Report makes the case for big oil’s climate liability

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has released a new report that highlights information held by oil and other fossil fuel producers about the role of fossil fuels in climate change, and concludes that they could and should be held accountable for climate impacts.

The report, Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis, finds that oil and gas companies were on notice of potential climate risks as early as the 1950s, and they were repeatedly warned of those risks from the 1960s onward.

It documents how major oil companies had the opportunity and capacity to reduce those risks, either by developing technologies under their control or by warning consumers and investors about climate change. Instead, there is extensive evidence that major oil and gas producers worked, individually and in concert, to undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action.

By producing oil and gas in ever greater quantities despite clear evidence of its risks, oil and gas companies contributed significantly to global emissions of greenhouse gases and to increasingly disastrous climate impacts.

“The individual data points in this report, viewed in aggregate, tell the story of an industry with advanced knowledge and expertise about climate change. There is a reasonable public expectation that if there was a problem with their products, big oil would have been the first to know about it and would have had a responsibility to affirmatively warn the public. Instead they actively sowed confusion and doubt,” says Steven Feit, CIEL Staff Attorney.

“Over the seven decades in this timeline, liability may attach to different companies for different theories at different times. However, looking at the evidence as a whole, over time, and across the industry, the answer to whether big oil is responsible is yes.”

Countries, cities, communities, and even individuals can now quantify climate change impacts and harms against them. Meanwhile, researchers are increasingly able to attribute historical carbon and methane emissions to a handful of private companies who can be sued as defendants whose contributions to the climate crisis are identifiable, measurable, and significant.

The evidence in this report suggests that under multiple theories of law, major oil producers could be held liable for knowing of climate risks linked to their products and failing to take action to avoid or reduce those risks—either by eliminating them or by properly warning consumers, regulators, and the public about them.

“Exxon and its oil industry allies have given us a decades-long history of climate change, climate denial, and climate chaos,” says Carroll Muffett, CIEL President. “This report exposes that history and suggests that the future of these companies will be marked by climate litigation and climate accountability.”

Across the United States and around world, investigations into and litigation against major carbon producers are accelerating.

The report's Key Findings are:

  • Theories regarding the potential link between fossil fuel combustion and atmospheric temperature increase were widely reported in scientific literature and academic texts relevant to the oil industry from the early decades of the 20th Century.

  • The oil industry had incentives, opportunity, and relevant expertise to investigate and understand climate science

  • Documentary evidence demonstrates the oil industry was on notice of potential climate risks by 1957-1958.

  • Humble Oil, at the time a wholly-owned subsidiary of Esso (now ExxonMobil), published research acknowledging the link between fossil fuels and atmospheric CO2 in 1957.

  • Industry records document that industry research into air pollution issues was highly coordinated and shared widely within the industry and that this included research into fossil carbon in the atmosphere by no later than 1958.

  • Industry records and other sources indicate that this coordinated industry research program was used to mobilize public opposition to the regulation of air pollutants by sowing doubt regarding air pollution science.

  • The oil industry was expressly warned of the potential severity of climate risks by its own consulting scientists in 1968 and repeatedly thereafter.

  • Numerous industry documents demonstrate these risks were communicated by industry scientists to executives at the highest levels of the industry many over the ensuing decades.

  • The oil industry held early patents on numerous technologies that might have reduced climate change risk.

  • Even while blocking public action to address climate change, oil companies took steps to protect their own assets from climate risks. This divergence between industry communications to the public and industry action to safeguard its own investments began as early as the 1970s and is well established by the 1980s.

  • Notwithstanding their own best information, leading oil companies and industry associations actively participated in or funded climate misinformation efforts for decades through media intended to reach wide audiences of consumers, investors, and the general public.

The full report is available here

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