House Republicans see pseudo-science in Obama’s ‘cost of carbon’ metrics

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House Republicans launched an all-out attack Wednesday on what they say are the secretive, pseudo-scientific “cost of carbon” metrics that the Obama administration is using to justify increasingly harsh environmental regulations.

At least three pieces of legislation to dismantle the metric, or at least greatly limit how it can be used, are moving through Congress. The measures represent the latest Republican attempt to slow the ambitious climate change agenda laid out by President Obama last month.

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Critics say the cost of carbon figures represent, at best, pseudo-science used to further a crackdown on fossil fuels. At worst, some argue, they are a back door to an eventual carbon tax on American businesses.

“The administration’s track record offers no reassurances that the necessary clarity will be provided and there’s every reason to assume that efforts will be made to justify regulations with a social cost of carbon estimate that hasn’t been validated or even solidly reviewed,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican.

Mr. Hunter introduced legislation Wednesday to bar the Environmental Protection Agency and other arms of the government from using cost-of-carbon metrics until they have been subject to comment and review by Congress and the American public.

Also Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee cleared an amendment, put forth by Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican, that would prohibit the EPA from implementing any rule that relies on the cost-of-carbon formula. It also would require the agency to follow the normal rule-making procedure — complete with a public comment period — before the metric can be used.

A third bill to be offered by Rep. Tim Murphy, Pennsylvania Republican, calls for explicit congressional approval before cost-of-carbon estimates can used in environmental regulations.

Social cost-of-carbon estimates have been in place since 2010 but have come into the spotlight only in recent months.

In May, an administration “working group,” comprised of officials from the EPA, the Energy Department and other agencies, quietly raised their estimated social cost of carbon from $21 per ton of emissions to $35 per ton.

The dramatic increase greatly alters cost-benefit analyses offered by the EPA when floating rules, allowing the agency to claim that billions of dollars will be saved over a period of decades as a result of its proposed limits on power plant emissions, tougher fuel economy standards and other steps.

The increase wasn’t debated in Congress, nor was it available for public review.

Instead, it was buried in an unrelated Energy Department regulation on microwave ovens.

Some analysts say the lack of transparency is only part of the problem. A secondary goal of the system is to establish the baseline for a carbon tax, whereby businesses could be charged $35 for each ton of emissions, said Robert Murphy, an economist with the conservative Institute for Energy Research.

“If it’s politically impossible for them to impose an outright carbon tax, this is a way for them to achieve a lot of the same results by having it done through the regulatory process,” he said.

Like many other analysts, Mr. Murphy argues that while it may be worthwhile for academics to calculate the costs to society posed by carbon emissions, such estimates simply aren’t reliable enough to form the basis for laws and regulations, especially those that carry such serious consequences for the coal industry and other sectors.

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