It's lonely in the trenches for a carbon tax, but a warrior digs in

Correction appended.

Go ahead and tell Charles Komanoff that taxing carbon doesn't have a chance.

Odds are, he'll point to all the reasons you're right. But that probably won't include resistance by House Republicans. He dives deeper into the past than that, beginning perhaps with environmentalists, whom he describes as being skeptical about the simplest and cheapest climate policy there is.

Komanoff is a creamy-voiced New Yorker who, at 66, is trying to engineer a carbon tax comeback. It's the newest effort in his 40-year career of advocacy fighting to free Manhattan of cars, trying to expose the unbridled costs of nuclear power before they became obvious, and pushing for bicycling policies. The last battle won him his wife.

Now he just wants a hearing. Komanoff submitted a 22-page analysis to the Senate Finance Committee last week stating that a carbon tax could reduce more than twice as many emissions more cheaply than a pair of clean energy tax credits proposed by former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in December.

The plan by Baucus is considered a creative way to persuade power providers to pump up their production of clean energy. It would award producers for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by offering carbon-light sources of electricity and transportation fuels. Komanoff calls it "enlightened."

But he also says it's "so suboptimal" to a carbon tax. It's a subsidy, he says, that will require the public to pay for a relatively narrow suite of power sources. Komanoff wants to flip that strategy upside down. Instead of knocking down the price of some sources of cleaner energy, he wants the cost of all fossil fuels to rise.

"You know, what is the energy problem and what is the climate problem? It's not that there isn't enough wind power, and it's not that there aren't enough solar collectors," Komanoff said. "It's that there's too much carbon being emitted.

"And solar and wind are alternatives to carbon. But there are dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of alternatives. And all of those alternatives need to be made more cost-effective, and they need to be valorized culturally and economically. If we can do that ... then I think our planet has a chance. If we can't, things don't look very good."

He doesn't get all moral about whether tax credits are right or wrong. Instead, he describes it as a sort of wasted effort: Why go through the political process of passing something that is so far inferior to a carbon tax?


Black Panthers vs. Pete Seeger

Baucus' plan would provide 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour under a new production tax credit, or up to 20 percent of a project under an investment tax credit, both of which aim to cut carbon by 25 percent. But Komanoff says that will leave a huge number of carbon-reducing practices untapped. The credits, for example, wouldn't spur people to save electricity, drive less or build a smaller home, he says.

The analysis by Komanoff's Carbon Tax Center -- composed of two part-time employees, Komanoff and James Handley, a former EPA lawyer -- finds that a carbon tax would cut emissions by 959 million metric tons annually by 2024, compared with 399 million metric tons for both of Baucus' tax credits.

Both plans value carbon at $61 per metric ton in the electricity sector and at $113 per metric ton in the transportation sector. But while the tax credits would cost taxpayers roughly $39 billion a year, according to Komanoff's analysis, the carbon tax would generate about $450 billion annually.

Tom Stokes first met Komanoff in the late 1960s, when Stokes was organizing a march in New York City "against the automobile."

This was before climate change had risen to the surface, but other threats to the natural world led Stokes to launch Environment! The grass-roots group had a brief but dazzling existence that reached its zenith in April 1969, when Stokes mustered 10,000 people to protest an international car show in the city.

It was nearly derailed when a group of Black Panthers occupied the stage to protest the protest, saying the problems of pollution didn't match those of oppression. They faded away after Pete Seeger crept onto the stage with his banjo to rally the crowd.

A year earlier, Komanoff had graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard University. He described the period as being "fraught" with environmental reckonings. It led him to approach Stokes, who had appeared on local television to promote the march.

Stokes, who's now active with the Climate Crisis Coalition, recalls that Komanoff was quick on his feet, a good writer and, perhaps above all else, "He was committed to the cause."

Threading a small needle

Forty-five years later, Komanoff still is. But it's questionable how committed the wider environmental community is to taxing carbon, he says. He expressed disappointment that big green groups endorsed cap and trade in the late 2000s (Komanoff's against it) and that now they're warm to U.S. EPA regulations and cool to a carbon tax.

"We never believed you could cut a deal behind the backs of the American people that was going to raise the price of energy, which is what you have to do," Komanoff said of cap and trade. "You can't solve the climate crisis without making fossil fuels much more expensive."

He concedes that his response to Baucus' solicitation for comments on carbon has a subtext: Komanoff sees it as a stage to again pitch a carbon tax to green groups. As for the unlikelihood of political support for broad climate legislation, let alone one involving a new tax, he believes that a concerted effort by advocates could help thread that very small needle.

Ralph Cavanagh, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says Komanoff is a gifted analyst. They met more than 30 years ago when Komanoff was an in-demand expert on the cost of nuclear power. His 1981 book, "Power Plant Cost Escalation," predicted how the price of building nuclear power plants would soar in comparison with their coal-fired counterparts, even as nuclear safety seemed to wane.

Now, Cavanagh says he and his old friend, who unsuccessfully tried years ago to include Cavanagh in a bike ride over the George Washington Bridge, agree on their climate objectives, if not the tactics.

Who is this guy?

The cap-and-trade legislation sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and then-Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that passed the House in 2009, Cavanagh said, is "functionally indistinguishable" from the carbon tax coveted by Komanoff. The price of carbon allowances can't fall below a floor or rise above a ceiling. A tax would assign a dollar amount to emissions that also would fluctuate between a floor and ceiling, he said.

"There were these enormous theological arguments, which I think in practice were somewhat beside the point because in real life ... you end up in the same place," Cavanagh said.

To his friends, it might be predictable that Komanoff disagrees with that assessment. He's known as uncompromising, above all perhaps with himself. He shuts off his computer screen when leaving his office even for 10 minutes, and it's likely that on occasion Komanoff rides in a gasoline-powered car, but not if he doesn't have to, Cavanagh said.

So, Komanoff describes cap and trade this way: cumbersome, complex, regressive and "undemocratic." And a carbon tax? He calls it "elegant."

For all of his passion, he seems to lack distinction, at least among Washington climate advocates. In New York, he's considered the top bicycle advocate and a leading analyst on congestion taxes, or fees on motorists. But in the nation's capital, five people working on carbon taxes or other climate policies said they didn't know him.

"I don't know who that is," said one official with an environmental group.

"Is this a new group?" another asked about the Carbon Tax Center.

Perhaps that shows how out of favor taxing carbon is. Or maybe it emphasizes the importance that Komanoff is putting on his findings and the need he sees to get the attention of potential supporters.

"If there isn't support for a carbon tax [among greens], then you're not going to be able to enact one," Komanoff said. "We think that our comments really demonstrate and document that even the best and most enlightened subsidies program can't hold a candle to an equivalent carbon tax."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Charles Komanoff's efforts to discourage driving as consumption taxes. He is working on congestion taxes.

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