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Posted on 12-03-2016

On climate, industry is leading Congress

By Peter Bryn

CERAWeek is the Super Bowl of energy policy conferences, and with a hefty price tag it tends to attract some pretty high-horsepower individuals from both industry and government. Not hailing from the C-Suite myself, I had the privilege to attend the final two days only because of the generous complimentary invitation I received through my alumni association. As a fiscally-conservative engineer that spent eight years with ExxonMobil yet is quite concerned about climate change, I went with a mix of interest and cautious optimism.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this power-, oil-, and gas-focused group. How would my fellow energy-industry professionals frame the issue of climate change at the conference? Would it come up at all?

What I got out of my two days was this: industry is more mentally and technologically prepared to decarbonize the economy today than I have ever seen before. Regardless of the makeup of the panel or the stated topic, the issue of climate change and greenhouse gas mitigation came up in almost every session, and usually in the context of seeking solutions.

When asked if we need a carbon price, energy-giant Engie’s representative said “the answer is clearly yes,“ and that the absence of a plan from regulators “is a huge risk” to business. In a separate panel, a representative from coal-heavy power utility Southern Company was clear that while they felt the Administration's Clean Power Plan (CPP) was an “overreach,” the company views climate change as a “major issue,” is investing in low/no-carbon technologies like nuclear and carbon capture, and has already migrated its generating fleet from 70% coal in 2007 to 33% today.

For the technologists among us, it was also a joy to hear about the rapid and faster-than-expected price declines and performance improvements in batteries from Tesla and others.

In the time that I was there, I saw zero climate denial and little, if any, grumbling about the UN’s COP21 talks in Paris. In fact, the agreement was largely regarded as a positive development and industry has already responded by putting its best scientists and engineers to work.

With this lead-in, I was excited for the conference’s final session with Senators Murkowski of Alaska and Cornyn of Texas. Even if there remains debate on the right policy solution, with industry almost unanimously calling for government guidance, surely the Senators would echo that sentiment in their remarks, right?

To put it bluntly: wrong. While they did focus on other very important issues including access to oil/gas on federal lands and oil exports, when it came to climate change their remarks felt strangely inconsistent with the rest of the conference. All we heard was criticism of the Clean Power Plan. Whether the CPP is the right solution or not, arguing about it without offering an alternative doesn’t help the Texan cattleman or Alaskan fisherman who are feeling climate impacts already.

I sincerely wish the Senators had been able to attend the prior few days at the conference and observed what I did. In part, they may have been playing to an outdated notion that industry is opposed to a carbon price. To be sure, some folks are, but when leaders like BP and Shell are calling for one, they’re doing so not just because it’s good for society, but because predictability is good for business.

Even here in Texas, the public would seem to agree. Per polling done by a joint team at Yale and George Mason University, support in the state for a policy like ExxonMobil’s revenue-neutral carbon fee is favored at a margin of nearly two to one. When asked a more general question to simply regulate CO2 as a pollutant, support jumps to almost three to one!

I invite the Senators to revisit their views on the issue. If you don’t like the CPP, that’s fine - propose an alternative. Your citizenry and businesses have made their move by indicating a readiness for a market-based alternative such as a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Your turn.

Peter Bryn (houston@citizensclimatelobby.org) is a full-time volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby and an engineer formerly with ExxonMobil

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