Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel are lawyers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who have spoken out against the plans for carbon trading, carbon capture and storage, and carbon offsets in the pending Waxman-Markey Climate Bill and Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act. Both have worked as U.S. government attorneys on environmental protection for approximately 20 years. They argue that cap-and-trade is based on a misreading of trading schemes on acid rain (see Dispelling the myths of the acid rain story) and argue instead for carbon fees to create a market more favorable for clean-energy development, such as renewable energy, over continued fossil fuel use.
Opposing Coal Plants
In May, 2008, Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, wrote a public letter opposing cap-and-trade solutions to greenhouse gas emissions and supporting a federal moratorium on new coal plants that don't sequester their carbon dioxide emissions. The letter, "Urgent Plea for Enactment of Carbon Fees and Ban on New Coal-Fired Power Plants without Carbon Sequestration," was written in their capacity as citizens rather than in their capacity as EPA employees.
In the discussion paper "Keeping Our Eyes on the Wrong Ball: Why Acid Rain is the Wrong Template and the 1990 CFC-Tax is Closer to the Mark - and Why Cap-and-Trade Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis But Carbon Fees with 100% Rebate Can", dated February 21, 2009, Williams and Zabel argue that the real solution to tackling climate change is creating a market environment for clean-energy development:
"The single biggest obstacle to solving the climate crisis is the fact that the cost of fossil fuel energy remains relatively low, creating little incentive for conservation or for the scale-up of clean energy. While prices for clean energy have fallen, clean energy remains significantly more expensive than fossil fuel energy. For instance, fossil fuel-generated electricity currently averages between 6 and 10 cents per kilowatt hour, while, depending on its design and location, solar currently averages 2 to 3 times that amount."
To achieve this goal they argue for a fee on carbon, one that takes into account the environmental damage costs, to "insure that, within a set time period, the price of fossil fuel energy exceeds the price of clean energy from sources such as wind and the sun. Only an absolute commitment to insuring that the price of fossil fuel energy will exceed the price of today’s clean energy alternatives will insure the substantial level of investments in the panoply of possible clean energy technologies that are needed to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and to do so in a way that is fair to all."
They go on to argue that such fees would create a market more favorable for clean-energy development rather than fossil fuels: "Carbon Fees would help clean-energy development by giving prospective investors certainty in two areas. First, investors would be confident that every unit of clean energy available at the end of the ten-year time period would be more affordable to consumers than any unit of fossil fuel energy. This would mean that, while investors would not know which clean energy technology or firm would be most successful, they would know for sure that any firm able to actually produce such energy would be able to compete successfully with all existing fossil fuel energy products. This should rapidly insure that there is no additional investment in fossil fuel projects such as new coal-fired power plants or new exploration to develop shale oil."
Critique of Cap-and-Trade
On October 31, 2009, Williams and Zabel wrote a piece in The Washington Post called "Cap-and-trade mirage," in which they offered a critique of cap and trade and carbon offsets in the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill:
"Cap-and-trade means a declining "cap" on total emissions, while allowing trading of pollution permits. Confidence in the certainty of declining caps is based on the mistaken assumption that cap-and trade was proven in the EPA's acid rain program. In fact, addressing acid rain required relatively minor modifications to coal-fired power plants. Reductions were accomplished primarily by a fuel switch to readily available, affordable, low-sulfur coal, along with some additional scrubbing. In contrast, the issues presented by climate change cannot be solved by tweaks to facilities; it requires an energy revolution through investments in building clean-energy facilities.
"The biggest obstacle to this revolution is that uncontrolled fossil fuel energy remains much cheaper than clean energy. Cap-and-trade alone will not create confidence that clean energy will become profitable within a known time frame and so will not ignite the huge shift in investment needed to begin the clean-energy revolution. In recent interviews, even the economists who thought up cap-and-trade have said they don't believe it's an appropriate tool for climate change."
"Offsets -- considered indispensable to keeping cap-and-trade affordable -- are supposed to be 'additional' reductions beyond what is legally required. But experience with offsets in Europe and California has shown that ensuring real 'additionality' is not an achievable goal...
