How Carbon Pricing Could be Won or Lost in the West: Linked Cap and Trade Programs Proposed in the Pacific Coast States

Posted on March 14, 2019 by Kevin Poloncarz

On March 6, 2019, a bill was introduced in the Washington Senate, SB 5981, to establish a cap and trade program linked to the existing California-Québec program, which is implemented under the auspices of the Western Climate Initiative (WCI).  The bill mirrors many of the design elements from the California program, as amended pursuant to a 2017 law that authorizes its extension beyond 2020, and also borrows from legislation currently under consideration by the neighboring State of Oregon, HB 2020, which would establish a similar “cap and invest” program, also intended to be linked with the WCI jurisdictions. 

If both the Washington and Oregon bills were enacted, it would represent a significant step forward in the development of North American carbon markets and would help realize the original WCI vision of a broad, economy-wide trading program embracing a significant share of the North American economy.

The Washington bill contains many of the features of the California/WCI program, including:

  • Similar scope of covered entities and emissions thresholds, including for the “first jurisdictional deliverer” of imported electricity;
  • Three-year compliance periods with a requirement to surrender instruments amounting to at least 30 percent of the prior year’s emissions in the first two years of each period;
  • Auctions of allowances with a floor and ceiling price, an allowance price containment reserve, and free allocations to energy intensive/trade exposed entities; and
  • Authorization for covered entities to rely upon offset credits for a small portion of their compliance obligation, with a limitation on the number that can be sourced from projects that do not provide direct environmental benefits in the state.

Notable differences from the California program include a $200 automatic penalty (adjusted annually for inflation starting in 2025) for each compliance instrument that is not timely surrendered.  In California, the automatic penalty requires that a covered entity must surrender an additional three allowances for each instrument it fails to timely surrender. 

The Washington bill would also amend the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals, requiring a 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2035 and an 80 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2050.  California has the same 2050 target.  For the mid-term target, a 2016 California law requires the same 40 percent reduction below 1990 levels, but by 2030, five years earlier than would be required under the Washington bill.  While the Oregon bill has the same 2050 target as both California and the Washington bill, it sets a mid-term target for Oregon of reducing emissions to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035.  These disparities among the mid-term targets pose some question regarding whether the programs are equivalently stringent, which is a requirement for linkage imposed by a 2012 California law.  California’s approval of linkage with Ontario (which has since cancelled its program) was premised upon an Ontario goal of reducing emissions to 37 percent below 1990 levels by 2030; so linkage clearly doesn’t require uniformity of goals.

The Washington bill would also exempt emissions from a coal-fired power plant in Centralia, Washington, which is subject to a prior agreement that it must shutdown by the end of 2025. That exemption, as well as an exemption in the Oregon bill for power exports from an in-state gas-fired power plant, could pose additional obstacles to linkage and be the subject of legal challenges.  The attorneys general of Montana and Wyoming featured a similar exemption that had appeared in a 2018 Washington carbon tax bill as a basis for asserting in a letter to Governor Inslee that application of the tax to imported electricity would be unlawful.    

Obstacles aside, linking the Pacific coast states’ market-based programs would fulfill a fundamental goal of a 2013 agreement between the three states and British Columbia.  Additionally, California’s implementation of its cap and trade program in isolation of other western jurisdictions has been observed to result in emissions “leakage” in the Energy Imbalance Market, as zero-carbon power elsewhere in the west is directed to California and then back-filled by higher-emitting generation.  In response, the 2018 bill establishing California’s state policy of supplying 100 percent of retail sales from renewable and zero-carbon resources by 2045 mandates that the transition to a zero-carbon electric system must not cause or contribute to emissions increases elsewhere in the western grid or allow for resource shuffling.  That could prove challenging in the absence of equivalent price signals in other jurisdictions.  For that reason alone, the motivation for California to pursue linkage could be even stronger than when the Western Climate Initiative was launched over a decade ago.



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