When it comes to acknowledging humans’ role in climate change, oil and gas industry lawyer says ‘that ship has sailed’

Source: By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2019

A gas flare from the Shell Chemical petroleum refinery illuminates the sky in August in Norco, La. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
A gas flare from the Shell Chemical petroleum refinery illuminates the sky in August in Norco, La. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
In a closed-door meeting of oil and gas executives this summer in Colorado Springs, industry lawyer Mark Barron offered a bold proposal: Energy companies must accept that fossil fuels are helping to drive climate change.“It doesn’t matter whether it’s real, or not real, or what the issues are,” said Barron, who heads the energy litigation arm of Baker Hostetler. “That ship has sailed from a political perspective.”

Barron added that any American younger than 40 had grown up learning that climate change is “an existential crisis that we need to address.”

The recording of the June 24 meeting of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), which was obtained by The Washington Post, highlights a growing schism between the Trump administration and key players in the fossil fuel industry. Even as Trump officials work to repeal federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, some oil and gas executives say they have no choice but to press forward with plans to address climate change.

 As world leaders and activists converged in New York City last week for an international climate summit, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative — whose members account for 30 percent of global petroleum production — highlighted their investments in technology to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Last month, three energy giants — BP, ExxonMobil and Shell — said they would continue to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, even though the Environmental Protection Agency announced that the government would no longer require them to do so. The month before, four automakers struck a deal with California pledging to reduce their vehicles’ carbon footprint for the next several years even if the administration eases federal mileage standards.

The burning of petroleum accounted for 45 percent of the United States’ energy-related carbon emissions last year, according to the Energy Information Administration, while natural-gas burning contributed 31 percent.

Extreme climate change has reached the United States

Energy executives are well aware the U.S. public sees them as partly to blame for the planet’s warming. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 60 percent of U.S. adults said that they support raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels, even if that may lead to increased electricity and transportation costs. And the survey found 65 percent of respondents said energy companies were “doing too little” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

For years, the oil and gas industry played down the connection between fossil fuel burning and climate change, even as some companies — such as ExxonMobil — researched their role in heating the planet. Today, however, nearly every major fossil fuel company has acknowledged that carbon emissions help drive global warming, even as President Trump questions the connection.

Most oil and gas trade associations argue that expanding natural-gas production offers the best path for reducing the United States’ carbon footprint.

“Our position is it’s a very serious issue, that we have an industrial contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and we’re part of the solution,” said Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group. “There’s no denial.”

These groups have pressed to roll back Obama-era rules, however, arguing that they are already doing their part to curb emissions. The IPAA’s members produce 83 percent of the United States’ oil and 90 percent of its natural gas, according to spokesman Jeff Eshelman, and 10 percent of their wells operate on the margins.

“With burdensome regulation and increased cost, these wells can be at risk, and that’s a significant source of America’s energy supply,” he said.

But some industry players, who have been whipsawed between policies set by Democratic and Republican administrations, say the more responsible course is to assume that this change in direction may not last.

A handful of factors are driving this shift, according to experts: pressure from shareholders and regulators outside Washington; business calculations; and concern that litigation over federal rules could stretch on for years.

“Under the Obama administration, there was a recognition by the oil and gas industry that they were facing deaths by a thousand cuts. There was a view that maybe they could make this go away,” said Sarah Ladislaw, who directs the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies. Now, she said, “they don’t see rolling it back as a durable solution, and therefore they’re having to figure out what a middle-of-the-road solution looks like.”

Mike Cantrell, who heads the Oklahoma Energy Producers Alliance, said in an interview that while he opposed several of the regulations adopted under President Barack Obama, Trump’s drive to expand drilling could slash the price of oil and undermine his industry’s standing with the public.

“Sometimes getting exactly what you want is the very worst thing you can get,” Cantrell said. “Regulation is not our enemy. It is the way we keep faith with the public.”

Behind closed doors — at venues such as the IPAA’s midyear meeting in Colorado, in a century-old luxury resort — this tension is visible.

The three panelists who participated in the June session, dubbed “The Fight for Legal Ground,” all specialized in energy litigation and embraced the Trump administration’s pro-drilling policies. But two of them cautioned that some of these moves could expose the fossil fuel industry to more lawsuits. And Barron said it was no longer politically tenable for the energy sector to refuse to tackle climate change.

Barron noted that officials at the IPAA, which has represented small and midsize oil and gas companies for 90 years, testified on Capitol Hill in March that they were ready to talk about global warming — “and we’re going talk about it as us being the solution.”

Environmental groups, along with several Democratic attorneys general, have filed more than 100 lawsuits challenging environmental rollbacks under the Trump administration. While many cases are ongoing, many have led to rulings favorable to environmentalists. Of 28 cases that have been resolved, according to a tracker from the New York University Law School’s Institute for Policy Integrity, the administration has prevailed only twice.

Kathleen C. Schroder, a partner at Davis, Graham & Stubbs, told the audience that advocacy groups are trying to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “I think there’s a very purposeful end to these big challenges,” she said.

Asked about the session, Schroder and a spokeswoman at Baker Hostetler said it was off the record and declined to comment further.

Not every attendee embraced the idea that the industry needs to address global warming. One participant, who did not identify himself on the recording, told Barron he had been “brainwashed.”

“You know, catastrophic climate change models don’t work,” he said. “And to think the industry would sit back and say nothing about that is just incredible.”

Trump administration officials, for their part, say oil and gas companies can always seek to reduce their carbon footprint. In an interview earlier this month, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that while the agency eased limits on methane emissions from new wells, pipelines and other infrastructure, oil and gas companies could always do more voluntarily.

“I think there’s so much public interest on climate change, and public interest in reducing emissions, that you’re going to see companies doing more,” Wheeler said. “We’re setting the floor, in many cases, on CO2 emissions and greenhouse gases, and we need to do that.”