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Oil Industry Tries a New Tack: Blowing Smoke at CA’s Climate Change Policies

CARE is paying for Facebook ads to get some traction for its faulty reasoning.
CARE is paying for Facebook ads to get some traction for its faulty reasoning. OMG! Dollars are burning!

The major lobby group for the California oil industry has launched a new, and particularly dimwitted, effort to denigrate California's climate change policies. Californians for Affordable and Reliable Energy, or CARE, one of the Western States Petroleum Association's front groups (as reported in Streetsblog several years ago), started a new website that purports to show how the state is wasting its money on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But its thesis makes no sense.

Right up front, the website declares authoritatively that the cost per ton of carbon is $12.80, and that therefore any higher amount paid to remove greenhouse gases from the air is a waste of money. It even provides a handy chart comparing what California pays for greenhouse gas reductions through programs like the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Program to the site's definition of the “actual cost” of that pollution. Its inevitable conclusion: California is wasting huge amounts of money.

Except that the comparison makes no sense. As Bruce Mirken of the Greenlining Institute puts it, “This isn't comparing apples to oranges. It's comparing apples to building new orchards.”

The figure of $12.80 reported on the website is, give or take a few cents, the current price paid per metric tonne of carbon by industries that emit greenhouse gases under California's cap-and-trade system. Cap-and-trade works by putting a cap on total allowable emissions, and then charging industries actual money for the pollution they emit. The price is set by auction, which means it's driven by demand, and depends on how many “credits” are available for purchase and how many industries want to buy them. It has nothing to do with the actual cost of carbon in our atmosphere—it's just the current going price, at auction, of the credits.

So it's a little disingenuous to pretend that California only needs to spend $12.80 per ton to remove greenhouse gases. In fact, more than disingenuous, how about deeply cynical. Evil?

It's not as if you can go to the store and buy a carbon reduction. California has been working for ten years on finding the right mix of programs and projects that will move it towards a society that survives, and thrives, while producing less carbon, period. That doesn't happen by buying carbon out of the air, but by doing things like building housing near transit, encouraging biking and walking trips, increasing the range and reliability of transit, reducing energy used in water systems and buildings, conserving land, and the myriad other ways people in California are creating a more sustainable society.

Even more cynically, the projects and programs denigrated by the WSPA-funded site bring many additional benefits, such as reduced traffic congestion from getting people out of their cars, giving low-income people a decent place to live by building affordable housing, and creating jobs in the clean energy sector for people who need them, often in low-income or disadvantaged communities that have suffered the most from pollution and in economic downturns.

These are the programs the site is attacking. “Oil Industry Declares War on the Poor” could be an alternative headline for this post. Certainly this site's twisting of information shows that WSPA's true focus is not on low-income people, despite past cynical attempts to pretend so, but solely on the oil industry's bottom line.

In fairness—or a pretend stab at fairness—the website includes a tab labeled “Good News,” where it lists programs that it says are “working” (although there is no accompanying chart showing the cost of each tonne of carbon removed by these programs). Oddly enough, all of the programs listed there focus on cleaning up old polluting vehicles or replacing them with slightly cleaner, but still gas-burning, vehicles and engines. So, according to the site, the programs that are working are the ones that don't cut into the oil industry's market share.

This WSPA front group is spending money to advertise the website on Facebook and Twitter, probably hoping that people who find that its assertions align with their agendas will quote it without investigating too deeply. They clearly want to create easy sound bites for politicians and journalists. But anyone who uses this website to back up arguments against California climate change policies should be immediately and roundly rebuffed on the basis of its wacky reasoning.

“You have to take this website with a grain of salt,” said Susan Frank, director of the California Business Alliance for a Clean Economy. “WSPA has long been an opponent of California's climate change policies and this is another example of how they're using a front group to mislead the public.”

It's still relatively early to judge how well California's climate change investments are working. For example, building affordable housing—let alone a brand new program to fund it—takes a lot of time, and shifting how people travel isn't something that will happen overnight. Meanwhile, this website does nothing to further the conversation.

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