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Kerry-Lieberman adds some certainty on offsets

By Joe Romm on May 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm

"Kerry-Lieberman adds some certainty on offsets"

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Overall, Kerry-Lieberman’s language on offsets shows a willingness to make hard choices on offset regulatory mechanisms for political, market, and in some cases environmental benefits….  [O]n the whole, the offsets provision provide a reliably cheaper way to GHG reduction, which will generally be legitimate environmentally….

One of the weakest features in both the House and Senate climate bills is the large quantity of offsets that polluters are allowed to buy in place of purchasing allowances or reducing their own emissions.

I have spent a lot of time talking to leading experts and analyzing the international offset market, which has led me to realize that large-scale, inexpensive international offsets don’t exist nor will they (see “Do the 2 billion offsets allowed in Waxman-Markey gut the emissions targets?“) “” whereas large-scale inexpensive domestic emissions reductions strategies do (see “the 2020 Waxman-Markey target is so damn easy and cheap to meet“).

Moreover, CBO projects that roughly half of the domestic offsets will come from actual reductions in U.S. emissions (in uncapped sectors).  As for international offsets, they aren’t as bad as many people think (see “The CDM: Rip-offsets or real reductions?“), they haven’t gutted the Europe’s Kyoto targets under their trading system (see “Europe poised to meet Kyoto target: Does this mean the much-maligned European Trading System is a success?“), and lots of countries want to join the market (see “Japan’s carbon cuts may include offsets“).  That said, they need greater supervision (see “UN suspends largest CDM auditor “” Copenhagen needs to clean up the Clean Development Mechanism, Senate should keep House’s tough offset language“).

The new Senate bill seems like a genuine improvement over the House bill [Waxman-Markey] in this crucial area, according to Victor B. Flatt, the Taft Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Law, and the Distinguished Scholar of Carbon Trading and Carbon Markets, Global Energy Management Institute, University of Houston, Bauer College of Business.  His post, “Kerry-Lieberman Creates Some Added Certainty on Offsets,” was first published by the Center for Progressive Reform here:

The Kerry-Lieberman bill’s provisions on offsets are largely similar to those in the Waxman-Markey and Kerry-Boxer bill, but include a number of changes that make more specific policy choices in the use of offsets.

First, the proposal enumerates a specific lengthy list of eligible offset categories (whereas Waxman-Markey didn’t list specific categories, instead giving instruction for a regulatory decision). This change might assist in providing market liquidity. In terms of offset regulation, there seems to be a complex dance between the EPA and the USDA, which requires consultations between the two in most cases for offset designation and removal. The USDA is given the primary role over agricultural and forest offset approval while the EPA has a similar role over other offsets; as I’ve written before, this could be potentially problematic if the USDA is not up to the regulatory task.

Environmental consideration of offsets is still present for sequestration projects, particularly to protect habitat and native species (proposed new CAA 735(h)), and general environmental considerations may even be stronger. For instance, as in both Waxman Markey and Boxer-Kerry, Kerry-Lieberman would create an advisory committee that proposes offsets and offset rules to the regulator. But in performing this task, the advisory committee is “to avoid or minimize, to the maximum extent practicable, adverse effects on human health or the environment resulting from the implementation of offset projects under this part.” (proposed new CAA 733(a)(2)(D)).

Additionally, the KL proposal specifies that an offset category may be removed if the environmental detriments outweigh the greenhouse gas benefits. (proposed new CAA 734(2)(B)(II)). While a more nuanced version of this part would be welcome, at least it recognizes that offsets can have environmental harm and that this harm should be considered.

In terms of offset market regulation, there are a few tweaks here and there. Kerry-Lieberman specifies that the risk of loss can be agreed to by the parties to an offset agreement themselves (proposed new CAA 735(b)(3)(B)), rather than stating that the administrator may do what is necessary to make the environmental reversals whole (which could infect the secondary offset market). While this is a major improvement in terms of market stability, it still means that there will be risk to market purchasers, though at least risk with knowledge. That creates a greater complexity in accounting, and the features of the offset contracts will not be identical in all respects, making standardized markets harder. The private sector itself could show such a large preference for requiring the project developer to hold the reversal liability that standardization would occur.

As for whether or not the offsets themselves will represent “real” reductions (a common criticism of offset programs), this bill, like Waxman-Markey and especially Kerry-Boxer, takes offset reversal and verification seriously, much more seriously than the current international program. Indeed, this bill goes further than those two bills by not allowing international offset credits to be received for destruction of hydrochlorofluorocarbons, in response to criticisms of that under the Clean Development Mechanism.

