Could Renewables Be the Backstop for a Climate Change Bill?

Smarten up on the climate change debate by learning this acronym: CEPS-All. It stands for Clean Energy Portfolio Standards.

 It's a catch-all term that refers to your basic renewable energy standard -- 25 percent of all energy coming from non-coal sources by 2025. But it also adds to this target other "clean" fuel sources like nuclear power, natural gas, and coal plants that can successfully capture carbon, and applies the target to hydroelectric and municipal waste plants. 

According to an analysis by Resources for the Future, CEPS-All would reduce carbon emissions by more than 7.6 billion tons by 2030 at a total cost of about $108 billion. 

 If cap-and-trade is dead, CEPS-All is where the Senate and the House might end up. 

The U.S. has pledged to reduce its emissions by 12 billion tons by 2030, and CEPS-All is a way to get more than halfway there without any carbon pricing policies. It doesn't add much of anything to the federal deficit, and the cost per person winds up being about $120 extra per year, a relatively cheap price to pay.

Here's how this might work: Democrats will play their cap-and-trade hand. They'll lose. Cap-and-trade will become cap-and-tax. Then they'll try a version of cap-and-trade that focuses solely on the utility companies ... or excludes the transportation sector ... or maybe lowers the targeted amount of emissions reductions. If this doesn't wash, Democrats might very well resort to a CEPS-All type of program. No cap; no new messy mechanism for emissions trading; no threat of tax demagoguery. Certainty for the industry. 

Republicans like Lisa Murkowski have supported renewable standards in the past and could very well support a bill that includes them as a centerpiece. The political beauty of this concept is that a good renewables bill will increase the proportion of power generated from nuclear energy and dramatically increase the use of natural gas reserves -- both popular ideas to wean the nation off of its coal and oil addictions. 

But Democrats are skeptical of the concept because Republicans have pushed it in the past solely as a mechanism to defeat cap-and-trade. It's also pretty complicated to put into practice. My sense is that Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee are locked into the idea of cap-and-trade and would consider a CEPS-All bill not worth the hassle.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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