Legislation to limit the amount of greenhouse gases Americans emit into the atmosphere each year is still under debate in Washington, D.C.
But there seems to be little for Kansans to be excited about in the "cap and trade" proposal. While nearly everyone - whether or not a believer in global warming - can agree that less pollution is a worthwhile goal, the current legislation is more punitive than incentive to develop renewable energy sources.
Cap and trade is a two-pronged system designed to limit carbon emissions by nearly 20 percent by 2020. The legislation would impose a cap on the amount of emissions utility companies and manufacturers could release. The cap gradually would decrease over time, further limiting emission levels. Meanwhile, offsets, or credits, for emission levels under the cap would be available for trade on an exchange, much like hog bellies and crude oil is traded today. Companies, including energy producers, that couldn't afford to invest in clean air technology would be forced to purchase credits on the open market.
Kansas emitters, however, wouldn't receive any surplus credits under cap and trade. In fact, Kansas producers would receive too few credits to cover current emission levels and immediately would be forced to purchase credits from states such as California. Though the westernmost state pollutes at a much higher level than Kansas, our state is ranked near the worst for per capita pollution, thanks to our relatively low population and lack of investment in carbon reduction.
Under cap and trade, Midwestern states would be unduly hit with high costs for industries to do what they are doing today. In fact, even if Kansas industry suddenly moves to reduce its overall emissions, it would have to do so by more than 30 percent before 2012 to avoid the need to purchase offsets.
On the other side of the coin, California producers would be granted a surplus of credits and be allowed to profit from Midwestern states that make their living through heavy industry and rely on inexpensive energy to do so.
Yet Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota never will be able to attract the massive investment dollars that can be found in a state such as California or New York. Additionally, our rural states don't have the large population over which to spread out the cost of expensive emission controls. Asking rural residents to shoulder such improvements would burden individuals with exceedingly high taxes or energy costs and would further erode the already fragile economy.
Instead of using an approach that punishes rural states for their smaller populations and lack of wealth, lawmakers should look for a way to offset the cost of developing the Midwest's burgeoning wind sector.
Kansas holds much potential in wind energy, but we need investments to make that potential a reality. That growth, however, could be slowed significantly if the state's energy sector is instead spending its money for pollution credits and increased operational costs under the cap and trade system.
By the way, does anyone remember how it turned out the last time we decided that it would be a good idea to allow energy to trade on the open market? There was this company called Enron, which manipulated market prices and energy supply, and whose top executives later were prosecuted for a variety of misdeeds.
Curbing pollution and reducing carbon emissions is a goal that is worth pursuing and one that is vital for the future. But a punitive system that would add costs to an already expensive system isn't the best way to achieve it. Such a system would leave Midwestern states in the hole before implementation and would only ensure that there wouldn't be enough resources to invest in the future of wind power.
Slower growth in the wind sector and higher costs for our current energy needs harms both the present and the future. Finding a way to make wind a more attractive investment than coal seems to make more sense. It is an investment that would create jobs today, lower emissions tomorrow and cement Kansas' place among the country's clean energy producers.
Probst is News Editor at The Hutchinson News