The emissions trading system introduced under the US Acid Rain Program has been a triumph of the past five years. The concept has since been adopted in a federal nitrogen oxide programme and numerous local initiatives. David Biello looks back
By October 1999, when Environmental Finance was launched, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s sulphur dioxide (SO2) market – the Acid Rain Program – had already held six auctions and weathered numerous storms, such as a doubling in price from less than $100/ton at the start of 1998 to more than $200 by July of that year. Approaching the end of the first compliance period, in December 1999, when emissions were capped at only 110 electric utility power plants, the market looked forward to the inclusion of most fossil fuel-fired generation in Phase II.
Prices remained around $200/ton in anticipation of this expansion of the market, but didn’t stay there for long. In November 1999, after several years of investigation, the Clinton administration announced lawsuits against 51 power plants in 10 states. They alleged that these plants had expanded their operations without installing state-of-the-art pollution controls, as required by the New Source Review (NSR) provision of the Clean Air Act.
Potentially, the NSR lawsuits could have removed significant demand from the market as they would have obliged the affected plants to fit costly technology to curb their emissions – and would not have allowed them to sell the excess allowances. On 3 November 1999, when the lawsuits were announced, an SO2 allowance traded for $180/ton. By the end of the year, the price had dropped to roughly $120.
By spring 2000, the first year of the expanded programme, prices had recovered somewhat. Utilities filed counter-suits charging the Clinton administration with arbitrarily changing the definitions of the NSR, the industry lobbied Congress for relief, and a presidential election promised at least the potential for change. In short, participants in the SO2 market realised that the NSR arguments would take time to be resolved. As a result, prices recovered to $150/ton and hovered around that level until the fall.
But such prices could not withstand the slew of settlement announcements in the fall of that year. First, the EPA announced a settlement with Virginia Electric Power Company (VEPCO) that required it to cut SO2 and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from eight coal-burning plants by roughly 70% by 2008. Most significantly for the market, VEPCO agreed not to trade any allowances resulting from the settlement.
Other settlements followed, including a tentative deal with Ohio-based power giant Cinergy that would have affected emissions at 10 coal-fired power plants throughout the Midwest and reduced SO2 and NOx emissions by hundreds of thousands of tons. SO2 allowance prices, predictably, began to fall back towards $100/ton, bottoming out at $115.
Soon, however, the significance of these settlements was called into question. After all, companies were given until 2008 to install the pollution control technology. And so, the market began to trade up again, if slowly. Then Enron gave the market a real boost. In the 2001 SO2 allowance auction, Enron swept the field ahead of American Electric Power (AEP), a natural buyer that historically had purchased most of the available allowances. Prices began a long climb through the summer of 2001, reaching a then record high of $225 shortly before 11 September.
The tragedy of that day inflicted losses of key personnel and infrastructure on the SO2 market and, in the weeks that followed, prices dipped below $200 once more. In November, a surprise move by Enron to sell 900,000 tons – a very large chunk by market standards – was followed by a brief spike that collapsed upon subsequent news of Enron’s demise.
In fact, Enron’s collapse – coupled with the emotional and financial aftershocks of 11 September – sent the SO2 market into a tailspin. Through the winter, spring and summer of 2002, the market remained moribund, with low prices and little trading, despite the Bush administration’s announcement of its Clear Skies initiative, which would continue the work of the Acid Rain Program beyond 2010. Steadily dropping from $170/ton in the spring to $127 by November 2002, allowance prices suffered from the sell-off of Enron’s assets. The price collapse was compounded by the sale of excess allowances – and perhaps more – by other energy companies trying to generate cash quickly to offset other financial problems in the chaotic energy markets, triggered by the Houston giant’s collapse.
By the end of 2002, although few recognised it at the time, the SO2 market was poised for a long and sustained recovery. The Bush administration had released a proposal to reform the NSR provision radically and effectively allow power companies to undertake repairs without fear of lawsuits; the industry as a whole recognised that some form of multi-pollutant legislation – whether Bush’s Clear Skies or not – would ensure trading continued through the coming decades; and the economic position of the power companies began to improve, if only slightly.
