Big Oil's New Carbon Tax Stance Is Just Its Latest Trick to Keep Polluting

Drill, baby, drill.
Drill, baby, drill.
Photo: Jeri Clausing (AP)

The American Petroleum Institute, the largest lobbying arm for the oil and gas industry, said this week it supports a carbon tax. The response from Republicans, which the group rains money down on, has been less-than-welcoming.


The GOP’s top climate-conscious star in the House called it “a cop-out approach to appease the radical left.” That sentence is deeply, deeply unhinged on so many levels. But it makes clear one thing: That bipartisan climate legislation is a pipe dream. It’s largely due to years of API poisoning the well—and the group’s endorsement will almost surely end up ensuring nothing changes.

On Thursday, API said it would throw its support behind a government-instituted carbon tax. “Confronting the challenge of climate change and building a lower-carbon future will require a combination of government policies, industry initiatives and continuous innovation,” API president Mike Sommers said in a statement.

For all the fanfare around API’s move, it’s not like they’re endorsing the Green New Deal. A tax on carbon is perhaps one of the most basic climate policies out there—and it’s most definitely not part of any “radical left” agenda. It has the endorsement of oil companies and even some major nonprofits, which are part of the bipartisan Climate Leadership Council. And now, the oil industry’s lobbying wing is into it. Yet it’s almost certainly DOA with Republicans legislators, and that’s largely because API has spent the previous decade-plus railing against any type of policy that puts a price on carbon.

In 2009, a bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman and Rep. Ed Markey (now a senator) proposed creating a carbon market, an even more watered-down version of a carbon tax. The bill was, in many ways, specifically designed to appeal to a center-of-the-road, Republican-friendly business mindset by letting the free market take care of the whole climate change problem.

Yet at the time, API ran an ad in the Washington Post against the bill warning consumers, “if you like $4 gasoline, you’ll love the House Climate Bill.” The bill ended up passing the House with only eight of the 176 Republicans in support, but was never even taken up for a vote in the Senate due to GOP pushback.


Now, API has come around to a price on carbon—albeit by offering scant details on what said tax could look like—after decades of demonizing policies to do so. The conditions it helped create will ensure getting even eight Republicans to sign on will be all but impossible. In Rep. Graves’ statement issued in response to API’s move, which he said was designed to “appease the radical left” (lol), Graves also warned the tax “will increase the cost of virtually everything we buy.” It’s a near-perfect echo of API’s 2009 ad about gas prices.

Graves isn’t some hardcore climate denier, but rather the Republican ranking member on the House Climate Crisis committee—the bipartisan committee that’s supposed to be figuring out how to create climate action that works for both sides of the aisle. He received a wave of positive press when he joined the committee in 2019 on his supposedly progressive position on climate, especially as a representative from Louisiana, a state with a fossil fuel economy but that’s also suffering the firsthand impacts of extracting and refining that oil and gas.


“I really don’t think this has to be a partisan issue, although it certainly can devolve to that,” Graves told CBS at the time the committee members were announced. “Let’s learn a little bit more about the science, and de-politicize it so we can focus on the facts.”

Graves may seem like a rebel against oil and gas, but he’s actually in their pocket: API members like Chevron, Exxon and Occidental were some of Graves’s top political contributors last year. Meanwhile, API is also continuing to fund some of the loudest climate deniers in Washington, DC, like Sen. Jim Inhofe and Rep. Steve Scalise. And Sen. John Barrasso, another big industry money recipient who has garnered attention recently for seemingly softening his anti-climate stance, echoed Graves in a statement about API’s move: “Proposals that impose a cost on carbon will hurt American families.”


It’s clear that Big Oil is trying to set up a win-win situation for itself: look reasonable by endorsing climate legislation while continuing to fund Republicans in Congress who will ensure that legislation doesn’t pass. It’s an update to the playbook API has used for years. The group was warned about the negative impacts of fossil fuels as far back as 1959—but has been at the forefront of pushing climate denial ever since, directly influencing the GOP’s lurch toward conspiracies that has screwed up any productive conversation around climate policy. As the industry at large makes a desperate pivot to look like they’re working on climate change, their “evolving” stance should be taken with a big grain of salt.

Writing about climate change, renewable energy, and Big Oil/Big Gas/Big Everything for Earther. Formerly of the Center for Public Integrity & Nexus Media News. I'm very tall & have a very short dog.