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Exxon's giving report contains mixed messages on climate

At a time of immense political pressure over its stance on climate change, Exxon Mobil Corp. has beefed up its public positioning on warming in its latest corporate social responsibility report to shareholders.

Exxon has supported a carbon tax that would be revenue-neutral -- the proceeds would offset other taxes on corporations or personal income -- since 2009. The 2015 Corporate Citizenship Report released last week expands on its carbon tax proposal and painstakingly describes the company's contributions to climate research and a historic climate agreement reached in Paris last year. The climate section overall fills 12 pages, up from seven the previous year.

At the same time, the report shows Exxon donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2015 to groups that oppose climate policy or a carbon tax, including $61,000 to the American Legislative Exchange Council, $200,000 to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and $325,000 to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.

Funding these groups does not contradict Exxon's stance on climate policy as detailed in the report, said company spokesman Alan Jeffers.

"We don't endorse every position of every organization we fund," he said. "We promote discussion on issues that are relevant to the company through contributions to organizations such as these."

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The report comes at a challenging time for Exxon, which is being investigated by at least two state attorneys general for allegedly misinforming the public and shareholders about climate change. Democrat lawmakers filed resolutions yesterday accusing the fossil fuel industry -- including Koch Industries Inc., Peabody Energy Corp. and Exxon -- of running a campaign of deceit to bolster their bottom lines. Yesterday, 19 lawmakers launched a two-day campaign on the Senate floor to "call out" companies that they say mislead the public on climate change.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said a "web of climate denial" is "polluting" the American discourse.

"The web has been built and provisioned by deep-pocketed Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, by Peabody Coal and other fossil fuel interests," he said.

Exxon in recent months has increased its pro-climate rhetoric. It has increased lobbying on Capitol Hill to promote legislation on a carbon tax, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal (ClimateWire, July 1). House legislators passed a resolution last month stating that a carbon tax would be detrimental to the U.S. economy (E&ENews PM, June 10).

Exxon has become more vocal on climate because of the Paris Agreement last year among nearly 200 countries, as well as the carbon tax resolution, which "prompted a lot of people to ask us our position and how we envision a carbon tax working," Jeffers said.

The company provides some new details in the report. It believes the carbon tax should apply to, and provide a uniform price for, all greenhouse gases. It believes the costs of emissions should accrue to parties most able and likely to alter their behavior.

The revenue should be plowed back into the economy to encourage economic growth or limit the burden on the poor. And the tax should be underpinned by accurate and cost-effective greenhouse gas emissions measurement, verification and reporting, according to the report.

Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank that promotes a revenue-neutral carbon tax, called Exxon Mobil's carbon tax proposal solid.

"Exxon Mobil is calling for a black board efficient carbon tax, and it is something that I hope elected members of the House and Senate and the incoming administration will pay serious attention to," Taylor said.

Adele Morris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who also supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said the details about Exxon's proposal are a "welcome contribution" to the policy discussion.

But environmental groups said the effort is too little, too late. A price on carbon now would have to be high enough to keep most fossil fuel reserves in the ground, and it would have to be complemented by a wide-scale deployment of renewable energy, said environmentalist Bill McKibben.

"Given this week's revelations that Exxon continues to fund the very groups that fight even modest efforts along these lines, this all seems like hot air," he said. "And in the hottest year ever measured on this planet, it's not like we need much more of that."

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