However, it does allow offsets to be considered “additional” even if the activity would receive payment or compensation for another environmental benefit (such as a land use easement for habitat or more likely a prior easement on agricultural land). (proposed new CAA Sec. 735(f)). This means that many “offset” activities will not be truly additional, presumably a benefit for some existing agricultural interests, and one that would of course lessen GHG reductions. That said, the need to incentivize certain environmentally beneficial projects, including through offsets, is significant and shouldn’t be downplayed. But a real analysis of qualifying offsets will be needed to determine whether or not this is environmentally beneficial or simply a large loophole for non-legitimate offsets.

Kerry-Lieberman has reserves and insurance mechanisms for possible offset reversals, just as in prior proposals, though the penalty for an “intentional” reversal is higher (150% as compared to 100%), presumably to provide a disincentive. (proposed new CAA Sec. 735 (b)). Otherwise, the proposal in this regard is almost identical to ACES and Kerry-Boxer in requiring the administrator to select a system to ensure environmental integrity with offset reversal; specifically a reserve, insurance provision, or equivalent measure. As we get more information about the business model in offset insurance, these specific provisions deserve more examination. For instance, a CLEAR position paper suggests a combination of insurance and reserves, instead of allowing the administrator to choose either/or, may be necessary to provide a legitimate way to avoid sequestration losses.

Overall, Kerry-Lieberman’s language on offsets shows a willingness to make hard choices on offset regulatory mechanisms for political, market, and in some cases environmental benefits. I would have made different choices, but on the whole, the offsets provision provide a reliably cheaper way to GHG reduction, which will generally be legitimate environmentally, and which will work in a cap and trade market.

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7 Responses to Kerry-Lieberman adds some certainty on offsets

  1. Genny Carroll says:

    Certainty. The EPA will regulate the animal and equipment side of all farming activity. According to the bill, I will have to have ownership of a carbon unit of currency before feeding my pig. I will have to buy it thru the Goldman Sachs CCX pipeline. The USDA will regulate the corn for the pig. I may at some point get credit of a few pwennies for the dollar carbon credit. They may not grant me a carbon credit for the corn but give it instead to a Congolese farmer. I will be required to fill out reports on both the pig and the corn and obtain proper approvals for the pig eating corn. Then I will be required to report what happens with the pig poop. I suspect after I read the bill, other farmers will also read it. It may require tens of thousands of carbon cops to sign all the reports.

  2. Thanks Joe for the political analysis…. Can you tell us anything about the direct physical change to atmosphere that this might bring about? Because to me, this looks more like a genuflect.

    [JR: Enabling a global deal gets with commitments on the table gets us 2/3 of the way to 450 ppm. Better than 100% of the way to 800 to 1000 ppm.]

  3. Ken Johnson says:

    Re “the offsets provision provide a reliably cheaper way to GHG reduction”:

    International offsets would reduce our cost for achieving climate stabilization, but only by increasing other nations’ costs. The basic idea of offsets is that we buy up the cheapest emission reductions, leaving the more expensive options for other countries. Offsets will deter other countries from following our lead and adopting GHG targets of similar stringency.

    [Does anyone in the economics or political professions understand this?]

  4. Ziyu says:

    Genny, bet you didn’t know farms are exempt from the carbon market.

  5. Chris Dudley says:

    The EPA has finished rule making for emissions so really it is hard to see how all this legislation is important. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/us/14permit.html Separate RPS legislation would be a smart move, and passing carbon tariffs from Waxman-Markey might help with negotiations at the international level, but really the work is done now. Let the EPA do its job.

    [JR: EPA ain't gonna achieve an absolute emissions CUT let alone 17% by 2020 -- double that for deeper cuts. Indeed, if the bill goes down, it'll be the greatest battle just to keep EPA;s authority, as you will see.

    You don't get it -- there is no plan B and EPA can't deliver a rising carbon price or a global deal. But you're gonna get your wish.]

  6. Tom Petersen says:

    I am just starting to digest this Senate bill. Credo Action (http://bit.ly/bq3bT1) believes this legislation needs to be fixed – it allows continued off-shore oil drilling, limits the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, etc. What are your thoughts?

  7. Victor Eremita says:

    Credo Action (http://bit.ly/bq3bT1) believes this legislation needs to be fixed – … What are your thoughts?

    My thought is: don’t trust Credo Action. I subscribed for a while, and then I realized that they don’t think very hard about the issues. They are just using progressive politics as part of their marketing campaign.