The light former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth glimpses at end of the carbon tunnel
Carbon tax is coming sooner than you might think, he says
by Allen Best
Long-time climate change warrior Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator from Colorado, had perspectives that were both grim and cheerful when he spoke Monday evening at a forum sponsored by the Center of the American West.
The more cheerful observation was his speculation that the United States will put a price on carbon relatively soon.
“It’s not as far away as you might think,” he said. “It could happen in the next five years.”
Any honest analysis must concede the need for a carbon tax as a way of curbing pollution of the atmosphere. Currently, in the words of Wirth, it’s the “world’s biggest, freest garbage dump. We’re dumping 6,000 trillion tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere.”
If we’ve raised the earth’s temperature by one degree Celsius without paintings starting to hang askew on the wall, most climate scientists say the bells start clanging adn the sirens start wailing with another degree. Children today will probably hear those sirens. We’ve zoomed from 350 parts per million of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 400 in the lives of baby boomers and, at current rates, will blow past 450 by the time millennials reach middle age. That, according to climate models, is when life gets real interesting.
The problem of stranded asssets
Wirth said that just because we can build the Keystone XL pipeline doesn’t mean we should. We’ve got to leave some of the heavy carbon fuels in the ground. He explained that we’ve used X amount of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution began, and we can perhaps burn another X amount of fossil fuels. But geologists have identified 5X amount of fossil fuels—which they have on their books as assets, to be valued on Wall Street and elsewhere. And it’s not just the United States, but Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and many other nations with these assets that, if civilization is to be saved, must ultimately be stranded as we move to non-polluting energy sources.
In 2009, the Waxman-Markey bill, also called the American Clean Energy and Security Act, proposed such a tax via a cap-and-trade quote on emissions. It got through the U.S. House of Representatives but was branded by Republicans, with some accuracy, as “cap-and-tax.” Bludgeoned with the label of a new tax, it was killed in the U.S. Senate.
The key to getting a carbon tax now, said Wirth, will be to craft a tax that nudges the economy away from carbon-based energy while returning the tax money to the public. That way, it won’t be perceived as a tax.
British Columbia has a carbon tax, but the tax is used for carbon reduction efforts, such as hospital energy systems, instead of being returned directly to individuals. It is described in the local press as unpopular.
Wirth also pointed to the potential for international agreements as grounds for optimism. Unlike the all-encompassing Kyoto Treaty, which he helped broker but which has fallen far short of expectations, Wirth sees a new round of agreements within smaller frameworks, such as about energy efficiency or hydraulic fracturing best practices.
“These are the kind of things that can be done in a global way,” he said. “It what gets you up in the morning.”
Wirth was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1974, and after six terms, was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served until 1993.
Wirth first heard of global warming in the late 1970s, he explained in Boulder, and it made a vivid impression on him. He kept after the topic, and in 1988 engineered a dramatic Senate hearing with climate scientist Jim Hansen. Choosing June 6, historically the hottest day in Washington, staffers went into the hearing room the night before and opened windows. That ensured the air conditioning system didn’t work properly. As Hansen testified about the coming warming, he was forced to mop his brow frequently of sweat, as did the questioning senators, which made for dramatic TV.
Later, Wirth served as an undersecretary in the Clinton administration and then, in 1998, took the reins of the Ted Turner-funded United Nations Foundation. He assisted Vice President Al Gore in negotiating the Kyoto Agreement, which in retrospect can be seen as a giant failure. He left the presidency of the U.N. Foundation last year but remains affiliated with the organization.
In his opening remarks, Wirth hit the issue on the head. “To start with the obvious,” he said, “energy is climate, and climate is energy.” It is, he added, the “most fascinating issue there is.”
Letting perfect be the enemy of good
Also on the panel was Jim Martin, who served as a key aide to Wirth during his Senate term. Martin said at the outset that the three most important principles of politics he learned from working with Wirth:
No. 1: You can’t fight something with nothing.
No. 2: You always have to have 50 percent of votes plus 1.
No. 3: Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.
It was the third point, in particular, that was the theme of the evening as Martin and Wirth discussed both the more local, Colorado energy story and the broader issue of global warming.
Martin had a number of high profile positions in the environmental community after Wirth left the Senate. In the administration of Gov. Bill Ritter, he directed two state departments, first the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and then the Department of Natural Resources.
Under Ritter, Martin’s key work was to clear the way for natural gas to become an intermediate step for carbon reduction. That seminal victory was the replacement of two coal-burning power plants with natural gas, with substantial reductions of carbon dioxide plus other public health benefits. That fuel switching yielded a giant 28 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, he said.
However, to allow natural gas to take a more prominent role, drilling operations had to be cleaned up. The public had to gain some certainty that drilling operations were being regulated. That first required revamping the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which had previously been dominated by individuals from or with close ties to the industry. Then came a bruising fight in 2008 in the face of broad industry pushback against regulations operators claimed would put them out of business. They did nothing of the sort, of course. But there were other things, too, including increasing fines, requiring “green completions” of drilling operations to reduce emissions and first voluntary and then mandatory disclosure of constituents of hydraulic fracturing fluids. The latter, under Gov. John Hickenlooper, were first in the nation.
Later, he was administrator of Region 8 of the Environmental Protection Agency, overseeing eight states, until last year, when he joined a private law firm, Beatty & Wozniak. The firm has strong ties to natural gas and pipeline companies.
Among the clients are Encana, one of the key companies involved in new air quality regulations in Colorado. The new regulations limit emissions of volatile organic compounds, precursors to smog, but are also the first in the nation to specifically take aim at methane emissions.
“Colorado has made huge strides to find the balance protecting the environment and developing the resource,” he said. But, he added, it’s just a step in the longer path to decarbonize the economy. Of the current 254,900 registered vehicles in Colorado, 98 percent run on some sort of carbon fuels. And every single day the United States uses 366 million gallons of transportation fuel.
In other words, as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.”
But coal-fired power plants are rapidly being replaced with natural gas at a rate that he said was unimaginable 10 to 15 years ago.
Social license to operate
Much of the nearly two-hour session was devoted to the issues that have hogged headlines in Colorado, and elsewhere, for the last several years: fears of hydraulic fracturing contaminating drinking water, worries about fumes from drilling, and visual impacts to the landscape. Wirth had gone before the Colorado Oil and Gas Association several years ago to warn that unless the industry hewed to best practices, it might lose its social license to operate. With best practices, they could thrive.
While both Martin and Wirth pointed to Colorado as a leader, in many respects, among the 50 states, Martin also conceded that energy extraction is, at the end of the day, something of a mess– and it’s not just fossil fuels.
“As we try to achieve 80 percent (carbon reduction) by 2050, we have to understand there will be tradeoffs,” he said. He went on to tell a story about visiting Illinois, where his parents live, and their reactions to wind farms. It’s much the same reaction as Coloradans have had about drilling.
Martin also offered an inside-outside perspective of the oil and gas industry in Colorado. Even the major companies, he said, do not act in unison. There is no conspiracy or collusion. They have very different corporate cultures, he added, such that it’s difficult even to get them to have lunch together.
It is naïve to think the federal government will deliver the answer, said Martin. That leaves it to states like Colorado to figure out steps forward. “It might not be a home run each time, but if you can get to first or second base enough times, you can at some point get to home.”
And then this bright note from Wirth: Electrical demand has actually declined recently, the first time since Edison walked on the Earth.
That is, of course, just the United States. Most of Africa and Asia are trying to catch up.
Contact Allen Best at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @mountaintownnew