If the federal government doesn’t act, policy developments at the state level might promote clean energy instead. At the end of last week, as the stock market tumbled, ten northeastern states launched the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the first U.S. cap-and-trade system. On Thursday, the ten states participated in an auction for 12.5 million one-ton carbon emission permits. The bidding occurred as numerous journalists speculated anxiously (remember the European Trading Scheme) about the results, which they had to wait through the weekend to receive. With that information now available, Reuters reports that the auction generated $39 million for the participating states. And Keith Johnson, at the Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog, surmises that demand for the permits “was actually pretty strong,” though not strong enough to make them as expensive as hoped.

At any rate, the Western Climate Initiative, a similar cap-and-trade pact among seven states and four Canadian Provinces whose broad outline was released last Tuesday, is “more ambitious,” concluded New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer on the Green Inc. blog. But that plan, which won’t begin until 2012, still has been many “obstacles” to face in both conception and implementation, according to two stories by the Associated Press. And even if both plans were to succeed, as one source told Johnson in his Journal post about the northeastern cap-and-trade scheme, regional policies just won’t cut it. According to Johnson, that:

[P]asses the buck back to Senators McCain and Obama. How will the U.S., shackled with the double whammy of a possible recession and the cost of the financial bailout package, muster the resources to launch a nationwide, economy-wide climate-change scheme?

What he really means is a nationwide, economy-wide energy scheme. Obama and McCain don’t talk about cap-and-trade, a climate policy, much these days. With the economy tumbling, they try to keep it positive by talking about investing in clean energy or energy independence. It used to be that those regulatory and market-based approaches were just two sides of the energy package’s coin. Wall Street’s slow, and then alarmingly rapid, decline may have changed that. The question for journalists is whether energy policy will be the victim of, or part of the solution to, that crisis.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.