Energy & Environment

GOP to rule out carbon tax

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House Republicans this week will vote to condemn taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, slamming the door on an idea that some members of their party have flirted with in the past.

The nonbinding resolution, sponsored by Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), lists numerous problems with a carbon tax, declaring, “It is the sense of Congress that a carbon tax would be detrimental to American families and businesses, and is not in the best interest of the United States.”

{mosads}The election-year proposal responds to years of pressure from Democrats and economists across the political spectrum who have endorsed the idea.

A carbon tax also has the backing of some conservatives, who argue it would be a simple way to reduce greenhouse gases without new regulations or more government.

Numerous think tanks, including the R Street Institute and the Niskanen Center, have been pressuring GOP lawmakers to endorse a carbon tax. The American Enterprise Institute held closed-door meetings in 2012 to get additional groups on board with little success.

But with the GOP broadly skeptical of climate change science and new taxes, Republican lawmakers have avoided endorsing a carbon tax, and the House’s resolution is meant to make clear where they stand.

“There are a few people out there who are trying to make the case that there’s growing support among conservatives or Republicans for a carbon tax,” said Tom Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a fossil-fuel-backed advocacy group and an arm of the Institute for Energy Research.

“I think that the vote will answer that question. I don’t think there is,” he said. “There aren’t many issues around here that unite the Republicans more than energy issues.”

Scalise said a carbon tax would be regressive, hitting the poor the hardest. He told colleagues recently that the vote is also timed to respond to President Obama’s budget proposal this year for a $10.25 per barrel tax on crude oil to pay for transportation — something Republicans have blasted as a carbon tax in disguise.

“This resolution spells out the harmful impacts that a carbon tax would have on American families by making the energy we all rely on every day more expensive,” Scalise said in a letter to colleagues. “A carbon tax would intentionally increase the price of gasoline, natural gas, home heating oil, and electricity — driving up energy costs for families, reducing our nation’s GDP, and destroying American jobs.”

Scalise sponsored an amendment to a 2013 regulations bill that was similar and went on to require congressional approval for any carbon tax. The amendment and bill passed but did not get taken up in the Senate.

Obama has not proposed a carbon tax. He campaigned in 2008 on a promise to push for cap-and-trade, which would institute a price on carbon but limit the amount and let polluters trade emissions credits.

That didn’t pass Congress. Instead, Obama has pursued a regulatory agenda to combat climate change, including emissions limits for cars, trucks, power plants and the oil industry.

Gilbert Metcalf, who was then a high-ranking Treasury Department official, said in 2012 that Obama would entertain the idea of a carbon tax, but only if it had bipartisan support.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is calling for a carbon tax, but party front-runner Hillary Clinton has not. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has explicitly ruled it out.

Barry Rabe, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan, said it had long been obvious the Republicans weren’t itching to institute a carbon tax but added that the new resolution “further underscores how difficult it is to build a consensus on this issue.”

He said the measure also could be a strategy for a particularly rough election year, even if the chances of the GOP losing the House majority appear slim.

“This could be read as a Republican effort going into the election to circle the wagons and maybe say, not only, ‘We don’t do a carbon tax,’ but, ‘We don’t do anything related to climate change,’ ” Rabe said.

For supporters of a carbon tax, the expected outcome of the resolution vote is disappointing.

Catrina Rorke, director of the energy program at R Street Institute — which supports a tax that would return revenues to taxpayers — said if Republicans want to eventually repeal the Clean Power Plan and get any Democratic support, they will need an alternative.

“It’s my job to suggest that it doesn’t matter if you believe in climate change, it matters if you don’t like what the status quo is. And the status quo is the Clean Power Plan, which is very unfavorable,” she said. The rule seeks a cut in the power sector’s carbon emissions by about a third and has almost no Republican support.

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), a freshman who campaigned largely on a carbon tax platform in the 2014 election, said the resolution looks like a way to clamp down on what the GOP sees as growing support for putting a price on carbon emissions.

“Republicans tend to hate regulations, especially the president’s new power plants rules,” he said. “And yet, putting a carbon tax in place could, in many ways, be a more efficient way to accomplish these goals, and with more flexibility.”

Rorke hasn’t lost all hope. She cites a pair of new House working groups on climate — one Republican, one bipartisan — as evidence that the GOP is coming around on the issue.

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