Note: My coauthor for this post is Bill McKibben of 350.org.
Talk about irony. As the world struggles this week in Paris to finally do something meaningful about climate change, American environmentalists around the convention hall are suddenly having to divert their energy to deal with a threat from politicians back home.
Behind closed doors in Washington, Republican leaders are trying once again to commandeer the federal budget to the benefit of their fossil fuel benefactors — and they are getting an assist from some leading Democrats as well. They are apparently negotiating with the GOP to end the long-standing ban on crude oil exports, a move that would dramatically undercut America’s negotiation position, and demonstrate that the oil industry maintains a firm grip on both our political parties. A vote on lifting the ban could come as early as Friday — the very day that the world is supposed to be reaching its final climate pact.
Ending the oil export ban is a poor idea on many grounds: Unions oppose it because it will cost refinery jobs, conservationists oppose it because it will lead to more drilling in sensitive areas and increased pollution in communities of color. It makes a mockery of the idea that we’re actually interested in “energy independence.” We’d get 4,500 more rail cars a day full of explosive oil. It’s such bad policy that 69 percent of Americans, across both parties, oppose lifting the ban.
And if it’s bad policy, it’s even worse timing. Right at the very moment when we desperately need to be reducing emissions and investing in clean energy solutions — right when President Obama in his Paris speech and his Keystone XL rejection has called for leaving carbon underground — lifting the crude oil export ban would do the exact opposite: add 3.3 million barrels of extra oil production per day between now and 2035. That’s more than 515 million metric tons of carbon pollution per year, the equivalent of the annual emissions from 108 million passenger vehicles or 135 coal-fired power plants.
Who wants this shift in policy? That’s easy. Kenneth Cohen, spokesman for ExxonMobil, told the New York Times in October “the sooner this happens, the better for us.” This is the same ExxonMobil and the same Kenneth Cohen scrambling daily to contain the damage from the spreading revelation that Exxon knew everything there was to know about climate change 30 years ago and, instead of owning up, spent a quarter century spreading denial and disinformation. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has forthrightly taken on Exxon, opening a widespread probe of the company’s actions. That leaders in both parties may be carrying water for Exxon at the same moment is a good reminder of why confidence in Congress ranks so low.
It’s especially galling that Senate leaders — Republicans and Democrats — are apparently talking about trading this gift to Exxon and its ilk for tax breaks for wind and solar providers. It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of politicians who simply don’t understand the physics of climate change. We don’t need more of all kinds of energy — we need more of the clean stuff and way, way less of the dirty. Physics doesn’t do backroom deals.
Voters have come to expect this kind of behavior from the GOP. That party has sold its soul to the oil industry. But it’s deeply disappointing to see some Democratic senators take the same line. National Democratic leaders — including President Obama and all of the Democratic candidates for president — are firmly against lifting the oil export ban. And it’s clear that, should this legislation make its way to the Oval Office, President Obama must stand with the majority of Americans and veto the bill.
Democratic senators should know that if they vote with Exxon on this measure, the rest of us won’t forget; this is a big deal. We’re now in the final month of what will be the hottest year ever measured on our planet. We’ve watched wildfire scorch nine million American acres. Around the world, flood and drought are wreaking unprecedented havoc. The only place where it seems to be business as usual is Capitol Hill. The only committee that has vetted this bill — in one hearing — is the Senate Banking Committee. In a world where we urgently need serious action on climate change, this is an unfunny joke.