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ExxonMobil Uses Carbon Tax Strategy To Its Advantage, Author Says


Let's ask why some of the nation's biggest energy companies say they're willing to support the fight against climate change. They say they are willing to be taxed for the pollution they create.


Companies including Shell, BP and Exxon Mobil announced they support a carbon tax. Yes, the people who bring you fossil fuel say they're willing to pay for the downside. They're willing to do that even after President Trump withdrew from a climate accord.

INSKEEP: This is different from the way that oil companies used to talk. Steve Coll wrote a history of Exxon Mobil, which once supported anti-climate science propaganda.

STEVE COLL: Exxon Mobil at that time began to fund communications campaigns by non-scientists that generally contributed, I think, to public confusion about what the science was saying as it was starting to emerge in the early 2000s.

INSKEEP: That was then. Now, Exxon Mobil says it supports the tax that would discourage it from producing carbon. But there's a history to that, too. Exxon Mobil has supported a carbon tax for close to a decade. It once used the carbon tax idea in a way that worked to block a different effort against climate change. Steve Coll says the story began when the Exxon CEO was Rex Tillerson, today the secretary of state.

COLL: Tillerson has said when he came in he tried to reset Exxon Mobil's communication about climate. And then later in 2009, Exxon Mobil announced support for a carbon tax, saying that they thought the risks of climate change were serious enough to justify policy intervention. And so that was a big turning point.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that, though. That sounds really impressive, a company saying tax our own pollution, tax us to deal with a major social problem. And they're saying that particularly in 2009. Was it as impressive as it sounds?

COLL: Well, not everybody thought so because what was really going on in 2009 was that the Obama administration had come in and - with Congress - and with a coalition from industry that included other oil companies but also many other corporations, had built support for a different approach to intervening against climate change, the so-called cap and trade bill in 2009 which was a signature piece of policymaking by the Obama administration alongside the health care bill. Exxon Mobil announced its support for a carbon tax at a time when the real policy question was, are you for or against cap and trade? And they essentially...

INSKEEP: Wait a minute. You're saying that Exxon Mobil essentially gummed up the works. They became opponents to a plausible climate bill by supporting a different climate approach.

COLL: I think in fairness to them, look, they take the long view about these kinds of policy questions. To them, Washington, D.C., is just another capital that they have to manage in their own interests. And I think they did come to the conclusion - and you see this again today - in the long run, they were going to have to deal with a world of carbon pricing, that they couldn't change the political tides and that they were going to face regulatory regimes.

So they decided that they preferred attacks to other forms of regulation and essentially took the view, well, this is our position and we're going to stick with it for the long run. Now, in 2017, some of the policy debate has actually come back around to a carbon tax, not just in the United States but in Canada and other places as well.

INSKEEP: So a couple of bottom-line questions. If the government were to embrace this idea of a carbon tax that's been proposed by energy companies, is that a practical way to attack climate change?

COLL: It's not a magic bullet. I do think in the industrialized world where climate politics is less contentious than in the United States, the carbon tax has emerged as a framework that can build consensus around putting a price on carbon. Taxes are a blunt instrument. They do harm low-income households by raising the price of energy. That has to be addressed.

And they're not by themselves enough. I don't think any economist would argue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the pace and to the degree necessary to prevent a catastrophic temperature rise. But as part of a series of responses to the threat of climate change, yes, I think there's a consensus in the industrialized democracies that a price on carbon is essential and that a tax is one way to get there.

INSKEEP: And then the other bottom-line question. When Exxon Mobil, which you know so well, and other energy companies propose a carbon tax as a way of fighting climate change, do they seem to you sincere?

COLL: Yes. I think they seem sincerely accepting of the reality that a price on carbon is coming, and so they'd rather shape what kind of a price they're going to get.

INSKEEP: Steve Coll, thanks very much. Always a pleasure talking with you.

COLL: Glad to do it. Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we've invited a representative of Exxon Mobil to talk about the carbon tax, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.