Is Big Oil Standing Down On The Climate Bill?

Bill Scher

While playing hardball seems to be working to maximize the chances for decent Wall Street reform, the finesse game appears to be working in the climate debate.

On the heels of President Obama’s offshore drilling plan Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein reports today that the main oil lobby may take a neutral position on the forthcoming Kerry-Graham-Lieberman clean energy jobs and climate protection bill:

Although the Senate bill retains the cap-and-trade structure of the House bill, it would apply, at least initially, only to electric power producers, with other manufacturers coming under the regime after 2016. The oil and gas industry would be handled under a separate regime that requires refiners to buy emissions permits for all the carbon contained in the gasoline or other fuels they sell — in effect, a fee or tax on carbon. The amount of the fee would be determined by the price at which carbon emissions allowances are bought or sold by utilities on open exchanges. And while the fee would almost certainly be passed on to consumers in the form of higher fuel prices, most of it would be rebated through payroll and other tax credits. By paying more for energy and less for taxes, the idea is that Americans will use less energy and wind up with roughly the same amount of money to spend on everything else.

While there are still some details to be ironed about, there is a good chance that the bill will gain the support of oil giants BP, Shell and ConocoPhillips, along with major electric utilities and industrial corporations. There’s even a chance the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, heretofore implacable foes of climate legislation, will take a neutral stand on the Senate bill now that so many of their concerns have been addressed and so many of their members find the measure acceptable.

Most major environmental groups, meanwhile, got a pep talk Thursday at the White House from Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and other administration officials. Many of them have misgivings about nuclear power and increased oil and gas drilling … In the end, however, most environmentalists will support the Kerry-Graham compromise.

As I wrote two weeks ago, getting Big Oil to refrain from bankrolling all-out opposition to climate protection legislation would be evidence that Obama’s drilling move was crafty politics:

…if this move doesn’t actually lead to significant coastal drilling, but calms the oil lobby — which was already expressing openness to a climate compromise that levies a carbon tax on them instead of an emissions cap — and helps cobble together a Senate supermajority around a workable bill, then it would be nothing-for-something.

Now, we still don’t know the details of the climate compromise and if it represents a workable framework for cutting carbon that can be strengthened over time, or a complete undermining of core principles. We don’t know yet how BIg Oil will react once the details are known.

So it’s still too early to judge whether the President and congressional leaders are on the right track with their political maneuvering. But it’s hard to knock the fact that they’ve been able to bring an extremely disparate group of constituencies to the table.

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