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Irving-Based ExxonMobil Wants A Carbon Tax. Meanwhile, Hell Freezes.

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Now that one of the largest oil and natural gas producers in the world is behind the carbon tax, is it finally an idea whose time has come? For the record, White House spokesman Jay Carney says President Barack Obama has exactly zero interest in proposing one. But Irving-based ExxonMobil thinks it's a pretty damned good idea.

Why? Who the hell knows? The corporation is an inscrutable black box. Yet it's known for its long game, played years, even decades, into the future. It may be that ExxonMobil likes a straightforward tax more than EPA greenhouse-gas regulation. Maybe it likes the fact that low-carbon natural gas -- of which it is the country's biggest producer -- will see its market share rise, lifting it out of the low-price rut it settled in in 2008.

Whatever its motives, this statement to Bloomberg Businessweek is nonetheless fascinating: "Combined with further advances in energy efficiency and new technologies spurred by market innovation, a well-designed carbon tax could play a significant role in addressing the challenge of rising emissions," a spokeswoman for the corporation said. "A carbon tax should be made revenue neutral via tax offsets in other areas."

Remember, ExxonMobil bankrolled organizations peddling climate-change skepticism for years. Lee Raymond, the former CEO, was himself a vocal skeptic. That it even acknowledges the "challenge of rising emissions" is remarkable. And to its credit, it isn't a bad idea. It also has bipartisan support.

As it stands, the oil and electricity we consume belch carbon dioxide as a byproduct into the atmosphere in unfathomable tonnage. It is the tragedy of the commons: the depletion or despoiling of a shared resource contrary to our own long-term interests. A carbon tax puts a price on it, the way a landfill charges for dumping. The Brookings Institute estimates such a tax would raise $150 billion a year in additional revenue for 10 years.

But the carbon tax is also an idea that surfaces perennially and gains no traction because it is political suicide. Any time prices at the pump approach $4 a gallon, wall-eyed apoplexy ensues, as though the right to buy cheap gas is as inalienable as the pursuit of happiness. Still, with muscle like ExxonMobil behind it, the carbon tax can no longer be brushed aside.

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