"Carbon offsets create the illusion of 'additional' greenhouse-gas reductions, but we are just getting business as usual. Untrackable shifting of economic activity and perverse incentives such as these are inherent problems for carbon offsets and cannot be solved by certification or verification processes. Since the most flawed offsets will be the cheapest, they will also be the most popular.
"The House and Senate climate bills are not a first step in the right direction. They would give away valuable rights in cap-and-trade permits and create a trillion-dollar carbon-offsets market that will not lead to needed reductions. Together, the illusion of greenhouse-gas reductions and the creation of powerful lobbies seeking to protect newly created profits in permits and offsets would lock in climate degradation for a decade or more. The near-term opportunity to create an effective international framework would also be lost."
In late October 2009, Williams and Zabel posted a video on YouTube about problems with climate change legislation. The video, entitled "The Huge Mistake", explains why they believe the cap and trade plan endorsed by President Obama will not accomplish its goals, let alone effectively curb climate change:
On November 5, 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Williams and Zabel to remove the video or face "disciplinary action," according to documents released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The couple had received clearance for posting the video but EPA took issue with its content following publication of the op-ed piece by the two in The Washington Post on October 31.
Specifically, EPA ethics officials ordered the two veteran employees to -
- "Remove your climate change video from You Tube by the close of business on Friday, November 6, 2009";
- "Edit your You Tube video by:
- (i) Removing the language starting at 1:06 min - 'Our opinions are based on more than 20 years each working as attorneys at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the San Francisco Regional Office.'
- (ii) Removing the images of EPA's building starting at 1:06 min.
- (v) Remove [sic] the language starting at 6:30 min - 'In my work at EPA, I've been overseeing California's cap-and-trade and offset programs for more than 20 years.'"
And stated that:
- "All future requests for approval of an outside writing activity must be accompanied by a draft of the document that is the subject of the approval request."
Opposition to Waxman-Markey and American Power Act
On July 22, 2010, Williams and Zabel issued a whistleblower paper Disclosure of Unfixable Flaws of Greenhouse Gas Offsets in Proposed U.S. Climate Legislation arguing that the major bills before Congress to regulate greenhouse gases to combat global climate change - the Waxman-Markey Climate Bill (HR 2454) and the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733) - suffer from “multiple unfixable flaws” that undermine their effectiveness. Their critique is also testing new agency guidelines on employee free speech rights following EPA’s order in Fall 2009 that the two employees remove a YouTube video they had produced on the problems with cap and trade. Williams and Zabel, speaking as private citizens, contend that the integrity failings of greenhouse gas carbon offsets, the lynchpin for major climate bills before Congress, ensure that such legislation will be an ineffective – and deceptive – waste of funds.
Specifically, they argue that:
- The complexity and subjectivity of carbon offsets renders them impossible to certify, regulate or enforce;
- There is no reliable way to distinguish offset projects which will occur because of the offset incentive from those which would have happened anyway;
- In some cases, such as in the context of forestry projects, the offsets will fail to appreciably mitigate demand and the polluting activity (such as logging) will simply shift elsewhere; and
- The offsets will create perverse incentives to keep polluting activities legal so they can keep being sold as offsets.
Williams and Zabel assert that these offsets, in essence, are a new “creative financial instrument” which carries the same deceptive potential to bankrupt markets as did the creative instruments peddled on Wall Street. The two ask for a congressional probe into the reliability of any offset program before enactment.
Articles and resources
- "About Us" Carbon Fees, November 2009
- Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel1, "Keeping Our Eyes on the Wrong Ball: Why Acid Rain is the Wrong Template and the 1990 CFC-Tax is Closer to the Mark - and Why Cap-and-Trade Won’t Solve the Climate Crisis But Carbon Fees with 100% Rebate Can" February 21, 2009
- "Urgent Plea for Enactment of Carbon Fees and Ban on New Coal-Fired Power Plants without Carbon Sequestration" Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, May 6, 2008
- "Cap-and-trade mirage" The Washington Post, October 31, 2009
- "PEER News Release: Agency Threatens Discipline for Off-Duty Warnings on Cap & Trade Failures" Climate Science Watch, November 9, 2009
- "Agency Specialists Say Greenhouse Gas Offsets Unenforceable and Demand Probe" Peer, July 22, 2010.