Slowly but surely, the market began a steady climb from $135 at the beginning of 2003 to highs above $220 by the year end. The government’s NSR proposals became fact – subject to lawsuits as usual – allowing power plants to perform equipment replacements if the new parts were functionally the same as the old or did not cost more than 20% of the value of the entire unit. New market participants, like financial giant Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, helped facilitate trading in the absence of Enron.
Significantly, however, these price gains were made on seriously reduced volume. Prices gapped up on trades of as little as 500 tons – well below market norms – and that trend continued into 2004. The price of 2004 allowances rose from $230 to $280 by the end of March on little volume, then from $280/ton to $450 by the beginning of July. By 15 July, the price stood at $630, a near five-fold rise in just a year and a half.
Of course, such highs could not be sustained and by September of this year prices had fallen back to around $480/ton, still on low volumes. But the concept of emissions trading continued to gather strength from the performance of this flagship programme. After all, by 2002, SO2 emissions from power plants were 41% less than the baseline 1980 levels of roughly 17.9 million tons.
NOx markets mature
The success of the Acid Rain Program inspired imitators. In May 1999, 11 northeastern states and the District of Columbia saw fit to create a cap-and-trade programme to address a regional smog problem, under the auspices of their Ozone Transport Commission (OTC).The states created a seasonal NOx cap for their power generators, starting at 219,000 tons in 1999, for the period 1 May–30 September, when emissions of NOx contribute most to smog formation. As with the start of many programmes, panic prices ensued, reaching highs of $7,600/ton before plummeting to just $2,000.
Going into that first compliance season, it soon became clear that the sources in the affected states had more than enough supply to meet their targets. Prices sank further, amid growing enthusiasm for a market to address NOx emissions throughout the country. In 1999, the EPA unveiled a proposal to create a 37-state NOx trading programme. Utilities and industry groups filed lawsuits to fight what they viewed as overly stringent regulations. The battle was on over what was then called the NOx State Implementation Plan (SIP) Call programme.
Meanwhile, trading in the OTC NOx market remained slow and a very cool summer in 2000 – depressing power demand and thus emissions – did little to help matters. Prices fell to historical lows of $325/ton as sources in the affected states simply had too many allowances built up to create a need for much trading. The potential for a wider market created some spark, but it took a massive price rise in natural gas in 2001 to drive a rally in the NOx price.
This spike in natural gas prices and the aftermath of the energy crisis that convulsed California in 2000 and 2001 saw allowance prices rise sharply from around $400/ton in early 2001 to $1,900 at their peak that summer. Speculators such as Enron helped fuel the rise but as soon as natural gas prices eased later that year, so did NOx prices.
Anyway, there was bigger news afoot. By 2001, the birth of a larger NOx market was relatively assured, with most lawsuits put aside and a total of 21 states set to participate. In fact, the first trade of NOx SIP Call allowances took place that summer on 6 June – a stream of allowances from fading industrial giant Bethlehem Steel covering the years 2003–07. By November, trades were occurring on a fairly regular basis, even before all the details of the enlarged market had been worked out and before the allowances had been allocated. This new, expanded market helped NOx trading stay afloat even through the tragedy of 11 September, the collapse of Enron, and the financial woes of the energy sector that followed.
By 2002, the rules of the new market were clearer. The plan called for a cap on total emissions of 3.3 million tons/year, down from a 1995 baseline of 4.4 million tons/year in the region. Several states allocated allowances in 2002 and the rules of so-called compliance supplement pools, a way for companies that had been affected by the OTC programme to keep some of their allowances, were available – if not entirely clear.
The OTC programme went through the last season of its short-lived existence and prices began to fade, dropping as low as $600/ton by the end of the year. Thanks to a large bank of excess allowances, few companies needed to buy for compliance purposes. However, the savvy trader was able to buy cheap tons which could then be converted, under the arcane rules of the compliance supplement pool, into NOx SIP Call allowances. And, while the majority of states would not join that market until the end of May 2004, nine Northeastern states at least would begin the compliance season on 1 May 2003.
The new federal NOx Budget Trading Program, created by the SIP Call, had more than 500,000 allowances ready to trade and would affect more than 1,500 utility and industrial sources by May 2004. But this dramatic expansion of the NOx market did nothing to stabilise prices. By the end of April 2003, prices for that year’s NOx reached $8,000/ton, amply rewarding those who had better mastered their compliance supplement pool rules. It did not help matters that high natural gas prices encouraged utilities to burn coal and therefore produce more NOx.
