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There’s an Odd Bipartisan Coalition Growing Behind a Particular Type of Carbon Tax

If you haven’t already, get to know the “border adjustment.”

The Capitol.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

While climate policy has become increasingly partisan, there also exists a strange, improbably robust bipartisan coalition raising support for something like a carbon tax.

There are lots of different bills and approaches floating out there, but the most popular is the “border adjustment” tax, basically an emissions-based tariff, which, as a concept, is uniquely suited to resolve two brewing trade issues. One is the European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which will force essentially everybody else to play by its carbon pricing system. Then there’s the fact that China powers its world-beating export machine with coal, plugged into an electrical grid that is far dirtier than America’s.

For Republicans, some kind of tax on imports would be a way of leveling the playing field in the face of what are, to their minds, punitive environmental restrictions on American energy producers and manufacturers. For Democrats, a border adjustment could be appealing both as a way to favor American manufacturing and as a way of encouraging other countries to clean up their grids.

There are currently two carbon border adjustment bills bouncing around the Senate, one introduced by Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy — whose record on climate is far friendlier than many of his GOP colleagues’ — and the other by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the most active and vocal Democratic senators on environmental issues.

In a hearing on the challenge of load growth before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Cassidy raised the issue of China’s energy mix, arguing that coal plants on the country’s Pacific coast mean at more pollutants in the United States.

“To the degree that our energy policy increases the cost of energy, and therefore encourages someone to move to China, we are actually worsening global greenhouse gas emissions because we’re increasing consumption of Chinese coal-fired electricity as opposed to clean-burning U.S. electricity,” Cassidy said during the hearing.

“Right on, brother,” the committee’s chair, Democrat Joe Manchin, responded.

Cassidy and Manchin both represent states that are major fossil fuel producers and are no one’s ideas of climate hawks — although they both support some version of permitting reform and Manchin’s was a crucial vote to pass the Inflation Reduction Act — they nevertheless represent two pillars of the idiosyncratic alliance that could get a border adjustment tax over the line. Add in Democratic climate hawks who are also interested in permitting reform such as Whitehouse and California Representative Scott Peters and Republicans who are, in their own way, open to some kind of climate change policy, including Cassidy and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, and this thing starts to look possible.

The first step would be devising a way to calculate how clean the U.S. electricity system is compared to the rest of the world — and lo, there’s a bill for that too: the PROVE IT Act, which passed out of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee in January.

That bill, introduced by Delaware Democrat Chris Coons and North Dakota Republican Kevin Cramer, would mandate the Department of Energy measure and report the emissions intensity for 17 categories of products (including fossil fuels) in the United States and a host of other countries. The intent of the bill is to demonstrate that, in many cases, U.S. manufacturing is cleaner than many other countries’, especially China, at least when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill managed to win not just from Senators on both sides of the aisle, but also from industry groups that are often somewhere from skeptical to outright opposed to emissions restrictions. These include the American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (The American Petroleum Institute is even gathering up a list of House Republicans who could support a version of the bill in that chamber, reported E&E News.) The bill has also been endorsed by a host of more centrist and right-leaning climate and environmental groups, including the Climate Leadership Council and Third Way, a moderate Democratic group.

Armed with the data from the PROVE IT Act, explained the Bipartisan Policy Center's Xan Fishman, the U.S. would be “able to use that in trade negotiations, or with a new border carbon policy.”

The time for the PROVE IT Act and then a border adjustment bill may be this year, Fishman told me, citing bipartisan support for the idea — or else sometime next year, when many of the Trump tax cuts expire, setting off a scramble for revenue to pay for extending popular tax breaks.

“When you have a big giant tax bill where you’re extending or creating new tax credits and you’re looking for revenue to offset that,” Fishman said, suddenly a border adjustment could look pretty handy.

Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.


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