This commentary was originally published in Forbes on August 25, 2016.
California concluded its most recent cap-and-trade program auction last week. Out of 44,268,323 metric tons of carbon dioxide credits offered for sale by the state Air Resources Board, only 660,560 were sold, 1.5 percent of the total, raising a paltry $8.4 million out of a hoped-for $620 million. Last May’s auction was almost as bad, raising $10 million out of an anticipated $500 million.
California’s carbon dioxide cap-and-trade auction program was expected to bring in more than $2 billion in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, 2017, a quarter of which is earmarked for the high-speed rail project narrowly approved by voters in a 2008 ballot initiative. As a hedge against uncertainty, a $500 million reserve was built into the cap-and-trade budget. But, with the August auction falling 98.5 percent short, the entire reserve was consumed in the first of four auctions for the fiscal year.
Further complicating matters is a pending lawsuit against the legality of California’s cap-and-trade program. Business groups and fiscal conservatives claim the program amounts to a tax, under a 2010 ballot initiative that better defined what exactly constitutes taxes and fees under California law, thus would requiring a two-thirds majority vote of the legislature.
Further, with the program slated to end in 2020, many businesses that are forced to buy the carbon credits are conflicted by the risk that they may end up buying the California equivalent of Confederate bonds, doomed to be worthless when the state loses its cap-and-trade war.
In the meantime, the High-Speed Rail project, currently promised to cost “only” $68 billion to run from the Bay Area some 400 miles south to Los Angeles may be looking at $50 billion in overruns. To fund the costly train, which was sold to voters as not costing a dime in new taxes, the expected revenue stream from cap-and-trade has been securitized, putting the state on the hook to Wall Street for billions in construction money advanced on the promise of future cap-and-trade revenue.
But the cap-and-trade market is showing dangerous signs of weakness. Not only have auction revenues collapsed in the last two auctions in May and August, but the competitive landscape for the auctions has collapsed as well. The Herfindahl–Hirschman Index (HHI), a commonly-used measure of competitive markets, signaled that last May’s auction was dominated by a sole market player. Last week’s auction improved somewhat, but was still moderately concentrated among a small number of buyers and sellers.
The lack of interest in California’s cap-and-trade carbon credits shows that the Golden State will likely have to come up with a significant amount of General Fund tax revenue, more than $2 billion annually, to build out its government-run rail project—something that isn’t likely to last much beyond the end of Gov. Jerry Brown’s fourth term in office in January 2019.
California’s Cap and Trade Auction is Collapsing
Chuck DeVore is Vice President of National Initiatives at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He was a California Assemblyman and is a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Retired Reserve.