Should more regulatory responsibility for carbon reduction fall on oil companies?

Regulating carbon emissions from the oil and gas industry would allow the United States to reach its climate goals faster, argues a recent opinion piece by an oil industry veteran published in The Hill.

Over 80% of U.S. carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions come from burning oil and natural gas, and 1.4 billion tons of emissions come from the manufacture and use of fossil fuels produced just by the two largest U.S.-based companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil, wrote Hugh Helferty, who previously led the research and engineering organizations at ExxonMobil.

However, current regulations focus on automakers, setting fuel economy targets and fining automakers that don’t comply with those targets. But CO2 emissions are the product of burning fuels—fuels supplied and enabled by the oil industry.

Helferty proposed fines for oil and gas companies that don’t sequester an amount of carbon equivalent to their emissions. That would offset emissions from the industry itself, known as a “net-zero” solution. That rule could be phased in over time, perhaps targeting net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, he added.

Jack Colker Union 96 gas station in Beverly Hills, via oobject.com

Jack Colker Union 96 gas station in Beverly Hills, via oobject.com

Several possible approaches already exist, such as carbon capture and storage, planting trees, or sequestering carbon in products like plastic or cement, Helferty noted. That might also lead to higher fossil-fuel prices, but that would make alternatives more attractive to consumers.

The idea of regulating the oil industry—specifically with a carbon tax—isn’t new. The oil industry has long opposed a carbon tax, and has managed to choke it before.

Yet some of the largest oil companies seem to be acknowledging that a fossil-fuel-powered global economy won’t last forever. Shell and BP have both pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, and have begun investing in EV charging infrastructure.

Are these oil giants merely attempting to green their image, or are they preparing for some kind of carbon tax or other form of regulation, and hoping to build up emissions credits in order to continue oil production? It’s likely that these giants will continue to refine their messaging in 2022—and, perhaps, reveal more of the intent behind this shift. 

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