On November 14, 2013, Judge Timothy Frawley of the Sacramento Superior Court rejected two industry challenges to California’s cap-and-trade program.
The Air Resources Board adopted regulations in 2011 to implement AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act. The 2006 Act authorized ARB to implement various mechanisms, including a market-based mechanism, such as a cap-and-trade program, to reduce the state’s GHG emissions. The cap-and-trade program is based on an initial “cap” on the total amount of GHG emissions that can be released by regulated sources. That cap is lowered over time.
Under the program, regulated entities must get a permit (referred to as an “allowance”) for every ton of GHG emissions they emit. The allowances will be distributed, under ARB’s regulations, through quarterly auctions for emissions, which will each consist of one round of sealed bidding. Allowances may subsequently be banked, or bought and sold on a new auction-based carbon market. Sale proceeds will be deposited into a special fund and available for uses designated in AB 32. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that auctions will raise as much as $12 to $70 billion over the life of the program for the State.
The California Chamber of Commerce and the Morning Star Packing Company both challenged the cap-and-trade program in related lawsuits. Petitioners made two main claims: (1) the cap-and-trade provisions of ARB’s regulations are invalid because the Legislature never authorized ARB to raise billions of dollars by auctioning allowances, and thus cap-and-trade exceeds ARB’s delegated scope of authority, and (2) the charges for emissions allowances constitute illegal taxes adopted in violation of Proposition 13, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass a tax increase.
On the first issue, the court concluded that AB 32 specifically delegated to ARB the discretion to adopt a cap-and-trade program and to design a system of emissions reductions that meets the statutory goals. Even without the express delegation of authority, the court concluded that ARB would have had to make the inevitable choice as how to allocate the allowances. The court also pointed to post-AB 32 legislation, which reflected a legislative understanding that AB 32 permitted the sale of allowances.
As to the second issue, after acknowledging the question was a close one, the court declined to find the money collected by the auction is a tax. Instead, the court concluded the proceeds are more like regulatory fees. Ultimately, the court was persuaded by the fact that the primary purpose of the fees is regulation, not revenue generation. Furthermore, the court found that Prop. 13’s goal of providing effective tax relief was not subverted by shifting the costs of environmental protection to those who seek to impact natural resources. The sale of allowances helps to achieve AB 32’s regulatory goals by gradually increasing the cost of compliance, thereby creating a financial incentive to reduce emissions.