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E-commute project has warts

It’s a good start, but telecommuting smoke futures will be problematic down the road. 4/25 ReleVents hed: E-commute project has warts dek: It’s a good start, but telecommuting smoke futures will be problematic down the road. By James Mathewson

Many programs provide incentives for employers to enable their workers to telecommute at least part of the time. These incentives usually come in the form of tax credits justified against two main public goods: lighter traffic and reduced pollution. I’m in favor of anything that encourages employers to get their people working from home–not only for the above reasons, but also because telecommuting improves IT workers’ quality of life and increases productivity.

According to a news item on our site today, a pilot project administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and run by the nonprofit National Environmental Policy Institute (NEPI) will issue credits for mobile emissions reductions to companies with telecommuters. The program will require companies to earn a certain number of credits per year. And it will allow companies who earn more than their required amount to sell these credits to companies that don’t comply with the strictures.

This last arrangement may seem odd at first, but it is patterned after a commodity market that trades in smoke futures. This market is based on the rule that companies must comply with certain minimum EPA standards. If a company emits fewer pollutants than these standards require, it can sell the excess in a smoke futures commodity market. Utilities, factories, and refineries then buy those futures, enabling them to turn off their scrubbers or otherwise emit more pollution than the EPA rules would allow. Running a scrubber consumes a certain amount of energy, and if it costs less to buy smoke futures than to run the scrubber, companies will buy smoke futures.

Let me tell you that I am opposed to the idea of smoke futures. Without smoke future trading, the United States would produce an estimated 20 percent fewer greenhouse gasses than it currently emits. At some point, it will become necessary to eliminate smoke future trading and require everyone to stay within EPA minimum standards. The United States may fight it, but several international efforts will force U.S. compliance to stricter CO2 emission standards. And the easiest way to get there is to eliminate smoke future trading. It is not a matter of whether smoke futures will be banned, but when. When it does happen, lots of financial institutions that depend on smoke futures for a part of their commodity portfolios will cry foul.

While I am in favor of the NEPI telecommuter pilot project, I am concerned that it starts out under a smoke-future model. Why not start out with a model that sets a minimum number of telecommuting credits for each employee and that also offers tax credits for all telecommuting credits earned over the minimum? If you start with a progressive pilot project, it will be easier to gain widespread adoption. You can always back off here and there if you get industry opposition to some of the rules. But if your backwards-looking pilot project creates a new telecommuting credit commodity market, it will be very difficult to turn it into a progressive program. Financial markets will not give up these telecommuting smoke futures without a fight.

James Mathewson is editorial director of and ComputerUser magazine.

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