Opinion

Gregg Easterbrook

One way to help the national debt: a carbon tax

Apr 13, 2011 19:52 UTC

The budget compromise that averted a federal government shutdown nearly foundered upon the rocks of Republican riders, one of which would have stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Speaking as someone who favors greenhouse restrictions, I wish the Republican rider — dropped just before the clock struck midnight — had succeeded.

The EPA is trying to restrict greenhouse gases using a 41-year-old statute intended for another purpose. Republicans are right to object to this.

Of course, most Republicans don’t want any greenhouse gas regulation at all — though greenhouse regulation is now justified by a strong body of science, including by statements from George W. Bush’s Climate Change Science Program. Greenhouse regulation probably will not cost anywhere near as much as current estimates. All previous programs to control air emissions have proven significantly cheaper than expected. Republicans are correct, though, that the EPA is going about this in the wrong way.

Only a global warming program enacted by Congress will have political validity. A backdoor attempt — federal bureaucrats using strained interpretations of old laws, leading to solutions imposed by judges — will be illegitimate in the eyes of voters. Americans are sick of bureaucrats and judges trying to dictate policy. Laws passed by Congress, on the other hand, clearly are legitimate politically. You may not like any particular law passed by Congress — but that’s where the Constitution vests the power in our system.

Thus Congress must speak on greenhouse gases. Backdoor bureaucratic attempts will only discredit climate change action.

Ethanol a “stealth tax” on drivers

Oct 20, 2010 13:57 UTC

Substituting ethanol for petroleum – what could be wrong with that? A lot, it turns out, including a cynical “stealth tax” on drivers.

A few days ago the Environmental Protection Agency announced that soon gasoline can be made from 85 percent petroleum and 15 percent ethanol, up from a current limit of 10 percent ethanol. Such a move to replace imported petroleum with home-grown ethanol sounds great — until you examine the details.

Ethanol is the king of subsidies. Ethanol from genetically engineered dwarf trees or tall grasses holds tremendous promise as a cost-effective, greenhouse-neutral fuel. But for today, nearly all ethanol sold in the United States is made from corn. Domestically produced corn-based ethanol is subsidized via federal payments to grain farmers, by refinery tax exemptions for fuel containing domestic ethanol, and by tariff barriers intended to prevent Brazilian sugar-based ethanol from entering the country. Annual federal subsidies to corn ethanol cost around $5 billion. Are the benefits worth that?

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