On climate change, industry is ahead of Congress
By Peter Bryn
As a fiscally-conservative engineer who spent eight years with ExxonMobil yet is quite concerned about climate change, I attended my first CERAWeek conference with interest and cautious optimism.
CERAWeek is the Super Bowl of energy policy conferences, and with a hefty price tag it tends to attract some pretty high-horsepower individuals from both industry and government. Not hailing from the C-Suite myself, I had the privilege to attend the final two days only because of the generous, complimentary invitations I received through my alumni association.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this power-, oil-, and gas-focused group. How would my fellow energy-industry professionals frame the issue of climate change at the conference? Would it come up at all?
What I got out of my two days was this: industry is more mentally and technologically prepared to decarbonize the economy than I have ever seen before. Regardless of the makeup of the panel or the stated topic, the issue of climate change and greenhouse gas mitigation came up in almost every session, and usually in the context of seeking solutions.
When asked if we need a carbon price, energy-giant Engie’s representative said “the answer is clearly yes“ and that the absence of a plan from regulators “is a huge risk” to business. In a separate panel, a representative from coal-heavy power utility Southern Company was clear that while they felt the Clean Power Plan was an “overreach,” the company views climate change as a “major issue,” is already investing in low/no-carbon technologies like nuclear and carbon capture, and has already reduced its coal-powered capacity from 70 percent in 2007 to 33 percent today.
For the technologists among us, it was also a joy to hear about the rapid and faster-than-expected price declines and performance improvements in battery storage from Tesla and others.
In the time that I was there, I saw zero climate denial and little, if any, grumbling about the UN’s COP21 talks in Paris. If anything, the agreement was regarded as a positive development, and industry was putting its best scientists and engineers to work to do its part.
With this lead-in, I was excited for the conference’s final session with Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John Cornyn of Texas. Even if there remains debate on the right policy solution, with industry almost unanimously calling for government guidance, surely they would echo that sentiment in their remarks, right?
Wrong. While they focused on other very important issues, including access to oil/gas on federal lands, oil exports, and energy security, on climate change all we heard was criticism of the Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). While I might agree that the CPP is not the right solution, arguing about it doesn’t help the Texan cattleman or Alaskan fisherman who are feeling climate impacts already.
I sincerely wish the Senators had been able to spend the prior few days at the conference and observed what I did. I think they played to an outdated notion that industry is opposed to a carbon price. To be sure, some folks are, but when leaders like BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil are calling for a carbon price, they’re doing so not just because it’s good for society, but because predictability is good for business.
Even here in Texas, the public would seem to agree. Per polling done by a joint team at Yale and George Mason University, support in the state for a policy like ExxonMobil’s revenue-neutral carbon fee is favored at a margin of nearly 2 to 1. When asked a more general question to simply regulate CO2 as a pollutant, support jumps to almost 3 to 1!
I invite the senators to revisit their views on the issue, as we definitely DO need an alternative to the EPA’s regulatory approach. Your citizenry and businesses have both indicated a readiness for a market-based climate solution such as a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Shouldn’t Congress too?