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Green groups praise Republican for introducing carbon tax bill despite what’s in the details

Proposal's limits on EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions viewed as unacceptable.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) introduced a carbon tax plan in the U.S. House on July 23, 2018. CREDIT: By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) introduced a carbon tax plan in the U.S. House on July 23, 2018. CREDIT: By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

A congressional Republican introduced a proposal on Monday to address climate change by placing a tax on carbon dioxide emissions. But some climate experts contend the plan — if it were to miraculously become law in Republican-controlled Washington — would still fall short of cutting greenhouse gases to safeguard the climate.

The proposal, called the Market Choice Act, was authored by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), co-founder of the House Climate Solutions Caucus. The bill represents an attempt to bring Democrats and Republicans together on a plan that, among many things, would impose a tax on carbon dioxide emissions starting at $24 per ton and rising at 2 percent above the rate of inflation annually.

The Curbelo proposal would lead to a net greenhouse gas emission reduction of 27 to 32 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels and a reduction of 30 to 40 percent by 2030, according to an analysis of the proposal by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Such reductions would outpace the United States’ nationally determined contribution to the Paris climate agreement of 26 to 28 percent reductions by 2025.

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By contrast, under current U.S. policy, economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions would fall only by 18 to 22 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, researchers at Columbia University found. Revenue from the carbon tax would be used largely to fund the U.S. transportation system such as repairing road and bridges. This provision was included primarily to appeal to the Trump White House, which has made infrastructure upgrades a major focus.

In June 2017, President Donald Trump announced he would be withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement. The announcement was largely symbolic — the United States can’t actually exit the agreement until November 4, 2020 — but it signaled that, under the Trump administration, global climate action was far from a priority.

But in order to gain Republican support, Curbelo’s bill calls for the repeal of the excise tax on gasoline and diesel fuels.

The bill also would halt the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The legislation includes two times — 2025 and 2029 — that Congress would be able to consider reinstating the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions if the carbon tax has failed to reduce enough greenhouse gases.

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Environmental groups lauded Curbelo for having the courage to offer a legislative approach to fighting climate change. But many environmental groups believe the proposal does not go far enough.

“It’s a breakthrough to see a serious Republican proposal take aim at the central environmental threat of our time. But this carbon tax plan is only a conversation starter. It falls far short of what’s needed to protect our climate,” David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate & Clean Energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Monday in a statement.

At a Monday morning event sponsored by the Center of Global Energy Policy, Curbelo said his proposal is a “big, sober solution to address deep challenges” such as climate change and transportation infrastructure upgrades.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), left, discusses his carbon tax proposal with Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, on July 23, 2018. CREDIT: Screenshot/Center for Global Energy Policy
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), left, discusses his carbon tax proposal with Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, on July 23, 2018. CREDIT: Screenshot/Center for Global Energy Policy

The South Florida Republican said he recognizes the carbon tax proposal will have its critics, but he also emphasized that amendments to the bill would be welcomed.

In his comments, Curbelo complained specifically about climate “alarmists” who “contribute little to the advance of this cause.”

Curbelo said he hopes his proposed environmental deregulation provision and repeal of the gasoline tax will attract Republican support. Environmental deregulation was included in the bill in order to provide “regulatory certainty” to power plant-owing electric utilities, he said.

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At Monday’s event, Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, told Curbelo “it seems like this bill will not pass at this time.”

Curbelo nodded his head in agreement but added that he believes that once Republican lawmakers have had time read the bill, “you’re going to see more movement away from knee-jerk reaction against carbon pricing.”

Republicans in the House of Representatives, however, passed a resolution last Thursday to denounce a carbon tax. Almost all of the Republican members of Curbelo’s Climate Solutions Caucus voted in favor of the anti-carbon tax measure.

“Congress lags society in just about every way,” Curbelo said in response to the lack of action on climate change on Capitol Hill. But he also spoke about the importance of the fact that 43 Republicans are now members of the House climate caucus.

Even if the vast majority of the Republican members of the caucus voted for the anti-carbon tax resolution, Curbelo said he still sees great value in the membership growth of the bipartisan caucus.

“The fact that they now can now be held accountable and that they can be asked to reconcile their participation in a caucus like the Climate Solutions Caucus with their voting record is important for this cause,” he said at Monday’s event.

In response to concerns about taking authority away from the EPA to control greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources such as power plants, Curbelo said if the greenhouse gas emissions reductions outlined in the proposal are not met, the EPA will hold onto its authority to regulate carbon pollution.

The National Audubon Society said in a statement that Curbelo’s Market Choice Act “is a refreshingly bold move.”

“While this ‘marker’ bill is a starting point, it puts on the table some new admittedly controversial ideas,” said David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. “The specifics are all up for discussion; but how refreshing is it that we actually have a new climate framework to discuss?”

The NRDC’s Doniger, however, has taken a look at the specifics of the proposal and concluded it would not cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions fast enough. The United States needs to “invest far more in emission-reducing energy efficiency, renewable power, and electric vehicles,” he said.

Doniger also criticized the proposal for how it would prevent the EPA from taking measures to combat climate change. “We must deploy all available tools, not limit them as this bill does, to head off the worst damages from climate change,” he said.

Environmental group Food & Water Watch, which opposes carbon pricing schemes, views Curbelo’s proposal as “deceptive carbon tax legislation.”

By placing the moratorium on EPA regulations, Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said Monday in a statement that the bill would gut environmental rules aimed at curtailing emissions and would leave fossil fuel companies “free to pay to pollute instead.”

“Leaving our climate emergency to the marketplace is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. That’s why ExxonMobil and others support a carbon tax: they simply don’t work,” Hauter said.

Carbon pricing and other market mechanisms such as cap-and-trade and emissions trading rely on market forces that “have already delivered a substantial and disparate toxic burden faced by socially and economically disadvantaged communities,” a group of environmental justice and civil rights organizations, including Food & Water Watch, wrote in a letter last month to the Congressional Progressive Caucus urging its members not to support a carbon tax.

The groups who signed the letter contend a carbon tax provides government with a license to pollute and to increase pollution as long as taxes are paid.