GREEN BAY, Wis. — The oil and gas industry is trying to convince us it is serious about a warming planet. It promises to expand its efforts to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions that are the principal cause of climate change.
This would be terrific news if the industry were indeed committed to such efforts. But there are reasons to doubt that it is.
For years the same industry denied the reality of climate change, sought to diminish public concern over it and lobbied to block or slow government action on it.
Since the Trump administration took office, oil and gas interests have pressed to weaken EPA, DOE and Interior Department regulations that affect the industry.
These include vehicle fuel economy standards that would help to clean the air in our cities while also reducing carbon emissions as well as the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan that would have put the nation on a path to cleaner ways of producing electricity.
The industry has urged the Interior Department to open even more federal lands and offshore areas for oil and natural gas exploration and drilling.
Much of the industry has backed Trump administration and congressional efforts to curtail research on climate change science, scrub government websites of climate change data and reports, and reduce modest subsidies for renewable energy while increasing them for fossil fuels.
All of these actions by the industry and its supporters have taken place even as public concern about climate change has soared and the scientific community has produced ever more definitive reports about climate change and its impacts. This includes the recently released National Climate Assessment that pointed to the burning of fossil fuels as the primary driver of climate change.
But suppose that we take the industry at its word. What might it do now and in the near term to alter course?
It could invest heavily in renewable energy technologies and seek to improve them. More than half of electricity generation capacity added to the U.S. grid in 2016 came from renewables. Globally, two-thirds of generating capacity came from renewable sources.
That electricity could be powering our future vehicles. Transportation accounts for a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Within the past year, nearly every major vehicle manufacturer, including Tesla, GM, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, has announced new and expanded production of electrics or hybrids that will be more affordable and practical.
The fossil fuel industry also could foster breakthroughs in battery technology that will be essential to store energy generated by wind and solar power and to enhance driving distance between charges for electric vehicles.
The industry could fund additional research on cost-effective ways to capture and store carbon emissions from power plants. Success there could be monumentally important.
It also could help to educate the public and its elected officials about the economic, public health, environmental, and national security risks of climate change and get behind efforts to deal with it.
The Trump administration, aided by its supporters in the oil and gas industry, continues to argue that taking action on climate change will hurt the economy and cost jobs. It is wrong. With rapidly falling prices for sustainable energy sources, decarbonization creates jobs and helps the economy.
Given this reality, perhaps the oil and gas industry could shift public debate and return the nation to a position of leadership on climate change. For example, it could persuade the Trump administration to get behind the Paris Agreement.
The president’s decision to withdraw from that agreement seriously hurt our standing with allies and harmed national security, the economy, and the environment.
The oil and gas industry could help to reverse that decision. If it were successful, that could go a long way to rebuilding the public respect that it has squandered in recent years.
Michael Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Readers may write him at UWGB, 2420 Nicolet Dr., MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.