The oil and gas industry's main lobbying arm said Thursday it would support a carbon tax, a big step forward for an industry built on extracting and burning carbon-spewing fossil fuels. But in reality, the move just means the American Petroleum Institute has finally joined a long-running parade.
And while adopting a carbon tax would be beneficial, it's only part of what we need to do to try to get our arms around global warming.
Oh, and the API still presumes that the oil and gas sector will continue producing "low-carbon" fuels well into the future. That can't happen if we're to work our way out of this mess.
I'll dispense with the argument that climate change is bad and endangers human lives and society. That's a given, like the sun rising in the east. It's also a given, climate deniers notwithstanding, that the unfolding crisis is largely due to human activity — primarily the reliance on fossil fuels for energy.
How to fix this is where the real debate is taking place. And a carbon tax — which advocates say would better reflect the cost of burning fossil fuels and compel consumers to emit less — has been a popular way of marshaling market forces to reduce emissions. But the market is an insufficient tool for getting us out of this, especially with consumers blithely opting for relatively low-gas-mileage pickup trucks and SUVs instead of electric cars or even hybrids.
We need to change how we power just about everything we do, and quickly. Waiting for the market to shift on motor vehicles, whose years of productive lives extend into the double digits, will not effect change fast enough.
Plus, the oil and gas lobby also seems to frame its vision of the future in terms of continuing to produce some smaller amount of carbon fuels, relying in part on nascent and questionable technology to suck carbon out of the air and bury it.
If we don't put carbon in the air in the first place, we don't have to develop technologies to remove it. So let's stop producing it and focus our technological innovations on bringing clean power to every part of the transportation sector, and making renewable energy better, cheaper and more reliable.
The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, of which I am a member, endorsed a carbon tax 14 years ago, recognizing that "the proposed fixes for climate change are as numerous as its causes. Most only tinker at the edges of the problem. ... To produce the cuts in greenhouse gases needed to slow or stop global warming, the world will have to phase out the fossil fuels on which it relies for most of its power supply and transportation."
That conclusion has only become more concrete in the ensuing years as we've watched climate change accelerate.
So by all means let's have a carbon tax. And by all means let's do a lot more. Some auto companies are moving in the right direction by changing most or all of their production to electric vehicles. The federal government and states must do more to help build the power and charging infrastructure, and a carbon tax could help finance that transition.
And yes, a carbon tax will hit consumers. Some proposals call for carbon tax rebates, though that would make sense only if the rebates went to people based on financial need. But how much should the tax be? To some it ought to reflect the social costs of carbon emissions. Another approach is to set the carbon tax at a level to best drive the world to net-zero emissions by a certain date.
Key is that a carbon tax should increase the cost of fossil fuels to consumers to add market pressure to broader regulatory changes, including much higher fuel standards for motor vehicles and better incentives for building and using mass transit (another potential use for carbon tax revenues).
At a fundamental level, the world needs a rapid transition away from the oil and gas industry — a formidable challenge, given the decades of investment in pipelines, home-heating systems run on natural gas and oil, our massive global fleet of vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines, and the cost of upending all that and replacing it with energy sources that won't boomerang on us.
So there's a place for a carbon tax, and room for the oil and gas lobby to work with the rest of the world to transition away from its core business. I just wish it had joined the parade sooner.
Scott Martelle, a veteran journalist and author of six history books, is a member of the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board.