First U.S. greenhouse gas auction takes place this week

Ten northeast and mid-Atlantic states are participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first mandatory cap-and-trade program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to its web site. The initiative will begin selling carbon credits this Thursday in the first of its planned quarterly auctions, and the proceeds are intended to support renewable-energy technologies, such as solar and wind. 

The plan is specifically to regulate emissions from electric power plants, which account for about one-third of total emissions in the region. Each state starts with a CO2 allowance that caps emissions from the power sector and is then required to reduce those emissions 10 percent by 2018. Power plants unable to reduce their emissions can buy carbon credits from companies that have been more successful at cleaning up their plants. The initiative is modeled on the efforts to curb acid rain in the 1980s, which began with a law in New York and eventually morphed into a national mandate.

The reductions won’t come for free: one study estimates that New York state residents will see their electricity bills increase by 78 cents a month, though the utilities argue that figure will be larger. And critics and utilities worry about how regionally segmented market regulation will pose a competitive challenge to industry. Because the cap-and-trade agreements are focused on electric power rather than all emitters in a region, the companies involved may have an easier time than industry as a whole, because utilities’ bases of operation are also highly regional.

Other regional cap-and-trade programs, such as the Western Climate Initiative, which includes some western states and some of Canada, and the Midwestern Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, are not as far along.


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