Climate

Why You Should Be Skeptical Of Big Oil Companies Asking For A Price On Carbon

CREDIT: Shutterstock images

Shell, Statoil, Total, and BP were four of six companies to request a price on carbon be included in international policy frameworks.

Six large European oil and gas companies are asking governments across the world to charge them for the carbon dioxide they emit.

In a letter released Monday, Shell, BP, Total, Statoil, Eni, and the BG Group told the chief of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that a price on carbon “should be a key element” of an international agreement to address global climate change. The letter came while U.N. negotiators met in Bonn, Germany to work towards that agreement.

For those who want to fight climate change, this is good news. But it’s not totally unprecedented. Other high-emitting companies, including Shell, have expressed support for a carbon price before. And big oil companies have been expecting some sort of carbon price for a long time — the biggest ones have already incorporated it into their business plans. Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron, BP, Shell; they’re all financially prepared for a carbon price if and when it comes their way.

That more and more oil companies are now actively calling for a carbon price, though, is good for the climate fight. Total, BP, Statoil, and Royal Dutch Shell are all among the 90 companies causing the vast majority of global warming via their exorbitant carbon emissions. Now, they’re acknowledging they want to at least pay for some of those emissions, and that seems like a positive development.

At the same time, it’s not like any of those six companies are halting their plans to drill. They haven’t recognized the science that says two-thirds of all proven fossil fuel reserves will have to be left in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming. Shell is still planning to explore for oil in the Arctic; BP just recently expanded its operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

More importantly, though — at least in terms of getting a carbon price in the final U.N. climate deal — the European companies that signed the letter wield little power within the U.S. Congress compared to other big oil companies. This matters because the terms of that deal will almost certainly have to be approved by Congress if it is to include an enforceable price on carbon. Under U.S. law, any international agreement that binds or prohibits the United States from actions not otherwise mandated by law must be ratified by Congress.

BP, Statoil, and Total might be actively calling for a carbon tax, but the three biggest U.S. oil companies — ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips — aren’t. (ExxonMobil says they would prefer a carbon tax to a cap-and-trade system, but they don’t outright support it). And those U.S. companies are spending much more to influence Congress than the letter-writing companies on campaign donations and lobbying.

Contributions include donations from company employees, PACs, and soft money contributions.

Contributions include donations from company employees, PACs, and soft money contributions.

CREDIT: Patrick Smith

To be fair, European companies have more restrictions on how much they can give than U.S.-based companies do. But not only are the biggest U.S. companies spending far more to influence U.S. politics, their money is going to politicians who are actively fighting efforts to price carbon in the United States.

During the 2014 election, for example, the biggest receiver of funds from ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips was former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Landrieu marketed herself, among other things, as the “key vote” that made sure a carbon pricing system wasn’t implemented by Congress in 2010. Other candidates supported by those three companies were John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Mark Begich, John Cornyn — all have said they oppose a price on carbon.

In fact, the Republican party as a whole in the United States is opposed to policies that price carbon. Though it says nothing about a carbon tax, the last official Republican party platform touts opposition to “any and all cap-and-trade legislation.” Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of all oil company campaign contributions is going to Republicans.

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CREDIT: Patrick Smith

There are other reasons to be skeptical of any big oil company fighting for a price on carbon. For one, some companies have said they would support a carbon tax, but only if they can avoid other climate-related regulations. As David Roberts pointed out for Grist back in 2012, “the fossil fuel lobby would never give a carbon tax their OK unless EPA regulations on carbon (and possibly other pollution regs) were scrapped.” It’s also reasonable to assume that oil companies see profits increasing in the markets for low-carbon natural gas while the high-emitting coal industry tanks, and realize that coal would be hurt far worse by the policy.

In other words, it is great that some of the world’s biggest contributors to climate change want to be charged for the carbon they emit. But we still have a long way to go before big oil actually joins the fight.