Court cases will expose Big Oil’s hypocrisy on climate change

In court, oil majors say climate action is a matter for governments; outside it, they lobby against climate policies. They can’t have it both ways

(Photo: Flickr/James Cridland)


So far eleven cities and counties across the US have filed lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry seeking compensation for climate impacts.

Facing billions of dollars in costs to protect their residents from rising seas, flooding, wildfires, etc, these local governments are demanding that Big Oil help alleviate the burden on taxpayers due to its substantial role in causing the problem.

As the counties of Boulder and San Miguel and the city of Boulder, Colorado state in their recent complaint, defendants “knowingly and substantially contributed to the climate crisis by producing, promoting and selling a substantial portion of the fossil fuels that are causing and exacerbating climate change, while concealing and misrepresenting the dangers associated with their intended use.”

The fossil fuel industry’s chief argument in these cases is that courts are not the appropriate forum to decide matters concerning greenhouse gas emissions and energy policy. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions, as judges in previous climate tort lawsuits have noted.

A Chevron spokesman told me: “Chevron welcomes meaningful efforts to address the issue of climate change, but litigation is not an appropriate tool for accomplishing that objective. Under the Clean Air Act, the responsibility for regulating greenhouse gas emissions has been assigned to the EPA.” He added: “Global engagement is needed to solve this global issue.”

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The problem is, the industry has spent a lot of money and resources undermining regulations and global efforts to address climate change.

The American Fuel & Petrochemicals Manufacturers states on its website that the Clean Air Act should not be used to regulate emissions – “AFPM believes that using this 40-year-old law to control of greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions threatens our nation’s economic and energy security.”

The AFPM and the American Petroleum Institute explicitly opposed the Obama Administration’s attempt to control vehicle emissions with the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards. API said at the time: “The rule is not just about vehicle efficiency. It’s about EPA overreaching to create an opportunity for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from virtually every firm and business in America.”

The fossil fuel industry fought the Clean Power Plan too. API and its allies also opposed the first global climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. Bottom line is that fossil fuel companies have directly blocked EPA regulations and global action on climate for years and continue to do so – and now they think they can argue that these avenues are the best way to address the issue?

Exxon and major oil companies furthermore claim to support a carbon tax. Two Republican congressmen recently introduced an anti-carbon tax resolution, and again, Koch-backed think tanks and industry trade groups fully back this measure. The American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, of which Exxon and Chevron are members, issued a supporting statement: “AFPM strongly supports the Scalise-McKinley anti-carbon tax resolution.”

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This is the height of hypocrisy. The fossil fuel industry seems to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. On one hand, it argues that EPA and Congress, not the courts, should deal with climate change. On the other hand, it aggressively opposes regulatory and legislative solutions and lobbies to stop them. The non-profit Influence Map estimates the industry spends nearly $115 million a year opposing climate policy.

The same hypocrisy applies to the fossil fuel industry treatment of climate science. In March during a courtroom climate “tutorial” the lead lawyer for Chevron accepted the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s authority on the state of the science while simultaneously undermining that authority’s confidence in its projections.

As climate scientist Michael Mann told me: “They wanted to have it both ways. When you’re downplaying the level of confidence in the science and exaggerating the level of uncertainty, you’re really not accepting the science. You’re looking for a way out.”

Fossil fuel corporations see the walls closing in and are looking for a way out, determined to evade responsibility for their well-documented campaign to misinform the public and to block actions to curb emissions from their product. Lawsuits may not be the most appropriate way to tackle climate change, but for now they are the only way to hold these companies accountable for their recklessness.

It is time Big Oil stop playing both sides and admit to its obstruction and obfuscation. The new climate liability lawsuits are essential to making this happen.

Dana Drugmand is a freelance reporter and contributor to Climate Liability News, writing in a personal capacity

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