California's latest carbon auction brought disappointing results Tuesday as litigation and lagging support by lawmakers weigh down the state's landmark programs combating climate change.
State officials said only 34 percent of the available carbon pollution credits were sold in the latest auction under the program, which requires companies that emit climate-changing gases to buy the pollution permits.
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It was a slight rebound from this spring, when investors bought just 10 percent of the pollution credits offered, signaling a rocky period for the state's overall campaign against climate-changing pollution from fossil fuels.
The cap-and-trade program is a keystone of Gov. Jerry Brown's efforts to reduce climate-changing pollution in California and is being watched closely around the world as other governments put together efforts to fight climate change.
Dave Clegern, spokesman for the state air board that runs the effort, said the program is adapting as it should to shifts in the market.
"The California cap-and-trade program is first and foremost a greenhouse gas reduction program, and it is working" to bring down carbon pollution from fossil fuels, Clegern said in an email.
Pollution credits consistently sold out after the cap-and-trade program began in 2012, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars quarterly for initiatives that reduce greenhouse gases. The proceeds are used to fund a high-speed rail project pushed by Brown, along with other transit construction and energy conservation efforts.
This year, demand plummeted amid uncertainty about the program's viability. The result was the steep decline in revenue at a spring auction, prompting concerns that funding won't be available long-term to continue the programs.
Brown, backed by environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers, is struggling to win support for extending the state's landmark global warming law amid opposition from oil companies, Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Legislature.
Republican lawmakers called the latest middling auction results a failure and a flop, and called again for the state to abandon the cap-and-trade program.
However, the state Assembly took a critical step Tuesday when it advanced the latest global warming legislation to the state Senate, where it is also expected to pass before next week. Both chambers are dominated by Democrats.
The California Chamber of Commerce is fighting cap-and-trade in court, claiming it is an illegal tax that did not go through the proper legislative approval process.
The lawsuit in particular is scaring away some potential investors, said Dan McGraw, a Houston-based carbon analyst with the ICIS trade publication.
"Potentially there's a lot to lose if the California Chamber of Commerce wins that case," McGraw said.
The growing backlog of unsold carbon credits also is weighing on the cap-and-trade program, he said.
"They're going through something every carbon market has gone through," the analyst said. "The question is: What do you do now?"
The latest auction results show that the market needs certainty about the state's long-term cap and trade program, through either the Legislature or state voters vouching for its future in a ballot initiative, Nancy McFadden, Brown's chief of staff, said in a statement.