The fight over cap and trade


The carbon emissions trading scheme known as cap-and-trade is on the global table as the United Nations Climate Change conference gets underway this week in Copenhagen.  Cap-and-trade is also a feature of the Waxman-Markey bill currently being reshaped by the U.S. Senate after passage in the House in June. Hailed by supporters as "an important first step" and "better than nothing" in the fight against global warming, cap-and-trade has become a bit of a hot potato in the green community.

Environmental justice groups and many climate activists hate the concept, not only because it allows coal-fired plants to continue to operate, but because it is an invitation to fraud -- many believe cap-and-trade will allow companies to rig the system (two of the biggest players in carbon trading are the scandal-ridden Enron and Goldman-Sachs), while more CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere.

On the other side of the argument are most of the Democratic Party and some big conservation groups, including the Natural Resource Defense Council, which see cap-and-trade as a practical tool in dealing with the climate crisis. Set the emissions cap, they argue, and allow trades to achieve it while creating green jobs.

The largest CO2 emitters in the U.S. are coal-fired power plants, which provide about 50 percent of U.S. electricity. While the Sierra Club -- a lukewarm supporter of cap-and-trade -- has led the fight to halt coal-fired plants around the West, the organization last month was part of deal that will allow a new coal-fired plant in Idaho. According to an article by Joshua Frank (Big Greens Criticized for Climate Compromise) published by, the plant will be required to "reduce its CO2 output by almost 60 percent compared to what a similar-sized coal plant would emit."

Southeast Idaho Energy, the developer of the plant, will separate the CO2 during the "gasification" stage of coal-firing and transport it to Wyoming, where it will be thrust underground to help other natural resource companies extract oil and natural gas.

"Using CO2 to force more gas and oil out of Wyoming's Frontier Formation will not lead to the kinds of cuts in emissions that are necessary and will lead to even more coal mining and prolonging the life of existing power plants," said Mike Roselle of Climate Ground Zero, an environmental outfit that is using nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic to end the practice of extracting coal through mountaintop removal in West Virginia.

At Friends of the Earth, where president Brent Blackwelder just retired after 15 years, cap-and-trade is seen as another sign that environmentalists have set the bar too low. The climate bill, says Blackwelder, "doesn't demand what science calls for. If you aren't advocating at the highest level, then you'll go to the lowest common denominator. One legislator asked me, 'How can I legislate if I'm to the left of environmental groups?' By god, they're not to the left of the Friends of the Earth." 

"Cap yes, trade no," says Robert Bullard, considered the father of the environmental justice movement. "They say it's the best we can get. That's almost like saying, well, the 13th amendment's enough -- let's not bother with the 14th. Being 'pragmatic' will mean compromise -- too often it's been detrimental to the most marginalized groups."

For a discussion of the downside of cap-and-trade, see Annie Leonard's The Story of Cap and Trade.

For an explanation of coal gasification, see Jodi Peterson's article in High Country News, A Cleaner Coal.






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