US, UK Oil Firms Clash on Climate Change
June 16, 2015
David R. Baker / San Francisco Chronicle
The fight against climate change has opened a trans-Atlantic rift in an industry often seen as a monolith -- Big Oil. Unwilling to sit on the sidelines, Europe's largest oil companies issued a joint statement calling for a worldwide price on the greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning their products. This, they argued, would help the global transition to cleaner energy. The CEOs of BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and Total all signed the statement. None of their US counterparts did.
Why US Oil Companies Clash with EU Peers on Global Warming
David R. Baker / San Francisco Chronicle
(June 7, 2015) -- The fight against climate change has opened a trans-Atlantic rift in an industry often seen as a monolith -- Big Oil.
Unwilling to sit on the sidelines of climate negotiations, Europe's largest oil companies last month issued a joint statement calling for a worldwide price on the greenhouse gas emissions that come from burning their products. Such a price, they said, would help the global economy transition to cleaner sources of energy.
The CEOs of BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and Total all signed the statement. None of their American counterparts did.
Chevron Corp. CEO John Watson argued that his European colleagues are pushing a policy that consumers would never embrace. Focus instead on developing nuclear plants and natural gas reserves to fight global warming, he said. "It's not a policy that is going to be effective, because customers want affordable energy," Watson said last week, at an OPEC seminar in Vienna. "They want low energy prices, not high energy prices."
The split, analysts say, reflects the stark divide between climate politics in Europe and the United States. Europe already has a cap-and-trade system for setting a price on greenhouse gas emissions. Public debate over global warming revolves around how best to fight it, not whether it exists.
In the United States, many conservatives still insist that warming is either a natural phenomenon or an outright hoax perpetrated by scientists, environmentalists and their political allies. Pricing carbon is a nonstarter for most Republicans in Washington, who are trying to block President Obama's climate regulations. An effort to create a nationwide cap-and-trade system died in 2010, in part due to opposition from oil- and coal-producing states.
"The domestic politics for the US companies is different from what it is for the Europeans," said Raymond Kopp, a senior fellow with the Resources for the Future think tank. "Right now, this is a difficult conversation for them to have domestically."
And that's assuming they want to have it all.
Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson has expressed support for a tax on greenhouse gas emissions but hasn't pushed for it. The company formerly supported groups that questioned the scientific consensus on warming.
Billionaires Charles and David Koch, whose wealth comes largely from oil and gas, have poured money into the campaigns of political candidates who oppose action on climate change. The Koch brothers have announced plans to spend $889 million during the 2016 election cycle.
And while Chevron's home base lies in the only US state with a full-scale cap-and-trade program -- California -- the company has often criticized the state's climate-change policies, warning they could push energy prices higher.
Last month's statement from the European oil CEOs, in contrast, brands climate change "a critical challenge for our world" that must be tackled immediately. The executives urge governments that haven't already done so to start putting a price on carbon.
The statement, issued as an open letter to two top international climate negotiators, is notably silent on whether the companies prefer a tax on greenhouse gas emissions or a cap-and-trade system. Such systems -- including California's, which began in 2012 -- force businesses to buy credits for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit.
The CEOs make clear, however, that they eventually want a worldwide price.
"Pricing carbon obviously adds a cost to our production and our products," they write. "But carbon pricing policy frameworks will contribute to provide our businesses and their many stakeholders with a clear roadmap for future investment, a level playing field for all energy sources across geographies and a clear role in securing a more sustainable future."
Natural Gas Strategy
The CEOs also hint at how their companies could thrive in such a future, by producing more natural gas and investing in renewable technology. Indeed, the companies already have extensive natural gas holdings, analysts noted.
"If you're on the board of directors of an oil company, you have to be asking yourself, ‘What's our future in a low-carbon world?' And with this letter, I think you see these companies trying to figure it out," said Ralph Cavanagh, energy program co-director for the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group.
Chevron and Exxon have also invested heavily in natural gas, which when burned in power plants produces roughly half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. Regulations limiting emissions, including the Obama administration's effort to cut emissions from power plants, could help them.
"I can't imagine that Exxon or Chevron, which are companies that would benefit from a shift to natural gas, would be privately opposed to the Clean Power Plan," said Amy Myers Jaffe, director of the energy and sustainability program at UC Davis.
David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @DavidBakerSF
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