The money at the heart of sea level rise and superstorms

The money at the heart of sea level rise and superstorms
© Getty Images

In the wake of hurricane season, environmental degradation and climate change must be front and center on Election Day.

Towns across the southern United States continue clean up and rebuilding efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Michael and Florence and oceanfront residents face longer-term issues like rises in sea levels.

ADVERTISEMENT

But in addition to the human impact of devastating storms and rising waters, there’s also a significant financial impact. 

In 2016, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that hurricanes cause an average of $28 billion worth of damage nationwide each year, with southern states accounting for a large majority of the total. As most scientists expect climate change to increase the severity of hurricanes, this number may only go up. In fact, the same CBO report estimates the cost will rise 40 percent by 2075.

So it should be worrying that New York’s Attorney General has just announced a lawsuit accusing ExxonMobil of defrauding their shareholders by downplaying the risks of climate change regulations to its business. Especially as oil and gas companies were at the heart of a recent study, which claimed that just 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of the world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon came in at No. 5 on the list.

But much like their outsized role in contributing to the world’s global emissions, the extractive industry has an equally outsized role in deciding how their own industry is regulated.

There’s a willingness from the Republican Party to accept oil and gas industry donations. Since 1990, 81 percent of the more than $440 million doled out to candidates and Political Action Committees has gone to members of the GOP. In 2018 alone, the oil and gas industry has given more than $22 million in 2018 to national political candidates and related PACs.

The money isn’t a type of charity, either. The oil and gas sector has benefitted greatly by wielding its influence. Under the current administration and the Republican controlled Congress, there have been unprecedented rollbacks of laws and regulations created specifically to protect the environment, promote sustainability, and increase transparency in the industry. It’s no wonder then, that in addition to political contributions tens of millions more is spent on lobbying these very same politicians — over $15 million so far in 2018 by ChevronExxon and American Petroleum Institute, the lobby group for the oil and gas sector. 

Just weeks into the Trump administration, Republicans began using a little-known tool, the Congressional Review Act to overturn 17 public interest regulations, including those that directly impact the extractive sector.

One rule was aimed at protecting streams, to safeguard communities from harmful water pollution caused by industrial coal mining. Another would have allowed for increased public participation in planning how the federal government should utilize 247 million acres of public lands.

And yet another repeal voided an important anti-corruption rule, known as the Cardin-Lugar Amendment, which implemented a law requiring extractive companies to publicly disclose payments they make to governments across the globe to secure natural resource contracts. The rule would have also applied to public lands in the U.S., ensuring that our citizens know what the government receives when opening public land up to extractive industries.

While each of these regulations tackled a different issue, they do have one thing in common: opposition from the oil and gas industry.

ExxonMobil, as a leading company in API, have spent the past 10 years fighting to dismantle the Cardin-Lugar Amendment. My organization investigated a 2013 deal between Exxon and the government of Liberia by which Exxon paid £120 million to the government for an oil block the company knew was tainted by earlier corruption concerns over a previous deal.

The voided rule under the Cardin-Lugar Amendment would have made it necessary to publicly disclose such payments. Now, they are back in the dark where the oil industry prefers them. The Trump administration must restore U.S. leadership on anti-corruption by putting forward a robust rule to implement the Cardin-Lugar Amendment.

 But it’s not just in the regulatory arena where oil and gas companies are seeing a windfall. The sector profited heavily from the Republican-led tax reform bill. Roughly $25 billion was dished out to just 17 American oil and gas companies as part of the law’s one-time direct relief.

 The benefits won’t stop there. The very same companies will also see an overall tax rate reduction that will reap even more savings for decades to come.

As large swaths of the U.S. population grapple with a new-normal of increased flooding in coastal areas and stronger hurricanes that inflict devastating damage, it’s vital that policymakers enact laws that will help at-risk states prepare for the future, rather than repeal existing laws and regulations at the behest of a powerful lobby.

Corinna Gilfillan is head of the U.S. office at Global Witnessan international investigative organization that exposes corruption, human rights and environmental abuses around the world.