Enact a fee on carbon to help slow climate change

Thiel Larson /

Published Mar 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

In his opening statement of a Senate hearing, Oregon’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden said, “When it comes to natural gas, America is truly the land of opportunity. ... (Natural gas) is an environmental opportunity. Gas is 50 percent cleaner than other fossil fuels and it is a major reason why U.S. CO2 emissions have gone down in recent years.”

While I respect Wyden’s opinion on many issues, his climate math is wrong! Recent research from Steven Hamberg, chief scientist, Environmental Defense Fund, shows that fracking infrastructure is leaking methane — a greenhouse gas 23 times more climate-heating than CO2 — at alarming rates, which means electricity generated from fracked gas is potentially even worse for the climate than electricity from dirty coal. Methane leakage rates aside, the carbon emissions from natural gas are still more than enough to push us past dangerous climate tipping points.

Fracked gas also crowds renewable energy sources like wind and solar out of the market, making it harder for these climate-saving technologies to compete with dirty fossil fuels.

There is another safer and more secure way to gain energy independence and this is a perfect time to do so! That is to pass legislation that puts a price on carbon, provided we take the right approach.

If we are looking to create new jobs for Americans, ramping up production of clean energy technology holds great potential. We can realize that potential by making clean energy competitive with fossil fuels. The way to do that is with a gradually increasing fee on carbon.

Sens. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have introduced legislation that would do just that. It sets a long-term emissions goal of 80 percent or more by 2050. The legislation would enact a carbon fee of $20 per ton of carbon or methane equivalent, rising at 5.6 percent a year over a 10-year period. Applied upstream (at the coal mine, the oil refinery, the natural gas processing point or at the point of importation), this fee would apply to only 2,869 of the largest fossil fuel polluters, covering about 85 percent of U.S. gas emissions, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this step alone could raise $1.2 trillion in revenue over 10 years and reduce greenhouse emissions approximately 20 percent from 2005 levels by 2025.

If we take the revenue from that carbon fee and distribute it equally to all Americans, we shield households from the impact of higher energy costs associated with the carbon fee. This is called the Carbon Fee and Dividend. In fact, most families would receive more of a dividend than they would pay for increased energy costs. Using three-fifths of the carbon fee revenue, the Family Clean Energy Rebate Program would work off the model developed by Alaska’s oil dividend to provide a monthly rebate to every legal U.S. resident. This is the most progressive way to ensure that if fossil fuel companies jack up prices, consumers can offset cost increases on fuel and electricity.

As we transition to clean energy made in America, we’ll rely less and less on foreign oil. The less oil we have to import, the more money stays here in the U.S. where it helps our economy and creates American jobs. We must also impose tariffs on goods from nations that do not have similar carbon pricing in order to protect American businesses.

The best benefit of a transition to clean energy, of course, is that it will lower the level of carbon dioxide that threatens the stability of our climate. So the time is really right to pass a carbon fee and dividend bill. It will create new jobs, stimulate our economy, give us energy independence and head off climate change. As President Barack Obama said in the State of the Union address, “The nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

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