The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s enthusiasm for pollution is too much for even the oil industry

(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

July was the hottest month recorded on Earth since record-keeping began, an occurrence the Trump administration has responded to by deciding that the world needs more greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it is so determined to accelerate global warming that even the oil companies — yes, the oil companies — are saying, “Whoa there, let’s just dial it back on the pollution, okay?” According to The Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to announce Thursday that it will loosen federal rules on methane, a powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change, according to two senior administration officials.
The proposed rule will reverse standards enacted under former president Barack Obama that require oil and gas operations to install controls on their operations to curb the release of methane at the well head and in their transmission equipment, including pipelines, processing and storage facilities. …
But several of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including Exxon, Shell and BP, have opposed the rollback and urged the Trump administration to keep the current standards in place. Collectively, these firms account for 11 percent of America’s natural gas output.

Before we praise the oil companies, let’s understand what’s actually happening here. In most ways, they couldn’t be happier with the Trump administration — except when the administration gets so overenthusiastic that it undermines the greenwashing the industry has been putting so much effort into.

If this episode sounds familiar, it’s because a month ago, a group of automakers struck a deal with California to continue lowering tailpipe emissions, in defiance of a Trump administration effort to roll back emission targets created under the Obama administration. In effect, the administration said to the automakers, “Wouldn’t it be great if your cars could pollute more?” and the companies said, “No thanks, we’d rather not.”

I don’t think there’s even a term for this phenomenon. We’re familiar with “regulatory capture,” when an industry has such control over the government agencies that are supposed to regulate it that those agencies become essentially an arm of the industry.

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But what do you call it when an administration is so pro-corporate that it goes too far even for the corporations whose interest it’s trying to serve?

If you’re looking for a silver lining here, it might be that the administration is too incompetent to engage in truly effective corporate subservience. We can tell by the reaction of the oil and gas companies that they don’t have much of a problem with these methane limits. As one environmentalist pointed out to The Post, the administration’s move is “more of an ideological reaction to regulation of any climate pollutant by the federal government” than something that will have dramatic real-world consequences.

So it’s not in the fossil-fuel industry’s interests at all. What companies want is not an administration that makes high-profile and inevitably unpopular efforts to make global warming worse — thereby making the election of a Democratic president who might actually make life harder for them more likely — but an administration that eases the regulations they care about but does so in as unobtrusive a way as possible.

Fossil-fuel companies know they have an ongoing public relations problem as the ones who are profiting from global catastrophe and who, for many people, embody the idea of soulless greedheads willing to create unlimited destruction if it means they can make a few billion more dollars. They’d like to modify that image by showing people that they’re trying to limit their contribution to climate change and looking forward to a cleaner energy future.

To take one example, you may recall that in 2000, British Petroleum rebranded itself as just “BP” and began a multimillion-dollar “Beyond Petroleum” campaign touting its green energy initiatives; the campaign included the green starburst logo the company still uses. Then came the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which dumped more than 3 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, making that image a wee bit harder to sustain.

But if you go to the company’s website today, you’ll see lots of pictures of solar panels and windmills; the company touts its “commitment to advancing a low carbon future.” You see the same thing from other companies. ExxonMobil’s home page proudly says in giant letters that “ExxonMobil scientists and engineers are pioneering new research and pursuing new technologies to reduce emissions while creating more efficient fuels.” Shell has a “Sustainability” section on its site; Chevron’s site will tell you about its effort to protect sea turtles.

And in the past few years, one oil company after another has changed its name to eliminate the word “oil.”

In other words, they understand that being known as a bunch of corporate villains responsible for worldwide cataclysm is bad for business. You’d think even the knuckleheads in the Trump administration would be smart enough to grasp that, but I guess not.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Automakers to Trump: Stop trying to force us to pollute more

The Post’s View: Global growth is supercharging emissions — and we’re running out of time to help

Greg Sargent: Trump backs Bolsonaro on Amazon fires. Because of course he does.

Kate Cohen: Most of us are hypocrites on climate change. Maybe that’s progress.

Stephen Nash: Climate change is the next world war. Give it the coverage it deserves.