Big Oil's Dirty Secrets Head to Court

Big Oil's Dirty Secrets Head to Court

Big oil has pushed climate denialism for decades while privately accepting that burning fossil fuels will have drastic impacts on the environment. In 1988, a NASA scientist named James Hansen alerted the general public by sounding the alarm about climate change and its link to human activity. Nearly a decade prior to Hansen's assertion, the results of an Exxon study warned against burning fossil fuels as the result "will cause dramatic environmental effects" and that "the potential problem is great and urgent." Rather than address the issues raised by their own research, Exxon along with other major oil firms worked together to bury the findings. From there, they developed and put forth a counter narrative intended to undermine scientific consensus on climate change. Environmental author and journalist Bill McKibben has characterized the fossil fuel industry's behavior as "the most consequential cover-up in US history."

Why This Matters

The legal process will likely require big oil firms to turn over years worth of internal communications that reveal what, when, and how they knew about climate change, and how they responded (or didn't). Exxon knew that climate change was a threat and was potentially being caused by burning fossil fuels as early as 1977. The legal discovery process will likely expose mounting evidence that Exxon and other oil conglomerates conspired to deceive the public about the scientific consensus on climate change.

After a century of extraordinary economic and political power, US petroleum giants face a legal and public reckoning.

Image: MN350

The Inflection Point

Last year's oil prices went negative, something that had never happened since 1983, when oil futures began trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

This year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell must cut its carbon pollution by 45% by 2030 and oil giants ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips faced shareholder rebellions. More recently, in June, developers of the Keystone XL pipeline cancelled the project after years of fierce opposition, primarily by Indigenous activists. And last week, Exxon's CEO was forced to make a public apology after an expose by Unearthed included a video of a top DC lobbyist claiming that the company is actively fighting legislative action on climate change.

Oil companies are currently facing an unprecedented wave of lawsuits filed by cities and states across the US.

  • Charleston, SC, Boulder, CO, and the island of Maui, are among the communities taking big oil to court. Their aim is to force the industry to pay for the climate crisis it’s caused using its enormous profits.
  • Imperial Beach, the poorest city in San Diego county, faces rising waters on three sides and lacks the necessary funding for protective barriers. They claim oil companies have created a "public nuisance" and ought to be held legally liable. Similar public nuisance claims have also been pursued by Honolulu, San Francisco, and Rhode Island.
  • In Minnesota, another climate lawsuit claims a breach of state law for deceptive trade practices, false advertising and consumer fraud over what the lawsuit characterises as distortions and lies about climate science.

As Daniel Farber, a law professor at the UC Berkeley, put it to the Guardian: "We are at an inflection point."

Results of a new study say we should get ready to see a substantial rise in successful climate-related lawsuits in courts around the globe.

Courts could be an extremely effective battleground for climate action, yet the true scale of success is dependent on the ability of lawyers to stay ahead of powerful and historically victorious fossil fuel companies. Sophie Marjanac, a climate law expert from the law group ClientEarth, said to the BBC:

As this science improves, the boards of individual fossil fuel companies should be preparing for their day in court, to respond to charges that they are to blame for increased natural disasters and disruptions to the planet's climate stability. And as this trend continues, we will also need to see courtrooms keep pace with the work of attribution scientists, so that their judgments are in line with the latest scientific evidence.

Deeper Dive

Also see Harvard History of Science Research Fellow Geoffrey Suppran's extremely thorough timeline of climate communications and climate denial dating back to 1954 along with the paper that he recently co-authored with WW0 enlistee Naomi Orsekes, Rhetoric and frame analysis of ExxonMobil's climate change communications.

MN350: They knew. They lied. They should pay., June 14, 2021.

For decades, Big Oil has lied and covered up the damage caused by fossil fuels. A year ago, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a consumer fraud lawsuit to hold fossil fuel interests accountable. Minnesotans expects our businesses to tell the truth. #ExxonKnew #BigDeception

CNBC: Why Climate Change Denial Still Exists In The US, December 20, 2020.