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An ExxonMobil oil refinery, the second largest in the U.S., is pictured on February 28, 2020 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo: Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images)

An ExxonMobil oil refinery, the second largest in the U.S., is pictured on February 28, 2020 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo: Barry Lewis/InPictures via Getty Images)

'Polluters Should Pay': Draft Bill Could Raise Half a Trillion From Big Oil's Climate Wreckers

"Those who have profited the most should help now pay the damages that they've already caused."

Kenny Stancil

Amid unrelenting heatwaves, droughts, fires, and floods, congressional Democrats are seeking to tax roughly two dozen oil, gas, and coal corporations to ensure that the carbon polluters most responsible for the fossil fuel-driven climate emergency pay for some of the destruction.

"It's based on a simple but powerful idea that polluters should pay to help clean up the mess they caused, and that those who polluted the most should pay the most."
—Sen. Chris Van Hollen

The New York Times reported Wednesday that a draft bill from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) "directs the Treasury Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to identify the companies that released the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from 2000 to 2019 and assess a fee based on the amounts they emitted."

Van Hollen estimates that the legislation could raise up to $500 billion over the next decade, with the biggest polluters facing annual bills of $6 billion over 10 years. The funds would be used to pay for renewable energy research and development as well as to assist communities in responding to and preparing for extreme weather disasters that climate scientists say are increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity due to planet-warming emissions.

"It's based on a simple but powerful idea that polluters should pay to help clean up the mess they caused, and that those who polluted the most should pay the most," Van Hollen told the Times. "Those who have profited the most should help now pay the damages that they've already caused."

In addition to being backed by several progressive lawmakers, including Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Van Hollen's plan received praise from climate justice advocates.

"Crucial!" is how author and co-founder Bill McKibben described the bill. 

Jamie Henn, another co-founder of and now director of Fossil Free Media, said the proposal is "an important step in holding Big Polluters accountable!"

The plan to make polluters pay comes as the Senate prepares to vote on a bipartisan infrastructure bill that calls for just $550 billion in new spending over eight years and has been stripped of most climate provisions. Van Hollen said he is "optimistic" that his legislation will be attached to the $3.5 trillion budget package that Democrats hope to pass through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process, though its inclusion depends on garnering the support of every member of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

In addition to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), a key architect of the bipartisan plan who has already expressed misgivings about the size of the more ambitious reconciliation package, Van Hollen's proposal will likely need to overcome opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—the same lawmaker who has made more than $4.5 million from his family's coal business since joining the Senate in 2010, received praise from an ExxonMobil lobbyist for weakening the climate measures in President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan, and developed the energy-related portions of the fossil fuel-friendly bipartisan infrastructure bill.

While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute support market-based, economy-wide carbon pricing—a policy that progressive critics have denounced as a form of "self-serving greenwashing" designed to forestall robust climate action—Big Oil advocates argued Tuesday that it would be "unfair" to target a handful of corporations with a tax on emissions.

In response, Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which helped create Van Hollen's proposed bill, said that "oil companies and their executives are by far the most responsible parties for the climate crisis."

As the monetary and human costs of climate-related disasters continue to mount, climate justice campaigners are demanding that the biggest sources of planet-wrecking greenhouse gas pollution—fossil fuel corporations—be forced to pay for clean up.

The Times reported that if Van Hollen's proposal were enacted, "the U.S. government would target companies responsible for at least 0.05% of the total carbon dioxide and methane gas emissions in the atmosphere from 2000 to 2019. That would apply to 25 to 30 companies. Aides to Van Hollen said the legislation aims to look back only as far as 2000 because older data is not considered as reliable or uniform."

"To determine the biggest emitters, the government could cite a growing body of research developed by Richard Heede, a researcher at the Climate Accountability Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group," the Times noted. "In 2014, Heede quantified the annual production of every major fossil fuel company and converted it into carbon emissions—finding just 90 companies worldwide were responsible for nearly two-thirds of all greenhouse gas emissions since the start of industrialization."

According to the study, nearly 30% of emissions can be attributed to the top 20 fossil fuel companies alone, including U.S.-based companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips as well as Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and other foreign entities.

Under Van Hollen's plan, about two dozen U.S. companies and foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries could be taxed to raise money for recovery and adaptation.

Major polluters would be allowed to challenge the government's conclusions, but "responsibility to pay would be based on a strict liability standard," the draft bill states. "There is no requirement to prove negligence or intentional wrongdoing. The proposal does not assign blame for specific damages—it simply ensures that these companies contribute to the solution."

Amy M. Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University's Fletcher School, said while the proposal may generate revenue, it is less likely to provoke a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

"The best way to change behavior is to regulate it," she told the Times. "There is no substitution for proper regulation and enforcement to end pollution."

Jaffe's assessment was shared on Twitter by Jonathan Colmer, an assistant professor of Economics at the University of Virginia, who said that Van Hollen's bill is "not a mitigation tool," but "it will help to pay for the investments needed to manage the effects of climate change."

Alluding to Van Hollen's plan to target individual companies with a polluter tax, Thomas J. Pyle—president of the Koch-founded, Exxon-backed Institute for Energy Research, which opposes all attempts to rein in fossil fuels—said that he "can't imagine any court of law that this would stand up in."

Harvard University law professor Richard J. Lazarus, however, told the Times that he thinks the proposed bill could survive legal challenges. Lazarus compared Van Hollen's proposal to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, which Congress passed in 1980 to make industry pay for the remediation of toxic sites.

Lazarus pointed out that chemical companies tried to block the program, but their lawsuit failed. "Any differences between the hazardous waste issues of the 1980s and the climate change issues of our times cut in favor of this legislation," he said.

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