A cool summer came to the rescue, along with the other states in the programme beginning to allocate allowances to affected companies. This allowed cash-strapped industrials, like Bethlehem Steel before them, to begin to sell allowances. Prices cooled off and traded in a range around $2,500/ton until the end of the year.
Despite the addition of many more states and sources this year, NOx prices have remained subdued, though trading has picked up to the point where volumes now easily surpass those of its ancestor, the SO2 market. Helped by a short 2004 season – most sources only have to comply from 31 May instead of counting that full month – and average summer weather, current year vintages have traded as low as $1,800/ton, but remain largely in a range around $2,500.
Future year vintages, such as for 2005 and 2006, have traded actively and command a premium of more than $1,000/ton over current year prices. With the NOx market included in all proposed multi-pollutant legislation, its future seems assured.
A pall, however, hangs over both the NOx and SO2 markets. The looming darkness is a pending decision by the federal government on how to deal with mercury pollution. The Bush administration would like to see the roughly 48 tons of mercury released each year by US power plants traded in an emissions market not unlike the SO2 and NOx programmes. Environmentalists and some senators, however, have called for absolute cuts in mercury pollution from each installation, citing its neurotoxicity and prevalence in US waters.
The decision on how to deal with this issue will have a significant impact on the SO2 and NOx markets. If mercury must be removed on an absolute basis at each plant, utilities will be forced to install controls in the near future that will also filter out much of the SO2 and NOx emissions. If mercury is traded, then perhaps those controls will be put on over a more extended timeframe. Either way, the decision on mercury will likely have a profound impact on both these existing emission markets. EF
BOX – Trading from the regions
The EPA’s sulphur dioxide (SO2) market is not the oldest cap-and-trade market in the US. While it was the first set out, under the terms of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, Southern California’s Regional Clean Air Incentives Market (RECLAIM) was the first to come into effect, in 1993. With more than 350 facilities in its nitrogen oxide (NOx) market and roughly 40 in its SO2 market, RECLAIM can make some claim to that ‘oldest’ title.
But being the oldest is not easy and RECLAIM has seen more than its share of controversy in the past five years. The California energy crisis of 2000 certainly did not help this market, which covers sources around the Los Angeles basin. Trading on a per pound basis rather than per ton, prices for NOx rocketed up to more than $60 per pound in 2000 ($45,000/ton) from $1–2 per pound in 1999.
Regulators were forced to act. Both the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) and then Governor Gray Davis announced measures to relieve NOx price pressures on power generators in the state. By May 2001, the SCAQMD had removed power plants from the programme entirely.
While the generators were not the only participants in the NOx market, they were the most consistent buyers of allowances. With their removal, the predictable happened: prices collapsed, falling below $1 per pound in 2001 with trades as low as 15¢ per pound in subsequent years.
The SCAQMD is considering plans to bring the power generators back into the programme but, as the plants were required to install pollution control technology as part of the agreement to remove them from RECLAIM obligations, a cut in their allocation is being debated. Even with a cut, the power generators will probably now enter the market as sellers rather than buyers. At any rate, their re-entry into the market may not come before 2007 and prices remain depressed, currently in the 30–50¢ range.
Of course, RECLAIM is not the only regional market, just the oldest. In January 2002, the Houston–Galveston Area NOx programme was born, covering 320 sources in the region, an attempt to bring that region into compliance with federal ozone standards. By the end 2007, the programme aims to cut NOx emissions by 90% from a baseline that is calculated from sources’ average emissions over 1997–99.
Unfortunately, the market has been designed so that the big cuts do not come until later and thus far only electricity generators have seen any cuts at all. The trading preference in this market is for streams of allowances starting in the current year and extending in perpetuity. Spot year tons for the current year have traded only a little in this market, establishing prices at $60/ton for 2002s, roughly $140 for 2003s and around $400 for this year.
But streams of allowances are where the action really happens, with prices starting off 2002 just above $30,000 per ton in perpetuity, ranging up to $46,000 by the time Enron’s assets were auctioned off, in June 2002, and falling back to around $37,000 this year. With market split between industry giants such as Reliant and very small players that emit only few tons of NOx per year, trades can vary greatly in price and size.