Editorial: Export tax on fossil fuels is the right move
On Tuesday, the White House Council of Economic Advisers warned that the cost to the United States of delaying action to combat climate change would be about $150 billion per year.
That cost, which the council says is not reflected in the price charged for fossil fuels, is already being felt in ways like more frequent wildfires, the devastating drought in the West, more powerful storms and what seem to be almost routine torrential downpours in places like New Hampshire.
The EPA, at the urging of President Obama, has used court-approved powers under the Clean Air Act to set performance standards for carbon emissions. Those standards are expected to result in the closure of many of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Though electricity rates could rise modestly as a result, the EPA says that for every $1 invested in reducing power plant emissions, Americans would receive $7 in savings in the form of reduced health care costs.
The new carbon emission rules, along with the increased fuel efficiency standards imposed on vehicle manufacturers by the Obama administration, will lead to a significant reduction in America’s carbon dioxide emissions – but stifle the cheers. Any greenhouse gas reductions made by the United States could be more than offset by the additional emissions created when American coal and other fossil fuels are exported and burned in places like China and Germany.
A battle to stop the increased exports of U.S. fossil fuels is under way. On one side are people who see profits and jobs in the exports; on the other are people who believe that burning them will push climate change beyond the ability of societies to adapt to it.
Consider just two of the nation’s many ports that export coal.
On the West Coast, Oregon’s largest coal-fired power plant is idle much of the time. By 2020, if it runs at all, it will be powered by natural gas, which emits less carbon dioxide. The change means that the plant won’t burn about 3 million tons of American coal each year but that 3 million tons and much more will, if a new terminal on the Columbia River is built, be shipped for burning in Asia.
On the East Coast, Norfolk, Va., whose port ships more coal abroad that any other in the land, is somewhat frantically trying to cope with rising sea levels caused by the global warming that results chiefly from burning coal. The exports mock the this nation’s effort to reduce its carbon footprint and contribute to the very costs that the Council of Economic Advisers say will be inflicted on Americans.
There is a way to mitigate the damage and make those who pollute pay. The suggestion comes from Third Way, a bipartisan think tank whose mission is to suggest solutions that can win support across the political spectrum. New Hampshire’s senior Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is one of the organization’s honorary chairs. Third Way suggests imposing a small tax on all fossil fuel exports. The tax would ultimately be paid by consumers abroad. The revenue raised by the tax would pay for research and development into technology to capture and safely store carbon emissions.
Third Way’s idea deserves bipartisan support in Congress, but its proposal should be taken one step further. The export tax should be big enough to offset at least some of the damage caused by climate change and help America’s communities mitigate that damage. If burning American coal raises sea levels in Portsmouth, the coal burners, wherever they are, should help pay to raise the seawalls.