Big Oil CEOs weren’t at the Senate Budget Committee’s climate hearing, but the industry made its mark
Thursday’s hearing made the case for holding fossil fuel companies accountable, and not just in the way you might expect.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Yesterday, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing entitled “The Costs of Inaction on Climate Change,” featuring a panel of expert witnesses who spoke to the devastating and expensive consequences of our climate crisis to communities, public health and economic stability across the country and globe — and presented a wide range of actions Congress could take to avert the worst of the threat.
Yet we couldn’t help but notice the glaring absence of three distinguished guests of (dis)honor: CEOs of Chevron, Exxon, and BP, all of whom have pledged their companies’ commitment to climate solutions (you know, while they continue to bring our planet to the edge of calamity.)
Though those executives didn’t have the guts to testify at the hearing, the industry’s specter still loomed large in the halls of Congress. Several Republican Senators parroted Big Oil’s talking points and preferred “solutions,” including more funding for “research and development” — apparently the $600 billion a year in subsidies the industry already receives isn’t quite enough.
“I’ve talked to the fossil fuel industry. I find them very open to change,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, who went on to promote algae and natural gas as serious climate fixes (sound familiar?). “They just want to be able to manage that change.”
Senator Mike Braun also pushed the idea of incentivizing industry to change its behavior. “I was with ConocoPhillips this morning… talking to their CEOs, and you can’t believe how interested they are in being part of the solution,” Braun said.
Of course Big Oil is interested in being part of the solution. It’s their last hope of continuing to avoid their two biggest fears: regulation and accountability, the latter of which has arrived in the form of over two dozen lawsuits filed by American communities who’ve been left to pay the costs of climate inaction themselves.
During his testimony, expert witness Dr. Robert Litterman, chair of the Climate-Related Market Risk Subcommittee of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, pointed to the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) recent support of a carbon tax as a step towards meaningful emissions reduction. What Dr. Litterman left out is that API has some skin in this game: enacting a modest carbon tax would seal the fate of the coal industry, handing the entire electricity sector over to natural gas, which contributes plentifully to climate-wrecking emissions and methane leaks across the country. And there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of API’s climate commitments otherwise.
This isn’t the first time the industry has pushed for so-called solutions that work to its advantage. Many of API’s largest and most powerful members, including ExxonMobil, also endorsed a proposed congressional carbon tax bill in 2018, but the fine print included one huge catch: a guarantee of blanket immunity from any climate lawsuits seeking to hold them accountable for past, present, or future deceptive behavior.
The fossil fuel industry’s influence on America’s climate debate and policy decisions is nothing new. That’s why Senators Bernie Sanders and Sheldon Whitehouse used their speaking time on Thursday to throw some well-deserved punches:
“I think history will look back on the covert operation run by the fossil fuel industry against its own country to debilitate and incapacitate our own government from addressing this problem as one of history’s vilest political acts. And that’s why we are where we are right now,” said Senator Whitehouse, who reminded Congress of corporate America’s still dissonant public and private attitudes on addressing the climate crisis.
Senator Sanders also used his opening remarks to introduce the End Polluter Welfare Act, new legislation that would “abolish 150 billion in tax loopholes, subsidies and special interest giveaways to the oil, gas and coal industry over the next decade.”
Even with Senators Sanders and Whitehouse’s comments that pinned the fossil fuel industry to the wall, the absence of the oil majors was palpable. It’s clear Americans can’t trust the oil and gas industry to take responsibility, let alone be good faith partners; hell, we can’t even trust them to show up. With a new Congress and an administration committed to climate accountability, we have an opportunity to take meaningful climate action — but that can’t happen if Big Oil is allowed to continue to run amok.
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