Big Oil could pay dearly for decades of climate change denial

Dave Dickey writes about a lawsuit filed by California and other states in his latest column. He explains: “By the late 1980s, climate change discussion had entered the political landscape. And it wasn’t pretty.” 

In July 1977, Big Oil giant Exxon’s world was turned upside down by scientific adviser James F. Black. Speaking at a meeting of Exxon’s top executives, Black, who served in the research and engineering division, delivered stunning news — the world-wide burning of fossil fuels could eventually produce enough carbon dioxide to endanger humanity.

Less than a year later, Black doubled down on his grim prediction, telling a broader audience that while more research was necessary to understand the impacts of carbon dioxide emissions, that “a doubling of carbon dioxide is estimated to be capable of increasing the average global temperature by from 1 degree to 3 degrees Celsius with a 10 degree Celsius [change] at the poles.” Black estimated scientists had between five and 10 years to understand the greenhouse effect.

The news lit a fire under Exxon, which spent millions of dollars over the following decade trying to quantify greenhouse gas impacts. Within months of being slapped sideways by Black’s dire predictions, Exxon began its own deep dive into global warming.

In 1982, Exxon produced an internal working document on carbon dioxide and climate change, suggesting that:

“Although all biological systems are likely to be affected, the most severe economic effects could be on agriculture. There is a need to examine alleviating environmental stress on renewable resource production — food, fiber, animal, agriculture, tree crops, etc.”

The carbon dioxide document acknowledged that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.” You might think Exxon executives would immediately pull in the reins and sweep its research under the rug. Instead Exxon shared the primer, believing transparency would give the company a leg up in helping shape potential future greenhouse gas laws.

ut times were changing. By the late 1980s, climate change discussion had entered the political landscape. And it wasn’t pretty.  

Goodbye, transparency. Hello, deception.

Facing growing public and congressional awareness of the threat of fossil fuels, Exxon financed a campaign to throw shade on climate science. Exxon was instrumental in establishing the Global Climate Coalition, whose major goal was to relegate climate science to the dustbin and keep the oil flowing.

Now decades of Big Oil carbon dioxide deception is coming home to roost.

California has joined a growing list of states filing lawsuits and complaints claiming Big Oil, and in particular Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and oil’s major trade group the American Petroleum Institute, even now continue to deceive the public over the impact of greenhouse gasses on the atmosphere.

California’s 135-page lawsuit directly claims Big Oil’s deception is playing a role in numerous ongoing Golden State disasters:

“Defendants’ misrepresentations, omissions, and deceit had a significant and long lasting effect on how the public views climate change and the dangers of fossil fuel use that continues to the present day… If Defendants had been forthcoming about their own climate research and understanding of the dangers of fossil fuel products, consumers, policymakers, and the public could have made substantial progress in transitioning to a lower-carbon economy, at a much earlier time, potentially averting some of the effects of the climate crisis that California is experiencing today.

“Moreover, by concealing the very fact of their campaign of deception, including by using front groups to obscure their own involvement in the deception, Defendants concealed their unlawful conduct from the public and the State, thereby preventing the State from discovering the facts underlying the claims alleged herein.”

In addition to the lawsuit, California will soon require Big Oil to disclose greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks. Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’s signing a pair of first-in-the-nation bills — Senate Bill 253 and Senate Bill 261 — which will force any company with more than $1 billion in annual revenue to publicize its greenhouse gas emissions beginning in 2026.

Of course Big Oil ain’t liking’ what California is cookin’.

American Petroleum Institute senior vice president and general counsel Ryan Meyers issued the requisite boilerplate:

“This ongoing, coordinated campaign to wage meritless, politicized lawsuits against a foundational American industry and its workers is nothing more than a distraction from important national conversations and an enormous waste of California taxpayer resources. Climate policy is for Congress to debate and decide, not the court system.”

Well Mr. Meyers, that ship has sailed. I don’t know if California can actually win this lawsuit, but it’s high time the public at large learned of Big Oil’s deceptions in the name of profit. See ya in court.


 (Photo courtesy of NASA/Reid Wiseman) - NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman tweeted this photo from the International Space Station on Tuesday morning, Sept. 2, 2014.