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 way 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 set by the Air Resources Board.
Wednesday, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said that if the mediocre response holds true for the next two auctions scheduled before June, the state may only raise about $140 million in its first year.
"The likelihood of there being a hole in the budget has increased," said Tiffany Roberts, an LAO analyst who focuses on climate change issues. "Not only do we question the viability of using the $500 million, but if these assumptions hold, it's unlikely there's even going to be $500 million."
The more fundamental question is whether cap and trade will fight climate change. That, after all, is the point of Assembly Bill 32, the 2006 law that requires greenhouse gas reductions and that gives the air board the authority to create the auctions. The answer to that is hazy at best.
California cannot reverse climate change on its own. If cap and trade is going to be effective, the state must find partners other than Quebec, its current partner.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, praised California's cap-and-trade auction in a speech to the U.S. Green Building Council in San Francisco last week. But he offered no indication 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. No one hoarded carbon allowances. Because the price was relatively low, the cost to individual corporations will not have been huge. All that may boost confidence in the system.
But the question remains: Did California's cap-and-trade auction help in any significant way to reduce greenhouse gas? That's not clear.