Eastern States Introduce a Plan to Cap Tailpipe Pollution

A coalition of mid-Atlantic and Northeastern states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday released a draft plan for an ambitious cap-and-trade program to curb tailpipe emissions from cars, trucks and other forms of transportation, tackling what has fast become the largest source of planet-warming gases.

More than a fifth of the United States population would be affected by the plan, which sets a cap, to be lowered over time, on the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released from vehicles that use transportation fuels, like gasoline and diesel fuel.

Under the program, which could start as early as 2022, fuel companies would buy allowances from the states, either directly or on a secondary market, for every ton of carbon dioxide their fuel will produce. The states then put the proceeds toward efforts to reduce carbon emissions from transportation, including investment in trains, buses, and electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.

The program must go through a period of public comment, with details subject to change, before individual states decide whether to implement it. One state that had been considering joining the effort, New Hampshire, has already pulled out of the effort, with Gov. Chris Sununu posting on twitter Tuesday that his state “would not force Granite Staters to pay more for their gas just to subsidize other states’ crumbling infrastructure.”

The effort, if it passes, is likely to add to prices at the pump as fuel producers pass on the added costs to consumers, a big point of contention that is likely to arise as individual states debate whether to commit to a final version of the plan.

The plan’s backers say that the climate benefits of the program — as well as the health benefits that will come from a reduction in tailpipe pollution, and the jobs and improved infrastructure that fresh investment will bring — more than outweigh those costs. The most ambitious version of the plan would lower the region’s tailpipe emissions by 25 percent in 2032, compared to 2022 levels.

They also say that, even under the most aggressive scenarios, gas prices would rise only incrementally, starting at about 17 cents a gallon, an increase that is dwarfed by wider swings in gas prices. Supporters of the plan also say that by 2032, the program could led to more than 1,000 fewer premature deaths, and more than 1,300 fewer cases of asthma, across the region.

“Together we’ll address the climate crisis that’s already having increasingly large and damaging effects on every one of our communities,” said Kathleen A. Theoharides, the Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

“At the same time, we also know that the things we do to reduce greenhouse gas pollution from transportation also deliver enormous benefits to public health and the economy,” she said.

The cap-and-trade market for transportation reflects how policymakers have increasingly shifted their focus from the power sector — where natural gas and renewables have quickly replaced coal, helping energy companies to reduce their carbon footprints — toward transportation, where gasoline engines still dominate.

The region’s cars, trucks and other forms of transport are now responsible for more than 40 percent of its greenhouse gas pollution, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The plan’s backers also stress the importance of regional action at a time when the Trump administration is rolling back a range of climate policies, including weakening standards that would have forced automakers to meet far more stringent fuel efficiency rules.

“When we’re going backward at the federal level, for states to step up and take action on climate, take steps to modernize our transportation system, it’s just an unprecedented opportunity,” said Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director at the Acadia Center, a research and public interest group in New England that is pushing for cleaner energy. “If designed well, this can be the most significant sub-national climate policy ever.”

Cap-and-trade systems for transportation are already in place in California and in Quebec, Canada, and those programs have generated funds for clean transportation. And the Northeast plan has the backing of businesses like General Motors, which last month called it a “an effective and efficient approach.”

But some oil industry groups are pushing back against the proposal. The Mid-Atlantic Petroleum Distributors Association, an association of fuel companies in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia, warned that the plan would “have ramifications that have not been verified or well thought-out.” Higher gas prices will disproportionately affect poor and rural communities, they argued, and could also affect prices of transported goods in the Northeast, a major trucking corridor.

The effort involves the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

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