No carbon tax? GOP climate advocates rejoice

By Evan Lehmann | 06/28/2016 08:26 AM EDT

Not everyone who supports a carbon tax is unhappy about its exclusion from the Democrats’ draft platform. Some are breathing a sigh of relief.

Several Republican advocates of pricing carbon dioxide said Democrats’ refusal to back the policy could make it easier for them to pitch the tax to conservative lawmakers as a product of the GOP.

"I’m relieved," said former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) of republicEn, an educational group at George Mason University.

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He endorses a revenue-neutral policy that would raise money by charging facilities for releasing carbon dioxide, then use it to offset taxes on corporations or personal income. Inglis believes the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee, which released its draft early Saturday morning, would support using the carbon revenue to fund larger government programs, like a green energy fund.

"They would almost certainly come out with a revenue-positive carbon tax," he said. "We’d prefer for them not to be talking about a carbon tax."

In years past, climate proposals championed by Democratic leaders have run into fierce Republican resistance. President Obama’s carbon cap-and-trade plan failed in 2010, and his proposals for a clean energy standard fizzled quickly.

Democrats this year won’t be serving up a comprehensive climate policy. The platform will instead stick to broad goals, not narrow prescriptions. Among them is a pledge to derive half of the nation’s energy from clean sources within 10 years, and expand that to 100 percent by 2050.

The party’s rejection of taxing carbon might give Republicans some room to re-examine the policy, said Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that promotes a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

"I don’t think carbon taxes are going to get political traction unless Republicans put them on the table and initiate the conversation," Taylor said. "That will be more difficult to the extent to which the idea is associated with [Vermont independent Sen.] Bernie Sanders and the left wing of the Democratic Party. So it’s probably not a bad thing politically for carbon taxation to be absent from the Democratic platform.

"I mean, Republicans need to have their own branded answer for climate," he added.

The Democratic platform committee voted down six climate proposals by environmentalist Bill McKibben on Friday night. McKibben, one of five people named to the panel by Sanders, said his provisions were a carbon tax, a fracking ban, an effort to leave all fossil fuels in the ground, opposition to fossil fuel investments by international financial institutions, banning the use of eminent domain by fossil fuel companies, and a "Keystone test" for new infrastructure projects like pipelines.

All six were defeated by a vote of 7-6. Joining McKibben to vote "yes" were Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Deborah Parker, Cornel West and James Zogby, all appointed by Sanders. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), one of four panelists appointed by Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, also supported McKibben’s proposals.

The committee has 15 members, but two members didn’t vote: panel Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, a Hillary Clinton appointee, who was absent. Five people representing Clinton and two appointed by Wasserman Schultz voted against McKibben’s provisions.

Carbon tax = ‘political trap’

McKibben said in an interview that there are good aspects to the platform, but that it lacks specific policies to reach its goals around clean energy. That could make liberal voters cool to Clinton, he suggested.

"We want enthusiasm," he said. "We want a platform that people are not just OK with or don’t hate, but one that really excites people so they go out and do the work of beating Donald Trump."

Paul Bledsoe, a former Democratic aide for the Senate Finance Committee in the 1990s, when efforts were underway to raise energy taxes, said that it would have been politically hazardous for the platform to include a carbon tax. He said presumptive Republican presidential nominee Trump would have used it in potent attacks against Clinton.

"Secretary Clinton has no intention of falling into the carbon tax political trap," he said. "Political pragmatism won out."

The platform will highlight climate change as a top issue facing the nation, as it did in 2008 and 2012. It will drop references to an "all of the above" energy strategy that Obama has embraced in his second term, and it will please environmentalists by referring to allegations that Exxon Mobil Corp. failed to warn its investors and stockholders that it was aware of the potential risks of climate change decades ago, after enlisting climate scientists to conduct studies.

The draft now goes to the full Platform Committee for a vote early next month in Orlando, Fla., where Sanders has vowed to submit climate-related amendments to the 187-member panel. He could also try to include additional provisions into the platform at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where the document will be ratified (E&E Daily, June 27).

Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute, seems to be rooting for Sanders’ failure. Lehrer, a Republican, supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but he doesn’t want it to be associated with the liberal Vermonter.

"I’m glad they’re not latching onto it," he said. "It could make it harder to sell it to conservatives."

Lehrer also fumed at the draft’s language related to Exxon, calling it a "McCarthyist" attack on fossil fuel companies.

"If it’s true that the [climate] science has become more conclusive over time, which I accept is true, then stuff you did in the past when the science was less conclusive, even if it’s wrong, is no way problematic," he said.