The Problem with the Climate Leadership Council's Carbon Tax Plan

Karen Sokol

March 2, 2020

Earlier this year, on the heels of the Earth's hottest decade on record, a coalition of former government officials, fossil fuel companies, car manufacturers, financial companies, and nonprofit organizations renewed their endorsement of a national carbon tax as "the most effective climate solution" (emphasis added). And by "the," it appears that they mean "the only." The catch is that the coalition's legislative plan also calls for preventing the federal government from regulating carbon emissions and from taking any other protective measures "that are no longer necessary upon the enactment of a rising carbon fee."

Given the scale and complexity of the planetary emergency that we face, it would certainly be nice if the solution were that simple. But that, of course, is too good to be true. A carbon tax may very well be one important component of the climate crisis toolbox, but complex, massive problems require a mix of policy solutions, and strengthening carbon emission regulations must be a central part of any plan that has a chance of being effective in addressing the climate emergency.

But that only scratches the surface of what is problematic about the coalition's plan. Massive deregulation of carbon emissions works out quite well for ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Total, and the other fossil fuel industry founders of the so-called "Climate Leadership Council," the name of the group endorsing the tax. After all, as a recent report by a group of financial analysts found, these companies have invested in and continue to invest in oil and gas production that will produce a significant amount of emissions – so much, in fact, that they would put the Paris Agreement's goal of limiting global temperature rise to "well below 2C" out of reach. 

If, as the CLC claims, its plan is the solution to the climate crisis, then the fossil fuel companies that endorse it must be prepared to take significant losses, as most of their planned production would become "stranded" assets in our energy transition. Of course, that is not their plan. The CLC calls for a tax starting at $40 per ton of carbon dioxide, an amount that recently discovered documents reveal that Exxon knew – as far back as 1991 – would be far too low to be an effective climate response. Instead, the company determined that a rate equivalent to $78 per ton today would be necessary to stabilize emissions. That is, their plan is not merely an inadequate solution: It would help ensure the profitability of the industry's astoundingly large production investments by freeing it of the sort of emissions regulation that is not only an essential tool in responding to the climate crisis, but also in protecting communities from deadly and debilitating air pollution.

The oil and gas companies backing the CLC plan have known for decades that fossil fuel production and use causes dangerous disruption of our climate system. Instead of acting responsibly and transitioning to the production of cleaner sources of energy, they turned their backs on people and the planet, continued producing fossil fuels, launched a disinformation campaign to suppress and undermine science, and spent millions each year lobbying policymakers to ensure that true planet-saving measures would not be taken. The current production investments, coupled with designedly narrow plans of the sort endorsed by the CLC, is thus simply a continuation of business as usual for the fossil fuel industry: planet-destroying.

Read More by Karen Sokol
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