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A White House Compromise On Climate?

Plunked down at the end of Ryan Lizza's long profile of Peter Orszag is this little scoop about a possible White House compromise on climate legislation:

Obama's White House is filled with former members of Congress and congressional staffers. They are legislative strategists and dealmakers, and these days they often use the phrase "grand bargain" when asked how they expect to achieve their ambitious agenda.

The senior White House official told me that they were exploring an energy deal that would include a "serious" and "short-term" increase in domestic production—perhaps opening up for oil exploration places like the waters off the coast of California—that would appease the "Drill, baby, drill" crowd, while also adopting a cap-and-trade plan that could take effect one or two (or more) years after 2012, which is when Obama's current plan would start. "You need to have something like T. Boone Pickens and Al Gore holding hands on a broad compromise," the official said.

Intriguing. I'm not sure the "drill, baby drill" crowd would actually accept this deal (Republicans seem intent on scuttling any climate bill). But it might help woo recalcitrant Dems, and if so, I wouldn't be shocked if the environmental side came around. As energy experts reminded us last fall, more offshore drilling won't boost supply by all that much—there's just not enough oil out there. But that also means it won't increase U.S. carbon emissions much, either, so it's a small price to pay for an economy-wide cap on global-warming pollution. (In fact, once you had a cap, it wouldn't really matter how much oil and gas was produced—the cap should ensure the same limit on overall emissions whether oil was plentiful or scarce.)

On the other hand, the idea of delaying the onset of cap-and-trade past 2012 seems like a stickier point for people trying to prevent drastic climate change. Remember, the IPCC recommends that developed countries cut emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 for a good chance of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial levels. Skate past that point, and we run a high risk of triggering carbon-cycle feedbacks beyond our control, which could put the world on course for sky-high sea-level rises and other assorted horrors. (Alas, even the storms and droughts accompanying a mere 2C rise could get nasty—we're talking about making the earth warmer than it's been for millions of years, after all.)

So timing matters. Every year there's no cap means another year emissions can rise further, which means the United States will have to make even sharper cuts to meet IPCC targets when it does finally cap carbon. Already, the Waxman-Markey bill in the House would start capping CO2 by 2012 and cut emissions about 20 to 28 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, according to a new World Resource Institute analysis—and that's if all goes perfectly, which is dubious. (Note: WRI considered all the bill's provisions, not just cap-and-trade, so that's why they're figuring bigger cuts than most analyses show.) Yet many coal-state Dems consider those cuts too daunting. Procrastinating further still will mean either less chance of meeting IPCC targets or else steeper, more painful cuts.

That said, if Congress put off implementation of cap-and-trade for a year or two more but still put a number of other energy measures in place, like the renewable-electricity standard or federal efficiency standards, both of which should help reduce CO2, then maybe this can all be finessed somehow. I'd have to see it calculated out. So a compromise along the lines described in Lizza's piece could well make all sides more or less happy. I just wanted to note that there are real trade-offs involved in the whole question of timing and sequencing, a point that often gets glossed over too quickly.

--Bradford Plumer