greater Rhode Island” (a geographical label of particular pride and amusement to native Rhode Islanders) is the Brayton Point Power Plant. That facility, just over the border in Somerset Massachusetts, has burnt coal imported from Indonesia and Colombia in recent years.
  • And the direct displacement issue is real: while there is less oil used to generate electricity these days it is worth pondering the overlap between peak solar energy generation (do we really need a link to show that it makes more electricity when it is sunny?) and those peak hours of electricity demand during the summer when it is hottest and air conditioners across the region are roaring away.

All of this suggests that the specific comment by Senator Whitehouse that Politi-Fact Rhode Island evaluated are solidly grounded in facts and accurate observations.

Nature is tapping us on the shoulder too, but her pockets are empty. Is that why the Senate isn’t listening?

Oct 14, 2011 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island took the Senate floor yesterday in defense of science and reason – two topics that seldom seem to influence the decisionmaking of the Senate lawmakers these days when it comes to climate change.  Speaking out against the two big lies permeating the halls of congress: 1) environmental regulations are a burden to the economy; and 2) the jury is still out on climate change, Senator Whitehouse convincingly argued why both claims are false.  “The jury isn’t out,” he said, “the verdict is in!”  “More than 97% of publishing scientists accept that climate change is happening and that humans are causing it,” the Senator said in a twenty-four minute floor speech in which he cautioned his colleagues that the Senate is failing, “earning the scorn and condemnation of history” because while it considers repealing laws designed to prevent pollution, it cannot repeal the laws of nature.  “The dark hand of polluters can tap so many shoulders and there is a lot of power and money behind that dark hand, but nature is also tapping us on the shoulder, and we ignore that tapping at our own grave peril,” said Senator Whitehouse.  I must admit, I don’t have a lot of confidence that nature’s hand will win the contest in Washington, D.C., but my confidence is a bit restored when a Senator has the courage to speak the truth to his colleagues … giving nature’s tap a fighting chance.  Senator Whitehouse (RI) Floor speech on climate change