Our View: Did air auction work? Answer remains unclear

11/20/2012 10:10 PM

11/20/2012 10:27 PM

California dipped its toe into the cap-and-trade water and found it neither too hot nor too cold.

Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary D. Nichols proclaimed the first auction of carbon allowances to be a success. Environmentalists who want cap and trade to succeed also praised it.

In reality, the first live auction conducted last week was like a taking a test drive in an alternative fuel vehicle. Maybe it will fit California's needs; maybe it won't.

Nichols and others said the goal of cap and trade, in which polluters pay to offset their carbon emissions, is not to generate money. By that yardstick, the auction fell short. Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators had expected to receive $500 million from cap and trade for this fiscal year. But the first auction raised about $55 million for the general fund, when corporations and other entities that pollute paid only 9 cents above the bare minimum $10 bid.

Even with two more auctions, it's hard to imagine they will generate the full $500 million.

The more fundamental question is whether cap and trade will fight climate change. The answer to that is hazy at best.

California cannot reverse climate change on its own. If cap and trade is going to work, the state must find partners other than Quebec, its current partner.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, praised California's auction in a speech to the U.S. Green Building Council in San Francisco last week. But he wouldn't say if his state might join in the experiment. Nor is the state of Washington rushing to sign up.

President Barack Obama said at his post-election news conference that he intends to focus on climate change in his second term. But he offered no specifics, vowing merely to take the action of "having a conversation -- a wide-ranging conversation" to determine how to "make short-term progress." How's that for taking a bold stand?

Obama hastened to add that he won't take steps that risk damaging the economy. We'd count Obama as unlikely to push to create a national cap-and-trade system.

California's foray into cap and trade produced nothing bad, which is good. Slick energy traders didn't game the system. Because the price was low, the cost to companies will not have been huge. All that may boost confidence in the system.

But did California's cap-and-trade auction help reduce greenhouse gas? That's not clear.

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