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Donald Trump's energy adviser supports a carbon tax — wait, no he doesn't

Trump'n'coal
Trump puts his coal hat on.
(Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Trump Show dominating US politics at the moment is too big, brash, and overwhelming to properly follow. Every day brings multiple tragicomedies, any one of which is worthy of several days of coverage, but doesn't get it, because the next day brings new ones.

So you can be forgiven if you missed the news that Trump has apparently picked an energy adviser: Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from the North Dakota oil fields.

Cramer is reportedly writing a white paper for Trump on how to Make Energy Great Again — and Trump is scheduled to give a speech on energy at an oil conference in Bismarck next week.

Relative to Trump's colorful current roster of advisers, Cramer is relatively tame, at least in affect. His views are exactly what you'd expect from an oil-state Republican (or, indeed, almost any Republican in Congress).

He doesn't accept climate science; "he believes the Earth is cooling, not warming." According to this Bloomberg rundown and another in Vice, he wants to repeal the Clean Power Plan, Obama's new methane regulations, and the Renewable Fuel Standard — oh, and pull out of the Paris climate agreement.

He also wants to weaken the Endangered Species Act. And he wants to investigate collusion at OPEC, which he suspects of rigging prices against North Dakota producers.

He is effectively a representative of the oil and gas industries, from which he has received $573,000 since being elected to Congress in 2013.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND)
Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND)
(Wikipedia)

Carbon what? Really?!

Nonetheless, there was a spot of excitement last week when, in an interview with E&E's Evan Lehmann, he said two magic words: "carbon tax."

Though he doesn't accept climate science, Cramer does accept "the reality that we're heading toward or our goal is a more carbon-constrained world." Thus, he wants to make deals rather than just flatly oppose all action, which he rightly perceives will just leave his side with nothing. (See: the fight over Obamacare.)

To that end, he has said he would support a small carbon tax. Here's what he told Lehmann:

"My idea of a carbon tax would be to help fund clean fossil fuel research and development, not to fund the government, not to punish fossil fuel generation, not to manipulate fuel choice. Even a neutral, a revenue-neutral, carbon tax is inappropriate, in my view. But if we can have a very, very modest carbon tax to fund, again, the solution by utilizing fossil fuels like coal, I think even the industry would support that."

Because he said the magic words, this was taken as an intriguing bit of heterodoxy, fueling the (in my estimation, naive) belief among some in the environmental community that there's lots of nascent GOP support for a carbon tax, just waiting to be activated.

No, not really

Two things worth noting about this rather flabby trial balloon.

First, a "very, very modest carbon tax" that funnels revenue straight back into the oil and gas industry is basically worthless as a climate policy. And if such a carbon tax replaced the Clean Power Plan, which is what Cramer wants, it would be a clear net negative in climate terms.

A small carbon tax would retire far fewer coal plants than the CPP. Its influence on oil and gas markets would be all but negligible — a $10 carbon tax (likely higher than the "very, very modest" level Cramer envisions) would raise gasoline prices by about 10 cents a gallon, an effect that would be lost in day-to-day price fluctuations.

trump and coal

As I argued at much, much greater length in a post a few weeks ago, there's nothing magic about a carbon tax. It is not necessarily a sign of seriousness on climate change, much less a prerequisite.

It all depends on how high the tax is and what the revenue is used for. A high tax with revenue spent on further carbon reductions would be great. A "very, very modest" tax with revenue funneled back into oil and gas is perfectly consonant with anti-government, pro–fossil fuel Republican orthodoxy.

And second ... never mind anyway!

The trial balloon was shot out of the sky in less than a week. The Hill called Cramer and he, uh, clarified: "I would never encourage him or push him or even recommend him to initiate any type of a carbon tax." Seems pretty clear.

The counter-counterintuitive truth is that Trump's energy plans are probably going to look a lot like standard Republican energy plans. He's gotten lots of publicity for his minor policy heterodoxies, but on the big-ticket items so far — tax policy and Supreme Court justices — he's giving the party what it wants, seeking to unite it behind him.

He has no idiosyncratic reason to do otherwise on energy policy. So it will be fewer and weaker regulations, more subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels, less international cooperation on climate change, and, sorry, no carbon tax.