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Petroleum Industry Climate Deceit Started Even Earlier Than We Thought

Last week, the Washington-based Center for International Environmental Law released a raft of public documents showing that the toxic oil and gas/carbon dioxide relationship was known decades earlier than the previously documents revealed.

Producing oil (Flickr/Johnny Choura)

The first news about the massive coverup surfaced last year, when InsideClimate News put out a special report that top executives at Exxon had known about the role of fossil fuels in global warming as early as 1977. InsideClimate News found that instead of working to combat the risks their products presented, the petroleum industry leaders responded by covering up and obscuring evidence from their own scientists about climate change. They even lobbied against efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Facts then surfaced that in 1968, two scientists from Stanford Research Institute had warned the American Petroleum Institute—the US trade association for the oil and natural gas industry—that “man is now engaged in a vast geophysical experiment with his environment, the earth”—an experience that “may be the cause of serious world-wide environmental changes.”

“If the Earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis.”

As we now know, they were right. In January 2016, New York’s attorney general and top lawyers in three other states started an investigation into ExxonMobil over the mounting allegations that it had lied to the public and its investors about climate change. But the Center for International Environmental Law, a nonprofit legal organization, has now shown that the story is even older and bigger than that 48-year-old Stanford report.

According to Carroll Muffett, the center’s president, the newly released documents show that the industry, including ExxonMobil (then Humble Oil), was “clearly on notice” about fossil fuels and CO2 emissions by 1957, 20 years before ICN had revealed. Also, they clearly show that it had been “shaping science to shape public opinion” even earlier, in the 1940s.

CIEL says that by combing through scientific articles, industry histories, and other documents, it traced the industry’s coordinated, decades-long deception back to a 1946 meeting in Los Angeles.

During that meeting, oil execs decided to form a group—“the Smoke and Fumes Committee.” Its purpose was to “fund scientific research into smog and other air pollution issues and, significantly, use that research to inform and shape public opinion about environmental issues,” CIEL says. Those fudged “scientific” results have been used to “promote public skepticism of environmental science and environmental regulations the industry considered hasty, costly, and potentially unnecessary”—despite the clear but suppressed evidence to the contrary.

Muffett’s view: the new documents “add to the growing body of evidence that the oil industry worked to actively undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action even as its own knowledge of climate risks was growing.” The industry group had no response to The Huffington Post‘s requests for comment.

Says Jeremy Funk, Communications Director of Americans United for Change:

“Big Oil [has] spent decades orchestrating a deception campaign that undermined our public health…. After similarly damning internal tobacco industry memos surfaced of a coordinated cover-up of their products’ dangers, states and consumers’ families were rewarded billions of dollars in damages, and tough new regulations were put in place by the court system and Congress.”

Continuing to hammer away at the petroleum industry, Funk also implicates the Republican Congress for putting campaign contributors ahead of the health of the public and the environment. He condemns the GOP for insisting that taxpayers continue shelling out billions a year in century-old oil subsidies, “in effect forcing Americans to help pay for the Big Oil propaganda being used against them.”

Muffett adds that any document viewed alone has a plausible element of deniability.

“But when you put all of the pieces to the story out there and see how they link, the zone of plausible deniability shrinks, and it shrinks substantially…. Once the companies learned this information, once they were aware of it, they [could not] unlearn it. This becomes the baseline.” 

CIEL plans to reveal additional documents in the near future. Muffett concludes:

“Oil companies had an early opportunity to acknowledge climate science and climate risks, and to enable consumers to make informed choices. They chose a different path. The public deserves to know why.”

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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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