USCAP departures fray industry-green climate unity

But the exit of BP and ConocoPhillips underscores the absence of corporate consensus around climate legislation that will likely require broad industry buy-in to advance. Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar is also leaving USCAP.

Lawmakers such as Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Public Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) have sought to emphasize the breadth of industry backing for climate legislation, citing support from several large utilities and other companies.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) indeed highlighted USCAP’s influence in crafting the climate bill the House approved last year.

The oil companies say their decisions stem from disputes over some of the complex particulars of the various climate proposals and the USCAP stance, rather than a decision to abandon climate legislation overall. BP and ConocoPhillips both said Tuesday that they support moving ahead with a climate bill.

“I think that it shows there is not yet consensus on a single approach,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “I don’t necessarily think it means there is a lack of interest, but it underscores the complexity of finding a formula that can bring everybody to the table.”

In particular, oil companies have long alleged that the House bill and a similar Senate proposal would create huge disadvantages for refiners. Oil companies are fighting the plans through their trade groups including the powerful American Petroleum Institute and National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. BP and ConocoPhillips also said they are seeking provisions that are more favorable for natural gas.

“It’s all about the effectiveness of the group and whether your voice is being heard or not. . . . We were faced with a decision to renew or exit and we decided to exit,” said a lobbyist for one of the oil companies that is leaving USCAP. “The USCAP position did not reflect the refiners and producers that were brought to the table.”

Senate Democratic leaders and President Obama are hoping for Senate action this year but it remains highly uncertain whether they’ll find enough support to keep the issue on the busy election-year agenda.

And more broadly, the oil company departures are part of a series of troubles for backers of imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate skeptics have pounced on flaws in a landmark 2007 report on global warming by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Also, emails among climate scientists hacked from a prominent British research institute have bred allegations that the researchers have squelched information that undercuts evidence of human-induced warming.

Backers of action on climate change say the emails, and inclusion of an unsubstantiated claim about the pace of Himalayan glacier melt in the massive IPCC report, do not dent the dominant scientific view that Earth is warming and human activities are a major reason why.

BP and ConocoPhillips have left USCAP as the shape of Senate climate and energy legislation is in flux. A bill modeled after the House plan cleared the Environment and Public Works Committee with no GOP support, but won’t go further.

Instead, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are trying to write a compromise bill that can attract support from the GOP and centrist Democrats.

Their plan would blend some kind of emissions-capping system – which could differ substantially from the “economy-wide” cap-and-trade system in the House bill – with increased support for nuclear energy, offshore drilling and low-emissions coal projects. But details of their plan – including its treatment of refiners and support for natural gas – remain under wraps.

A Democratic Senate aide said a major sign of the oil companies’ intentions going forward will be their reaction to the bipartisan effort. “It will be interesting to see how hard they push once the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman language is released,” the aide said.

USCAP formed in early 2007 and unites parties such as Dow Chemical, General Motors, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, General Electric, Exelon and other large companies and green groups.