House Republicans moved on Thursday to hamstring the federal government’s efforts to account for the economic costs of carbon emissions in its regulatory decisions. The “social cost of carbon” (SCC) was recently updated by the Obama Administration, and in reaction Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) put forward new legislation today that would require any agency to allow a 60-day waiting period for public comment before establishing any new rule or guideline that involves the SCC.
Along with Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), Hunter and Culberson are also calling on the Government Accountability Office to investigate how the Obama Administration came to the $43 per ton revision — because, they say, “it is imperative to understand the process by which the Interagency Working Group developed the [social cost of carbon] estimates.”
The SCC was originally established in 2010 by a process involving multiple climate and econometric models and input by teams of scientists. It calculates the economic costs of the rising seas, droughts, stronger storms, and other consequences of climate change driven by humanity’s carbon emissions. Government agencies then use it when deciding how to construct any regulation — from microwave efficiency standards to infrastructure construction to transportation and everything in between — that touches on carbon emissions.
While the full projections provide a range of numbers, the mid-range calculation from the original 2010 process pegged the SCC at about $26 per ton of carbon dioxide. An update this year raised it to $43 per ton. And judging from Politico’s quote from Hunter, that latest revision is what inspired his legislation. “Knowing how the administration reached its estimate is no less important than knowing how the administration intends to use the new calculation,” Hunter said. “The administration’s track record offers no reassurances that the necessary clarity will be provided or public input will factored, and there’s every reason to assume that efforts will be made to justify regulations with a social cost of carbon estimate that hasn’t been validated or even solidly reviewed.”
This is a bizarre complaint on multiple levels. As the White House Office of Management Budget’s Administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, Howard Shelanski, explained at a hearing in July, all the technical documents on how the SCC calculations were put together are already public. Shalenski also noted that the SCC is already publicly referenced whenever it’s used in new decisions by a government agency. Every instance of rule-making serves as a de facto opportunity for public comment. So while the decisions go into effect immediately, the SCC is always in a process of perpetual public feedback and revision — in 2010, then in 2013, and on into the future. In fact, the latest update was carried out precisely because the government received a slew of criticisms from outside scientists that the 2010 estimate was too low.
There is, of course, always the possibility that the public commenting process could be improved in terms of organization or accessibility. But since the public comment period on the SCC is already effectively 365 days a year, every year, its not clear what Duncan and Culberson’s bill accomplishes other than making the SCC more difficult to use.
The anti-SCC fervor in the House also resulted in the approval today of Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R-PA) amendment preventing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from factoring the SCC into any rule unless a federal law is passed specifically allowing the consideration. Fifteen Democrats voted with all but three Republicans to pass it. The amendment was tacked onto another bill passed by the House today giving the Energy Department the power to block any EPA regulations costing over $1 billion, if it felt the regulation would hamper economic growth.