On Tuesday, a pack of Republican Congressmen went public with a new suite of measures to fight global warming. Previewed by Axios, the plan is being heralded as a “sea change” in how the party thinks about the potential end of the world. On closer look, while the announcement shows how far climate activists have managed to shift the conversation in Washington, it’s also a package only a fossil fuel executive could love. It’s unlikely to pass, much less keep temperatures from rising.
Besides fossil fuels, climate denial has been one of America’s most noxious exports—much of it bankrolled by the fossil fuel industry itself, leaders of which were fully aware of their contribution toward global warming. Having first found a home in the Republican Party, talking points from denier groups like the Heartland and Competitive Enterprise Institutes are now popping up in the mouths of right-wing parties and governments from Germany to Australia. Many fossil fuel companies, though, also began to present themselves as part of the solution to climate change—a strategy which might, in theory, help avert more intense public or governmental attention.
Starting in the 1990s, European fossil fuel producers like Shell and BP looked to shape the face of climate and energy policy rather than go to war with it, working with big greens like the Environmental Defense Fund to push their preferred solutions—like carbon markets, rather than more stringent emissions regulations—at the national and international level. The social media of virtually every major oil company talks up their commitments to electric vehicles, wind and solar power and carbon pricing. Several fossil fuel companies are now signed onto efforts like the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which tout companies’ ability to self-regulate. The American Petroleum Institute (API)—a trade association for the oil and gas industry—has launched a climate-conscious ad buy dubbed We’re On It, and has attempted to rebrand the sector as “natural gas and oil.”
Earlier this month, API hinted that it could even start supporting climate bills that incentivize carbon capture and investments in low-carbon technologies. In contrast to “legislation that’s supported by far-right Republicans and far-left Democrats,” API CEO Mike Sommers told a press call earlier announcing the ad campaign that “it’s some place in the middle where we think we can meet and we can work together on this key priority.”
Ask and ye shall receive. In an exclusive published Tuesday by Axios’s Amy Harder, Republican Representatives Kevin McCarthy, Garret Graves and Bruce Westerman—two of whom have taken donations from API this cycle—previewed a suite of new measures aimed at countering the Green New Deal, focused on incentivizing carbon capture and investment in low-carbon technologies, as well as conservation. The policies would reduce taxes on companies that export clean energy, expand an existing tax credit for carbon capture and storage, double R&D funding for energy, and plant a lot of trees to capture carbon dioxide. Their plan, as reviewed by Axios, is scant on details. It also steers clear of any binding emissions targets and reportedly includes support for natural gas. “It’s a mistake to set arbitrary targets like some folks are doing,” Graves told Harder.
The blueprint is framed as a shift away from Republican climate denial. But, filled with oil and gas companies’ favorite climate policies, it’s unlikely to bring down emissions. Fossil fuel interests have been generous to Graves, whose state (Louisiana) is home to America’s first recognized climate refugees. In 2019, he received donations of $10,000 each from Marathon Petroleum, Entergy, and NextEra Energy—the last two being power companies that have battled renewables at the state level. Since his first run for Congress in 2014, Graves has gotten more than half a million dollars from energy PACs.
McCarthy’s top funder this cycle has been Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. He’s received $1.8 million from PACs linked to energy companies since 2005, with top donors including Chevron and Occidental Petroleum. Westerman has taken a more modest $164,500 from oil and gas industry PACs.
They aren’t the only ones trying to make Republican-led, oil company-friendly climate policy happen. The Climate Leadership Council—sponsored by ExxonMobil and BP—periodically pens op-eds in The Washington Post and The New York Times making the case that the road to tackling emissions runs through the fossil fuel industry and their favorite revenue-neutral carbon tax, which includes a provision to kneecap the EPA. “Most oil and gas companies recognize the threat of climate change and want to be part of the solution,” CLC chairman Ted Halstead wrote in a recent iteration in The New York Times this month. The “energy majors,” he argued, “are an indispensable part of any successful clean-energy transition.”
Such public relations bluster doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny. A new report from the hardly progressive International Energy Agency finds that oil and gas companies have invested less than one percent of total capital expenditure outside of their core business model. These companies reliably pour millions of dollars into fighting off climate policies they disagree with (which is, to say, most of them).
What these conservative climate proposals mainly show is that at least some segment of the American right feels the need to have a good line on climate. That’s probably thanks to recent climate-fueled disasters, as well as increasing pressure from the left: calls for a Green New Deal, for example, and an upswing in activism by groups like the Sunrise Movement and youth climate strikers. Although support for climate action in the GOP remains weak, 52 percent of young Republicans think the government is doing too little on climate, along with 46 percent of women in the GOP, according to a Pew Research Center poll released in November. But if enterprising Republicans want to be loyal to their donors in the fossil fuel industry, the plan laid out in Axios this week may be the way of the future—conservative politicians embracing some suite of policies with a green veneer, but which demand little of the industries that have brought the world to this moment.
Whether such proposals have any political future is a different question. There still isn’t much appetite for a moderate climate plan, whose backers over the years—including Jeff Flake and Carlos Curbelo—have either left Congress or been booted out of office. The chances of such a plan passing is slim to none. Any policy in line with the science on climate change and emissions reduction, moreover, will constitute a direct challenge to the fossil fuel industry’s business model, premised as it is on exploring for and extracting as much dirty fuel as possible.
The IPCC’s Special Report on capping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius finds that—barring colossal advancements in our ability to suck carbon out of the atmosphere—global coal, oil and gas use will need to decline by 97, 87 and 74 percent by 2050, respectively. Its authors recommend a “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to reach that goal. Thanks to industry pressure and tens of billions of dollars worth of subsidies, we’re headed in the opposite direction: Despite remarkable growth in the amount of renewables on the grid, fossil fuels still supply some 80 percent of America’s power.
Planting trees, in other words, isn’t enough. And the kinds of clean fuel Republicans and their donors say they’re interested in supporting are dwarfed by the more traditional ones cooking the planet and lining their pockets.