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Leaked Big Oil Docs Hint at Support for a Carbon Tax, but the Money Trail Tells a Different Story

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The American Petroleum Institute is planning to endorse a carbon tax but has no plans to stop funding climate-denying candidates—or stop representing Big Oil.
The American Petroleum Institute is planning to endorse a carbon tax but has no plans to stop funding climate-denying candidates—or stop representing Big Oil.
Photo: David Zalubowski (AP)

The #resistance is growing. The American Petroleum Institute, which is the nation’s largest lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, is planning to endorse levying a price on carbon pollution, according to documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement comes as the oil industry faces the prospect of tighter regulations with the Biden administration and Democratic control of both houses of Congress. While it’s tempting to look at API’s planned endorsement of a carbon tax as a sign the industry is getting serious about climate change, following the money tells a much different story about what API’s legislative priorities are.

“API supports economy-wide carbon pricing as the primary government climate policy instrument to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while helping keep energy affordable, instead of mandates or prescriptive regulatory action,” the group wrote in a draft statement.


Carbon taxes aren’t necessarily a bad idea, but they’re unlikely to deliver big carbon pollution cuts on their own. A January meta-analysis found existing carbon taxes have produced emissions reductions of only up to 2% per year. The policies can also be unjust and therefore unpopular if they end up putting the burden on fuel buyers instead of companies, as we’ve seen in recent years France and Ecuador.

But what API’s members are probably interested in is staving off more serious climate policy, like outright caps on pollution or the forced closure of fossil-fueled power plants. Those kinds of policies would be in line with President Joe Biden’s stated climate goals. But the industry representatives are clearly not interested in phasing out of fossil fuels, which is an urgently necessary step to draw down emissions.


There’s an even clearer sign API has not, in fact, been won over by the climate movement: the group’s political donations. Campaign finance data shows that the industry group has given millions to politicians and PACs who are very much not down with the climate cause.

Last year, API poured $6,000 into Sen. Jim Inhofe’s successful re-election campaign. The Oklahoma Republican is one of the best-known climate deniers in the country. He recently introduced legislation to protect the Keystone XL pipeline from the “the far-left’s war on fossil fuels,” which LOL. He’s also perhaps best known for lobbing a snowball across the Senate floor six years ago in an attempt to “prove” that global warming isn’t real. Dude believes the climate crisis is a hoax, and even confirmed that in a 2015 vote. This is not a man who will line up behind a carbon tax API will reportedly voice its support of.


API also donated $5,300 to Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican who the League of Conservation Voters gave a lifetime score of 4% on a scorecard of his environmental voting record. As of less than a year ago, he wouldn’t say he believes in the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions are heating up the planet. Last month on Fox News, Scalise called Biden’s climate policies “devastating” and baselessly said they’d “increase global emissions and crush American jobs.” If anyone’s destroying American jobs, it’s the fossil fuel industry, which has been laying off workers en masse amid crashing fuel prices. And if anything’s devastating about Biden’s climate plan, it’s that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

In 2020, API also gave a whopping $5 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that was started in 2015 by allies of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and is run by his former aides. Last year, the PAC spent half a billion dollars in pursuit of its goal of defending a Senate Republican majority from “Senate Democrats’ far left agenda”—an agenda which includes climate policy. A large part of that, of course, is fending off climate legislation, particularly the Green New Deal, which McConnell himself vowed he would block as though he’s the “Grim Reaper.” As long as the filibuster is in place, it’s likely McConnell can stop climate action even as the Senate’s minority leader.


Even the supposedly climate-friendly Republicans API has given to don’t support a tax. The group gave $11,500 to Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s 2020 campaign. While he introduced what could be called climate legislation last February, it was incredibly weak. It didn’t aim to reduce fossil fuel use at all; rather, it just aimed to reduce emissions through carbon capture. This tech is not a real solution to the climate crisis—it does nothing to address the local impacts of fossil fuel production like toxic pollution, and it’s totally unproven to work at scale—but it’s favored by oil companies and their allies because it doesn’t disrupt their extraction-based business models. According to E&E News, McCarthy and the group of representatives who introduced it also explicitly argued against a carbon tax.

So what we have here is API considering endorsing a carbon tax—albeit one without any set price, timeline, or details about accountability for the fossil fuel industry for past misdeeds—while simultaneously funding politicians that will vote against a carbon tax. This doesn’t seem like a particularly serious endorsement of even the most barest minimum of climate policies. But then, what lobbying group would really put its own members at risk?