Tradable Pollution Permits and the Regulatory Game

44 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2006

See all articles by Jason Scott Johnston

Jason Scott Johnston

University of Virginia School of Law; PERC - Property and Environment Research Center

Date Written: November 2005


This paper analyzes polluters' incentives to move from a traditional command and control (CAC) environmental regulatory regime to a tradable permits (TPP) regime. Existing work in environmental economics does not model how firms contest and bargain over actual regulatory implementation in CAC regimes, and therefore fail to compare TPP regimes with any CAC regime that is actually observed. This paper models CAC environmental regulation as a bargaining game over pollution entitlements. Using a reduced form model of the regulatory contest, it shows that CAC regulatory bargaining likely generates a regulatory status quo under which firms with the highest compliance costs bargain for the smallest pollution reductions, or even no reduction at all. As for a tradable permits regime, it is shown that all firms are better off under such a regime than they would be under an idealized CAC regime that set and enforced a uniform pollution standard, but permit sellers (low compliance cost firms) may actually be better off under a TPP regime with relaxed aggregate pollution levels. Most importantly, because high cost firms (or facilities) are the most weakly regulated in the equilibrium under negotiated or bargained CAC regimes, they may be net losers in a proposed move to a TPP regime. When equilibrium costs under a TPP regime are compared with equilibrium costs under a status quo CAC regime, several otherwise paradoxical aspects of firm attitudes toward TPP-type reforms can be explained. In particular, the otherwise paradoxical pattern of allowances awarded under Phase II of the 1990 Clean Air Act's acid rain program, a pattern tending to favor (in Phase II) cleaner, newer generating units, is explained by the fact that under the status quo regime, a kind of bargained CAC, it was the newer cleaner units that were regulated, and which therefore had higher marginal control costs than did the largely unregulated older, plants. As a normative matter, the analysis here implies that the proper baseline for evaluating TPP regimes such as those contained in the Bush Administration's recent Clear Skies initiative is not idealized, but nonexistent CAC regulatory outcomes, but rather the outcomes that have resulted from the bargaining game set up by CAC laws and regulations.

Keywords: environmental regulation, market based instruments, game theory, tradable pollution permits, emission markets

JEL Classification: K32, K23, Q25, Q28, Q20, D62, D73

Suggested Citation

Johnston, Jason Scott, Tradable Pollution Permits and the Regulatory Game (November 2005). U of Penn Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 06-04, U of Penn, Inst for Law & Econ Research Paper No. 06-07, Available at SSRN: or

Jason Scott Johnston (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

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