That was quite a crowd of corner office guys up on the dais at the rollout of the American Power Act last Wednesday.
CEOs and other executives from Duke Energy, FPL Energy, Honeywell, and Dow Corning, plus the head of a big utility trade association, were up there saying it's a good idea to put a price on carbon.
The pushback was not long in coming. Tesoro, a petroleum refining and marketing outfit, ridiculed the bill's business supporters as "rent-seekers." That's a pejorative phrase for businesses that try to shape government policies in order to gain uncompensated value from others.
The gist of the argument is that companies that would profit from limits on carbon pollution - for example, renewable energy developers or energy efficiency technology vendors - are rent-seeking by supporting a price on carbon.
Don't be fooled by Tesoro's self-serving sanctimony. Tesoro is indulging in a form of rent-seeking that's been going on since medieval English kings tried unsuccessfully to clean up London's filthy air by banning coal. Companies are rent-seeking when they fight controls on their activities that yield benefits for them but impose uncompensated costs on others.
Following Tesoro's logic, companies that sell filters, treatment systems, and other anti-pollution paraphernalia are rent-seeking if they support pollution control laws. By the same token, however, companies that profit from polluting activities that impose uncompensated harm on others - asthma from air pollution, for example - are rent-seeking if they fight requirements to clean up.
You can characterize efforts to limit pollution as rent-seeking, but imagine the consequences of following that argument to its conclusion. Burning rivers, anyone?
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