Updated: Oct 3, 2022
Oil corporations have known of the dangers of burning fossil fuels for decades. Yet, instead of sharing this information with the public, they swept it under the rug and promoted the narrative that carbon emissions would not affect the climate. However, just like the tobacco industry, big oil’s reckoning could be coming soon in the courts.
Hiding the Evidence
Standing before the heads of one of the most powerful oil companies in the world, James F. Black had some bad news to share. Black, a scientific advisor for ExxonMobil, had recently learned of a growing theory that, if true, could pose a major obstacle for the corporation. According to other researchers, the burning of fossil fuels was causing a rapid increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which was in turn warming the planet. Black warned Exxon that the effects of this increase in temperature could prove disastrous for both humankind and, more importantly, the company’s bottom line.
The year was 1977, a time when climate change was far removed from the general public consciousness. Upon hearing Black’s claims, Exxon quickly put together a research program to study whether this new “global warming” theory had any merit. In 1979, the corporation spent over a million dollars to equip a supertanker with tools to measure carbon dioxide levels, looking to assess the rate at which the ocean could absorb CO2 and slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Exxon also assembled a team of climate modelers in 1982 and tasked them with analyzing the relationship between CO2 emissions and global temperature changes.
The results of Exxon’s research efforts painted a clear and sobering picture, suggesting that the rate of warming was even more rapid than Black had predicted just a few years prior. In a 1982 corporate primer, Exxon scientists asserted that climate change was a potentially catastrophic problem, and any response aimed at reversing it “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustions”.
As a fossil fuel company, this was far from the conclusion Exxon wanted to hear. A
“major reduction” in fossil fuels would only mean one thing for the corporation: a major
reduction in profits. With this in mind, Exxon opted not to communicate their research
results to the pubic, instead joining forces with the rest of the oil industry in promoting
climate skepticism. Over the next few decades, they worked together to cast doubt over
the growing scientific consensus that climate change was a clear and present danger.
Today, amidst rising sea levels, destructive natural disasters, and the depletion of fish
populations, state and local governments have turned to our judicial system to help hol
the oil industry accountable. Since 2017, 26 public entities, including multiple cities in
California and states ranging from Minnesota to Rhode Island, have filed 25 lawsuits
against the major oil companies. The lawsuits seek damages from the companies for their role in contributing to and misleading the public about the realities of climate change, and could help bring about a social reckoning against fossil fuels not unlike the one faced by Big Tobacco in the late 1990s.
Public Nuisance Claims
At the core of many of the lawsuits are public nuisance claims, with plaintiffs arguing
that oil companies’ contributions to climate change have led to “unreasonable
interference with the rights of the public”.
For example, the city of Imperial Beach in California is seeking compensation from Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP, and others to help build protective barriers against and repair damages caused by rising sea levels. The plaintiffs in the Imperial Beach case argue that the actions of the sued companies have
led to this sea level rise, and its effects can be characterized as a public nuisance to the local residents. In King County, Washington, plaintiffs have sued the same companies
with a different public nuisance claim, arguing that their actions have caused the local
salmon populations to become depleted.
For these public nuisance claims to succeed, plaintiffs will have to prove that carbon
emissions by oil companies directly led to injury to the public. They will also have to
address the counterargument that even if the production of oil has led to such negative
effects, the actions of the companies can’t be considered “unreasonable interference”
because they were selling a product that was necessary for society to function. Finally,
they’ll have to contend with the claim that no single defendant can be held specifically
responsible for climate change, given that their singular contribution to carbon emissions would likely not have caused the issue on its own.
Big Oil’s Disinformation Campaign
Almost all of the lawsuits point to the oil companies’ misleading public statements
climate change, despite internal documents suggesting they were well aware of the truth. Exxon in particular took efforts to amplify the voices of climate deniers through a series of “advertorials” in major newspapers, including one in 1996 that described a warmer world as “far more benign than many imagine”. The oil corporation has funded more than 40 different groups that deny climate change, many of which scientists believe run deliberate disinformation campaigns. Other major oil companies like Chevron, Shell, and BP have poured funds into similar efforts, including the American Petroleum Institute’s multimillion-dollar campaign to make “climate change a non-issue”.
According to Sharon Eubanks of the U.S. Justice Department, these misleading tactics by the oil industry are similar to the ones previously utilized by Big Tobacco when trying to downplay the dangers of smoking. This issue came to a head when a wave of lawsuits were filed against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, and companies were forced to turn over documents proving they knew of the health risks and were purposefully engaging in disinformation. The reveal of Big Tobacco’s campaign of deception to the public led to a major negative shift in attitude towards smoking, as the industry was found liable for
fraud. Eubanks is hopeful that the recent lawsuits against the oil industry will lead to a
similar shift in public perception, when the discovery process helps people become more aware of the oil industry’s purposeful disinformation efforts.
Looking Forward: A Question of Forum
The lawsuits are currently still in their early stages, as judges across the country decide
whether the cases will be tried in state or federal court. All plaintiffs have initially filed in
state court, the forum they prefer because there are fewer conservative judges there
compared to federal court. The oil companies have responded by motioning to remove
each case to federal court for the opposite reason. As the two sides battle over forum, in
future blogs we’ll look into some of the major decisions that have already been made,
ones that could set an important precedent in determining this question.
To learn more about each lawsuit around the country, check out The Guardian’s
infographic found here. If you would like to contribute to an organization fighting to
uncover and hold Big Oil accountable for its misinformation campaign, read more about Global Witness’s initiative and consider making a donation.