Economists in both parties, climate change activists, and many nations, including China, support taxing carbon dioxide emissions as the most efficient way to fight the increasingly serious problem of climate change. But US oil giants, led by Exxon-Mobil, have backed a carbon tax in name only. They feature it on their websites or when asked about climate change by shareholders or journalists, then have their lobbyist work against it in the halls of Congress. Yet if oil companies were to genuinely advocate carbon taxes, the policy implications could be immense, enabling not just more effective, efficient climate policy, but likely tax reform, as well.
 
Until now, the industry’s lobbying arm, the American Petroleum Institute, has assiduously led efforts to undermine any attempt to tax oil, natural gas, gasoline or carbon emissions.  API, widely viewed as the most powerful trade association in Washington, has teamed with Republicans in Congress to prevent increases in the long-stagnant federal gasoline tax, or efforts to impose taxes on oil or pricing policies like cap and trade carbon markets.
 
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But now that might be changing.  Exxon, the world’s largest non-state oil and gas corporation, has been discussing details of carbon tax proposals with key staff on Capitol Hill, and in meetings with other oil companies, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Additional news sources have reported that API has created a special committee to study climate change policy. While healthy skepticism about the industry’s eagerness to tax its own products remains justified, profound new vulnerabilities related to climate change suggest that carbon pricing may now be in the long-term business interests of oil and gas giants.
 
Investigations by Attorneys General from several states into whether Exxon Mobil misled shareholders and others about their views on climate change science have recently garnered headlines, and put Exxon on its back foot.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg of oil company vulnerabilities.
 
Climate activists and scientists have created a powerful political movement to “leave fossil fuels in the ground.”  Already the Obama Administration has suspended coal leasing on public lands and withdrawn oil and gas leases off the southeast Atlantic coast.   Around the world, lawsuits over climate change impacts aimed at deep-pocketed oil companies are proliferating. So are worries, articulated recently by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, that fossil fuel assets are overpriced by markets, because their role in climate change is not being considered, and that a large percentage of oil and gas reserves could be “stranded” .
 
Indeed, New York AG Eric Schneiderman told the New York Times recently for the first time that a major element of his investigation is whether Exxon has misled shareholders and investors about whether their assets will be stranded, in which case “there may be massive securities fraud here,” Schneiderman says.
 
As US oil and gas companies warily observe these developments, they will be increasingly concerned about their ability to access new reserves on public lands, avoid additional regulation, and otherwise retain their broader license to operate. Advocating carbon taxes may help inoculate fossil companies against further regulatory restrictions and some lawsuits.  Pricing carbon sooner rather than later could head off or moderate “carbon market bubbles” or rapid collapses in oil stocks, a concern Carney has explicitly cited. Moreover, studies show moderate carbon prices hurt coal most, and may actually benefit less carbon-intensive natural gas, in which US oil companies have made massive investments in recent years. 
 
These factors have provided new impetus for other top oil companies to advocate carbon taxes.  Last year, European-based oil majors including BP, Shell, and Total began lobbying for specific carbon pricing.  They urged their US counterparts Exxon, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips to sign a letter promising to they would do the same, only to be rebuffed. But now the ground appears to be shifting, again.
 
Despite this, the odds against US carbon taxes remain long. The last time carbon pricing was on the Congressional docket, in 2009, API and affiliates helped organize and fund Tea Party rallies around the country aimed at defeating cap and trade legislation that passed the House but died in the Senate.  Such cultural bias will be hard to turn around.
 
Perhaps most importantly, nearly every current Republican member has signed a handcuffing “no tax” pledge.  The GOP is likely to put strong pressure on their long-time oil industry allies not to put them on the spot.
 
All this matters because detailed analysis has shown that the US is unlikely to meet its Paris climate agreement emissions commitment without additional policies, with carbon taxes being especially effective.  Moreover, carbon taxes could be the key new revenue source to enable broad-based tax reform, as revenue could be recycled back to taxpayers by lowering individual income and corporate tax rates, as both parties claim to favor.
 
In this regard, particularly, Democrats are hardly blameless.  By not explicitly utilizing revenues from previous carbon pricing efforts to enable tax reform, but instead only focusing on climate benefits, they have alienated the very moderates in both parties needed to bring such policies into law.
 
The coal industry offers a cautionary tale about the business costs of inaction on climate change by fossil fuel companies.  US coal giants adamantly opposed all previous carbon pricing efforts, including legislation containing subsidies for carbon capture technology that provides a responsible path for coal use.  Instead, they now confront prohibitive regulation and competition from lower emitting natural gas. As a result, major coal companies have lost more than 90% of their market value in just the last five years.
 
As climate change impacts become more expensive and dangerous, America’s oil and gas companies will inevitably face growing regulation and pressures to limit their emissions, restricting their ability to operate and find profits. Concerted carbon tax advocacy can allow oil companies to play a constructive role in addressing climate change and even reforming the tax code, while minimizing their own business risks.  They may want to do so now, and help shape the process, before events pass them by.
 
Paul Bledsoe, a former staff member of the Senate Finance Committee and White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton, is president of Bledsoe & Associates, a Washington-based energy consultancy.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.