political capitalism

Post image for Where Does ExxonMobil Stand on Carbon Taxes? (Updated Dec. 27, 2012)

Yesterday on NPR’s radio program To the Point, I said it was dishonorable for ExxonMobil to support a carbon tax. I compared ExxonMobil’s reported embrace of carbon taxes to Enron’s lobbying for the Kyoto Protocol.

Enron was a a major natural gas distributor and saw in Kyoto a means to suppress demand for coal, natural gas’s chief competitor in the electricity fuel market. ExxonMobil is a major natural gas producer. So I took this to be another case of political capitalism — corporate lobbying to replace a competitive market with a rigged market to enrich a particular firm or industry at the expense of competitors and consumers.

The NPR program host said something like “even oil companies like ExxonMobil now support a carbon tax,” alluding to a Nov. 16 Bloomberg Businessweek article titled “Carbon Fee From Obama Seen Viable With Backing From Exxon.” I too had read the article, and ExxonMobil’s reported behavior struck me as imprudent as well as unkosher. A carbon tax could come back to bite natural gas producers big time if the EPA decides, along the lines of Cornell University research, that fugitive methane emissions from hydraulic fracturing make natural gas as carbon-intensive as coal.

The Bloomberg article quoted an email from ExxonMobil spokesperson Kimberly Brasington:

Combined with further advances in energy efficiency and new technologies spurred by market innovation, a well-designed carbon tax could play a significant role in addressing the challenge of rising emissions. A carbon tax should be made revenue neutral via tax offsets in other areas.

As explained previously on this site, a revenue-neutral carbon tax is a political pipedream, as is a carbon tax that preempts EPA and State-level greenhouse gas regulations. ExxonMobil is too savvy not to know this. So I interpreted Brasington’s caveats (“combined,” “well-designed,” “revenue-neutral”) to be the typical K Street evasiveness of those wishing to signal rather than declare their support for a controversial policy.

But articles published today in FuelFix and The Hill contend that ExxonMobil “does not support” a carbon tax and is “not encouraging policymakers” to impose such a tax. Both articles quote ExxonMobil VP for public affairs and government relations Ken Cohen:

If policymakers are going to adopt a measure, a regime to affect or put in place a cost on the use of carbon across the economy, then as we look at the range of options, our economists and most economists would support a revenue-neutral, economy-wide carbon tax as the most transparent and efficient way of putting in place a cost on the use of carbon.

Not supporting and not encouraging is not the same as opposing. Indeed, not opposing while saying But if you’re gonna do it, do it like this! can be a low-profile way to support and encourage! Also, why say anything favorable about carbon taxes when cap-and-trade is dead and there’s no longer even a weak prudential case for supporting carbon taxes as the lesser evil? [click to continue…]