Let’s Make Fossil Fuel Polluters Pay—Five Ways to Thwart Their Smokescreen

August 4, 2021
Haze from wildfire smoke obscures a view of San Francisco from across the water. Everything in the photo appears yellow, orange, or brown with the pollution in the air.Nick Herasimenka/Unsplash
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

Today, US Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, joined by Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, released a discussion draft of legislation to establish the Polluters Pay Climate Fund. The proposed bill would raise $500 billion over 10 years from the largest US fossil fuel producers toward investments to speed the low-carbon energy transition and help environmental justice communities facing fossil fuel-driven climate impacts.

Making fossil fuel polluters fund a comprehensive federal response to climate change is an important step toward holding these companies accountable for blocking climate action for decades and toward foiling their deception and greenwashing campaigns. I spoke at today’s virtual launch event, and UCS has joined with other leading environmental, climate and social justice, and public interest advocacy organizations in welcoming the proposal.

Will ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and other major oil and gas companies stay on the sidelines as Congress debates this proposal? Absolutely not. Fossil fuel polluters have too much to lose in being forced to pay the costs they have long shifted onto taxpayers. And they understand the value of funneling some of their profits into their well-oiled lobbying machine that bankrolls front groups and cultivates policymakers with “talking points” like claiming to support a carbon tax (while betting against its passage), as recently revealed by an ExxonMobil lobbyist.

Here are five ways members of Congress and their constituents can thwart a fossil fuel industry smokescreen aimed at derailing any proposal to make fossil fuel polluters begin to pay their fair share.

1) Don’t lowball it

Across the country, people are grappling with severe climate impacts, including stronger hurricanes, extreme flooding, and more devastating wildfires—burdens almost impossible for disadvantaged communities to bear.

Half a trillion dollars is real money, but this amount is appropriately framed by the bill’s sponsors as a down payment. It is a floor, not a ceiling, for a reckoning of the fossil fuel industry’s share of climate-related costs. Moreover, fossil fuel company payments toward a climate fund must be additive to—and not a substitute for—existing funding available through federal and state programs.

Beyond infrastructure costs, fossil fuel companies are responsible for loss of life and enormous and preventable damage to homes, culture, ecosystems, and public health. These harms, made possible by the industry’s decades-long campaign to spread climate disinformation to the public, policymakers, and their own shareholders, are taking an incalculable toll on communities across the country and around the world.

2) Prioritize Black, Brown and Indigenous communities hit hardest

One essential element of the proposal is to direct at least 40% of the climate fund’s expenditures to disadvantaged communities that have borne the brunt of climate change and environmental racism. This provision is in line with the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative and recommendations for all federal investments made by the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform.

To advance environmental justice, the funding collected through assessments on fossil fuel companies must be distributed in a transparent, equitable way with meaningful engagement of frontline and fenceline communities and workers. Inclusive public processes will also help to neutralize fossil fuel industry attempts to pit people against each other or co-opt decision-makers.

3) Rely on science

The scientific consensus underpinning this and every proposed climate policy is clear: climate change is happening; it’s caused primarily by burning oil, gas, and coal; and the longer we delay action to slash global warming emissions, the less habitable the world becomes.

The scientific and ethical arguments for holding fossil fuel polluters accountable for climate change are equally sound. And UCS has been at the forefront of developing peer-reviewed scientific methodologies and research to quantify the contributions of fossil fuel companies to global warming impacts including temperature increase, sea level rise, and ocean acidification. Calculations of annual assessments for fossil fuel companies can be based on robust peer-reviewed methodologies and data that will stand up to fossil fuel industry-driven attacks.

4) No tradeoffs for public health and environmental protection

If fossil fuel companies see this proposal gaining momentum, they may seek to make lemonade out of lemons by trading off these payments for elimination of public health-based pollution standards and regulations. Although the proposed climate fund is not a carbon tax, it’s worth considering that the fossil fuel industry’s support for carbon pricing is often contingent on rolling back other climate-related policies. For example:

  • Major oil and gas companies including BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell are all founding members of the Climate Leadership Council, which proposes an economy-wide fee on carbon dioxide emissions starting at $40 a ton (in 2017 dollars) and increasing every year at 5% above inflation—but preempting regulations on global warming emissions from power plants.
  • The American Petroleum Institute’s March 2021 “climate action framework” focuses on carbon pricing—with the caveat of “avoiding regulatory duplication.”

Even as Congress makes climate polluters pay, it must preserve the authority to implement and enhance public health-based pollution standards and regulations to limit emissions from fossil fuels (including but not limited to Environmental Protection Agency rules), and protect frontline communities.

5) Preserve access to justice through the courts

There are currently 26 cities, counties, and states across the US suing major fossil fuel companies over climate damages and fraud. For nearly four years, the fossil fuel defendants have been engaged in procedural wrangling, including attempting to move the cases to federal courts (where the fossil fuel industry expects more favorable treatment). Most of the cases have been sent back to state courts (where they were filed, and where the concerns of residents are front and center).

But thanks to the industry’s tactics, none of the cases has yet proceeded to legal discovery, when the plaintiffs would gain access to internal documents that could shed more light on what the companies knew about the climate harms associated with their products—and what they did in spite of what they knew. And no fossil fuel climate accountability case has been heard in a courtroom, delaying justice for people in those communities and states.

In mandating fossil fuel polluter payments toward much-needed infrastructure investments, Congress must preserve the right of communities, local, state, and Tribal governments to access justice and legal remedies for fossil fuel company climate deception and climate-related harms.

We should be prepared for the fossil fuel industry to borrow a tactic from the tobacco industry’s playbook by pursuing immunity from liability in exchange for payments that only begin to cover the costs they impose on society—and for allowing them to continue business as usual. This is no time to be considering a deal with the fossil fuel companies. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity to gather new information about the fossil fuel industry’s ongoing efforts to spread climate disinformation. That’s exactly what Representative Carolyn Maloney, Chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Representative Ro Khanna, Chair of the Subcommittee on the Environment, are aiming to do by inviting ExxonMobil senior lobbyist Keith McCoy to do a transcribed interview regarding revelations about his role in attempts by the company to mislead the public and policymakers.

The proposed Polluters Pay Climate Fund is an important step forward—and the beginning, not the end, of fossil fuel polluter accountability for driving the climate crisis and impeding the clean energy transition. As long as Congress sees through the fossil fuel industry smokescreen and stays within the guardrails above, environmental and social justice advocates should mobilize in support of this innovative legislative proposal.