By The Editorial Board
Rarely do companies ask to be taxed. But when the Houston Chronicle editorial board met with representatives from Exxon Mobil Corp. this week, we heard loud and clear their support for an across-the-board tax on carbon emissions.
This puts Exxon alongside other oil and gas companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total SA and Statoil in standing for a carbon tax. Now it is time for Congress to join their ranks.
"Based on everything we've looked at, this would be the policy step that makes the most sense," vice president of public and government affairs Ken Cohen said, paraphrasing the position of CEO Rex Tillerson. "Why? Because it is uniform. It can apply across all sectors of the economy. It sends the right signal to consumers. It sends the right signal to producers of energy. This is why we support it."
This attitude on a carbon tax, which Cohen said the company has held since 2009, is Exxon's contribution to the debate on how humanity should address global warming. The world's largest oil and gas company has moved beyond the question of whether man-made climate change is real. They're convinced.
"Climate change is real. The risk is real," Cohen said.
The growing presence of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere threatens to raise global temperatures and change the climate in ways that we can't predict. There's currently more carbon dioxide in the air than at any other point in human history. Even oil and gas companies, which inherently contribute to the problem, admit that now is the time for governments to implement policy that will curb these emissions.
However, if humanity wants to avoid the worst-case scenario, a carbon tax probably will not be enough. Capping the rise of global temperatures to 2 degrees centigrade has been the consensus out of the Paris climate change talks, which end this week. From what scientists know today, that's the upward limit if we want to effectively mitigate truly disastrous risks. Yet according to Pete Trelenberg, manager of environmental policy and planning at Exxon Mobil, the planet is currently on the path to a future that is probably 2-4 degrees warmer than it was before the industrial revolution.
A carbon tax will have to come alongside investments in clean energy, power storage, better efficiency and decarbonization technology. If the right investments don't happen soon enough, harsher measures may be necessary down the line.
The government also has to start taking action now to protect the public against the almost inevitable changes to the planet. The real impact of climate change may not become apparent for several decades, but Exxon already is working to protect its long-term investments in the Houston area against the foreseeable consequences. Sea-level rise and the potential for stronger storms are the particular risks along the Gulf Coast. The Houston area needs to follow the private-sector example and consider what steps we can take today to preserve our city for future generations. Storm surge protection, such as the Ike Dike, should be at the top of the list.
Despite the buy-in from oil and gas companies, it will be an uphill climb to implement the right public policy. Anti-environmental groups once funded by Exxon, such as the Heartland Institute, still have a cadre of supporters who fight against any movement to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
It is time to come to terms with reality.
No, there probably won't be any immediate catastrophe. Calls for a total shutdown of fossil fuels are unrealistic with today's technology and energy needs. But we have to start acting now to address the real challenges of man-made climate change.
Exxon thinks that a carbon tax will be an effective solution. What this tax looks like, however, is a question that must be reckoned with in Washington and in state governments. But when Exxon and its Big Oil sisters are pushing a tax, it's time to take it - and global warming - seriously.