The Western Climate Initiative Moves Forward

Now that the Senate has put an end to speculation about a federal cap-and-trade program, the laboratory of the states and patchwork of regional regulation seem even more important.  The Western Climate Initiative (WCI) will likely involve a little of both.

Yesterday, the WCI Partner Jurisdictions (seven US states and four Canadian provinces) unveiled their comprehensive strategy for a cap-and-trade program with the goal of reducing regional greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 2005 levels before 2020. The program is planned to begin in 2012, although apparently only California, New Mexico, Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia are on track to have trading systems operational by that date. Even so, these two states and three provinces account for 70 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions the WCI partners produce.

The report recommends standards for regulations governing allowances, creation and use of offsets, credits for early action reductions since 2007, and other design features of a cap-and-trade program, but does not itself dictate specific regulations. Instead, the regional goal will be reached through individual states’ and provinces’ implementation of separate programs that supply allowances for quarterly regional auctions. While this individualized approach makes sense given the wide diversity of settings and the fact that WCI crosses not only state but national boundaries, it does leave a large number of factors up to the individual jurisdictions.

Design for the WCI Regional Program, Figure 1

Among the details that are undecided is how many allowances will be at play (a critical issue and lesson learned from the implementation of RGGI). Each state or province will adopt its own budget and determine how allowances within that budget will be distributed to emitters – through allocations, direct sales or auctions. In yesterday’s report and a more detailed one from early July, WCI recommends that each jurisdiction’s 2012 allowance budget be the expected 2012 actual emissions, rather than starting with an initial cut, but then begin to decrease (at a rate to be set by each jurisdiction), with another increase in 2015 when the cap expands to cover transportation fuels and residential and commercial fuels as well.

Offsets would be more tightly defined by the regional structure: an offset certificate issued by a WCI partner jurisdiction must meet all recommended offset criteria and result from a project located in Canada, the US or Mexico. It is recommended that each jurisdiction restrict the use of offset certificates to 49% of aggregate emissions reductions – such a limit will be expressed as a portion of each emitter’s emissions that may be covered by offset certificates or allowances from other programs.

The WCI partner jurisdictions seem to have adopted a number of RGGI’s features, including a quarterly regional, single-round, sealed-bid auction structure, 3-year compliance periods, unlimited banking of allowances, and an auction floor price.  But as the report notes, the partner jurisdictions expect auctions to be only one component of allowance distribution – different from RGGI, where nearly 100% of allowances are auctioned.  The portion of allowances that each jurisdiction submits to the quarterly regional auctions may vary across jurisdictions and may also change over time.  Such flexibility could allow each jurisdiction to address competitiveness and leakage issues more directly than a regional plan.

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