Declaring that the “findings of climate scientists are real, and the world is on an unsustainable path,” energy giant BP is launching a public relations campaign this weekend to promote putting a price on carbon pollution in Washington state.
This latest chapter in BP’s political activism comes less than two years after the company spent nearly $13 million to defeat Washington Initiative 1631, a carbon-pricing ballot measure the company criticized because it included oil refiners, but exempted many other polluters.
BP sent a statement Tuesday to legislators calling for passage of Senate Bill 5981, which would place an overall cap on state carbon emissions. This would be lowered over time and — through the sale of pollution allowances — raise funds to invest in energy efficiency, low-income assistance and other projects.
BP’s two-week advertising campaign, which kicks off Sunday, includes buys in print, radio and social media. The company would not disclose how much money was being spent.
“Together we can help Washington meet its carbon reduction goals,” declares an initial print advertisement touting the merits of SB 5981.
BP’s decision to publicly campaign this year for carbon pricing represents a significant change in the corporation’s strategy in Washington, which has emerged — through legislative efforts and two ballot initiatives — as a kind of political testing ground for U.S. climate policy.
Even with BP’s support, the carbon pricing bill, introduced by state Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee, appears a long shot for passage in the 60-day session.
Gov. Jay Inslee and many of his Democratic allies were enthusiastic supporters of the 2018 ballot initiative that BP opposed. But, chastened by voters’ rejection of that measure, they have put a pause on trying to move carbon pricing through the Legislature.
Instead, last year and again this year, they have focused on other approaches to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, including a bill to create a low-carbon fuel standard that would clamp down — over time — on the greenhouse-gas emissions emitted from transportation in Washington.
“In order to make progress, we needed to find alternative pathways,” said Chris Davis, a climate-policy adviser for Inslee, who said the governor still considers carbon pricing a “critical tool in responding to climate change.”
In a 5-4 ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court last week invalidated a key portion of a state Department of Ecology 2016 rule that capped greenhouse-gas emissions by fuel distributors, natural-gas companies and other industries. The ruling affirmed that the state has a limited authority — even without new legislation — to use regulatory powers to cap and reduce a portion of the state’s greenhouse-gas pollution.
Still, it is uncertain whether Inslee will try to refashion the rule.
Environmentalists want to keep the focus on the low-carbon fuel bill pushed by Inslee. They worry that Carlyle’s carbon-pricing bill will divert attention.
But Carlyle says the two bills are complementary, and hopes both can make it through the Legislature. In the meantime, he says he is “deeply aligned” with the governor’s agenda to put a priority on the low-carbon fuel.
But another key player, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, who chairs the state Transportation Committee, favors the carbon-pricing bill over the low-carbon fuel bill, which he fears will reduce fuel-tax revenues. Last year, he opposed the low-carbon fuel bill, and in a Thursday hearing, criticized it again.
Broader national model
BP officials say their engagement in state-level climate policy reflects both their investment here, which includes the state’s largest oil refinery at Cherry Point, and the potential for laws passed here to serve as a broader national model.
“We’ve looked at Washington state, and we think it’s a unique opportunity to pass legislation that could significantly reduce carbon emissions, which is why we’re going down this path,” said Phil Cochrane, BP’s senior director for state and local affairs.
BP, in the statement sent to legislators, also announced support for a House bill that would create much more ambitious targets for cutting Washington greenhouse-gas pollution. By 2050, the bill would require any state carbon emissions from fossil fuels to be balanced by offsets that remove carbon. If the House bill passes, this target would be used to determine the scale of emission reductions required in Carlyle’s Senate bill backed by BP.
BP has made another legislative move, changing its corporate stance on the low-carbon fuel legislation sought by Inslee and his environmental allies.
For years, low-carbon fuel standards have been bitterly opposed by oil companies, including the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry trade association.
This session, BP broke ranks, shifting its stance from actively fighting the bill to a neutral position.
BP’s political moves in Washington come as the company faces stepped-up pressure from shareholders and consumers to take action on climate change. BP also is contending with climate lawsuits — including one filed by King County that seeks to collect damages from BP and four other oil companies for allegedly having early knowledge of the threats from global warming, yet downplaying for years the “reality and risks of global warming” while promoting oil products.
When BP has waded into the politics of climate change, its actions have sometimes come under criticism.
In Europe, even as BP has publicly supported government action on climate change, the company and its trade group representatives have sometimes lobbied for special treatment that undermined efforts to reduce emissions, said Ed Collins, a project manager with London-based InfluenceMap.Org, which tracks corporate actions on climate change, in a 2018 interview.
In Washington, BP lobbyists have been actively involved in years of political battles in Olympia over climate legislation.
Some legislators say the oil company often has acted as a brake by withholding support for carbon-reduction bills the company did not like, and are skeptical that BP’s new push for carbon pricing will make much difference this session.
“I wish they’d come to the realization … 11 years ago when Gov. [Christine] Gregoire’s [cap and trade] bill was up in 2009 or when my bill was up in 2015,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, chair of the House Environment and Energy Committee.
BP officials say that in recent years they have worked in good faith to help craft carbon-pricing legislation in Oregon (where a bill failed last year after state Senate Republicans walked out in protest) and in Washington.
They noted that last year, a BP representative did testify in favor of the bill introduced by Carlyle, whom the company praised for working long hours to put together the legislation in work sessions that included BP and environmentalists. In the statement sent to legislators, BP said the new bill would create a “clear, powerful and predictable long-term signal,” to reduce carbon emissions.
Vlad Gutman-Britten, Washington director for Climate Solutions, said Carlyle’s bill has some good elements, but his group has yet to take a position on whether to support it.
As for BP, Gutman-Britten remains wary.
“BP is acting like a company recognizing that just saying no on everything is a catastrophic policy for the planet and for their business,” Gutman-Britten said.