Democratic senators have introduced draft legislation aimed at forcing fossil fuel corporations to pay damages for their role in producing the carbon emissions behind the climate crisis, currently playing out in deadly heatwaves, wildfires and more frequent and intense storms.
The “Make Polluters Pay” bill was announced on Tuesday by Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. It is being supported by progressive lawmakers like Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Senators Edward J Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
The bill would require companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron and other major polluters to pay an annual fee in line with how much they have contributed to historic CO2 emissions.
The senators say that the plan would create a fund of $500bn in ten years to be funneled into helping communities adapt to climate impacts, research renewable energy and advance environmental justice.
The draft bill directs the US Treasury Department and the Environmental Protection Agency to assess fees based on the emissions that companies have emitted over the last two decades.
Leading environmental, climate, and social justice organizations applauded the news but noted that it would only account for a small portion of the damages inflicted by the fossil fuel industry, particularly on minority communities.
“My family lost everything to Superstorm Sandy. Now, the skies are darkening, subways are flooding, and the heat is relentless,” said Rachel Rivera, member of New York Communities for Change.
“Meanwhile, the Democrats who run all three branches have talked themselves blue, no pun intended, about the importance of climate action. Making polluters pay is an obvious step towards getting the real money we need to confront the climate emergency. It’s time to get serious: don’t delay, make them pay.”
Janet Redman, Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director, added: “When you break something, you pay for it. When you make a mess, you clean it up.
“Fossil fuel companies need to be held to the same standards that we hold our children. Companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Shell are most responsible for the climate emergency we are living in today and should pay for the damages they caused.”
A 2019 peer-reviewed study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that since the Industrial Revolution, emissions from 88 of the largest fossil fuel producers’ and cement manufacturers’ products contributed about 52 per cent of global temperature rise.
Some oil firms and the American Petroleum Institute, which represents all segments of the US oil and gas industry, support a “market-based, economy-wide carbon price policy”.
But in a statement to The Independent, API’s senior vice president of policy, economics and regulatory affairs Frank Macchiarola wrote:“Targeting a handpicked group of companies with punitive new taxes would undermine the guiding principle of neutrality embedded in our nation’s tax code and would only serve to undermine the nation’s economic recovery.”
The Democrats’ legislative proposal comes as a nearly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package inches forward in the Senate. The package includes a number of provisions to tackle emissions including $50 billion-plus to bolster infrastructure against cyberattacks and climate change; $39bn for public transit and $7.5bn for electric vehicle charging stations.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is keen to pass the legislation to return to the business of a budget blueprint for the larger $3.5 trillion package in the fall, which will include more ambitious climate measures.
Senator Van Hollen told The New York Times he was “optimistic” that his legislation will find support in his party, and be tacked onto the budget reconciliation package – which Democrats intend forge ahead with, absent Republican support.
But with the Senate split on a knife-edge, all eyes will likely turn once again to Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who represents one of the last bastions of the coal industry and remains closely linked to it.