California v. Big Oil: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

California to Big Oil: Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire, Lawsuit Charges Companies Knew Fossil Fuels Caused Climate Change and Deliberately Denied It by Nick Welsh, Sep 20, 2023, Santa Barbara Independent

CAVEAT EMPTOR: I happen to be reading a book called The Patron Saint of Liars, the first of many written by the now-ubiquitous Ann Patchett. How was I to know it was actually a great novel? I picked it up figuring it was a self-help manual for those of us struggling with our inner mendacity. It’s not that I tell more than my fair share of lies; it’s that I get caught doing so way too often. Clearly, I needed a few pointers. Three hundred pages later, it dawned on me I’d been had. There is no patron saint for liars.

I bring this up because this past week, California Attorney General Rob Bonta threw a 135-page book — not nearly as well-written as Patchett’s, by the way — at ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Phillips 66, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute. His fundamental accusation is that these oil companies — and their alter ego for purposes of lobbying and other forms of propaganda — had deliberately and premeditatedly lied in the first degree about the connection between carbon dioxide and melting arctic ice caps, sea-level rise, flooding, and shifting rain patterns and the attendant famine caused, not to mention 92 percent of the plagues mentioned in the Bible. The only charge not leveled was how these operators had “lain in wait” for their victims, which in this case is the planet and any living organisms on it.

Beginning in the 1980s, these companies began spending million and millions on sober-minded advertorials placed in influential media outlets — The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal — read by sober-minded people, denying any link between the billowing quantities of carbon dioxide that fossil-fuel consumers were pumping into the atmosphere and the ensuing climate catastrophe.

In 1996, Exxon CEO Lee (yes, Lee) Raymond wrote, “Taking drastic action immediately is unnecessary since many scientists agree there’s ample time to better understand the climate system.” The greenhouse effect, Exxon would write, is “what makes the earth’s atmosphere livable.” In another, the American Petroleum Institute would write, “No conclusive — or even strongly suggestive — scientific evidence exists that human activities are significantly affecting sea levels, rainfall, surface temperatures, or the intensity and frequency of storms.” The report would conclude, “Facts don’t support the argument for restraining use.”

In fact, as Bonta pointed out over and over, the facts at the time showed just the opposite. Exxon and the other oil companies knew this because, beginning in the 1950s, their own scientists did much of the ground-breaking research establishing this connection. Until the 1980s — when a very real threat of regulatory intervention first surfaced — scientists working for the Big Oil cartel candidly acknowledged such a link and openly opined that any credible scientist understood this to be the case. Some of the scientific papers unearthed by Bonta show that some industry experts talked about leaving 80 percent of the resource in the ground and looking for alternative energy sources. This, they reckoned, would cost more, but only enough to bump the gross national product up by just a few percentage points. Really, the industry researchers got the picture in the 1950s. They got the word up the food chain loud and clear. Leadership knew. And acted on it. Oil companies began inventing new ice-breaking oil tankers to maximize the opportunity to accommodate anticipated sea-level rise.

They could take it seriously, but the public and the politicians they elected could not. Between 1989 and 2004, Bonta reported, 83 percent of Exxon’s peer-reviewed papers and 80 percent of its internal documents acknowledged the reality of climate change and the extent human beings — playing with fossil-fuel fire — caused it. Yet, 81 percent of the advertorials Exxon paid for questioned the reality of what company scientists had long known. Guess what? If you throw enough shit against a wall, some is bound to stick.

Actually, a lot will. A Yale survey conducted in 2015 revealed 33 percent of the respondents believed climate change was a function of natural variation. At that time, 97 percent of all peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject said just the opposite.

For many of you, I know, all this is old news. Even so, my head still explodes. Bonta’s case raises an interesting — by which I actually mean “troubling” — legal question: Is lying covered by free speech? If not, we’re all in hot water. We all know it’s wrong to yell “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. But what if you don’t yell “Fire!” when you happen to know one’s been lit? Worse yet, what if you’re the one who set the fire in the first place?

That’s what Bonta’s lawsuit is all about.

The sober-minded pipe-puffers working for the American Petroleum Institute have responded with customary disdain and condescension. My favorite rebuttal to Bonta’s lawsuit came in the pages of Forbes magazine, which — reading between the lines — expressed incredulity that anyone could actually believe anything said by an oil company. If you were that stupid — as the Forbes commentary seemed to suggest — then you were entirely responsible for the consequences of your own criminal gullibility. Ultimately, Forbes would sniff, Bonta’s lawsuit was “misplaced.”

Misplaced or not, California’s lawsuit is not the first to take the oil industry to task for its campaign of deceit. But it is the biggest and probably the most important, especially since the Supreme Court recently rejected a legal ploy hatched by the oil industry to redirect such litigation to the federal bench and away from judges in the states of origin. The city and county of Santa Barbara have not joined in yet. But they should.

Sad but true, there’s no patron saint for liars. But there is a patron saint for those of us facing imminent doom. Her name? Saint Barbara.


Center for Climate Integrity@climatecosts:

Must watch: @GavinNewsom calls out Big Oil’s climate lies at UN #ClimateAmbitionSummit

“This climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis.”

“The oil industry has been playing each and every one of us in this room for fools” through “their deceit and denial going back decades.”

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