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Climate Change

Published on April 6th, 2018 | by Steve Hanley

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ExxonMobil & Shell: What Did They Know, & When Did They Know It?

April 6th, 2018 by  


It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up, is a common theme in law enforcement. New revelations in the past few days are beginning to show the full extent of what the major oil companies new about carbon emissions and climate change, when they knew it, and what they did to keep that knowledge from going public. If they were mere human beings like you and me, they would be facing criminal charges before a judge and jury but because they are corporations, they are immune from most if not all such legal jeopardy. The Supreme Court says corporations are just people, but as one cynic has said, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.”

Mobil Video Surfaces

On April 2, ThinkProgress reported that it had obtained exclusive access to a video taken in 1998 in which Lucio Noto, who was the head of Mobil at the time, told a group of employees that the company was responsible for 5% of the harm caused by greenhouse gas emissions but the people who used Mobil products were responsible for the other 95%. This is equivalent to a heroin dealer telling a judge he is only responsible for a small portion of the death and misery his products causes. The stupid idiots who use it are at fault for the other 95%. The relevant portion of Noto’s remarks are found in the video below. The entire 7-minute video of his speech was posted by ThinkProgress on YouTube on April 2.

Noto’s speech occurred just after the Kyoto climate conference. He told his audience, “Mobil is negative on Kyoto. It is a bad deal, bad negotiation, stupid.” Gee, does that sound like someone else we know? One year later, Mobil merged with Exxon. From a legal point of view, Exxon is presumed to know everything Mobil knew before the merger took place. That is part of the “due diligence” we always hear about in the world of high finance. In a bit of delicious irony, Noto is now a member of the board of directors of Philip Morris International, one of the companies that helped craft the “deny, delay, deflect” legal strategy that allowed tobacco companies to continue killing people with their products for decades after the link between smoking and cancer was established.

Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law, tells ThinkProgress Noto’s words represent an “implicit, and potentially explicit acknowledgement, that the biggest impact of an oil company on the climate comes from the use of its product. [W]hat he is saying is the acknowledgement that there are significant downstream climate impacts from the production of fossil fuels itself.”

“This is not Mobil Oil saying we’re responsible for 5 percent of all pollution,” he adds. “What he’s saying is, of the hundred percent of global warming that our oil has contributed to, we’re only taking responsibility for 5 percent of that. And yet, he’s explicitly acknowledging that the other 95 percent is out there, and it’s a consequence of Mobil’s product.”

Words Have Consequences

ExxonMobil is one of several defendants in legal actions pending in various US courts. It has always taken the most hardline approach when defending itself against claims it has done anything wrong. Just recently, a federal judge dismissed a case brought by the company in which it alleged Eric Schneiderman, attorney general of New York, and Maura Healey, attorney general of Massachusetts, were engaged in a conspiracy to tar it with false accusations in order to win re-election.

The company is one of five being sued by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland for the damage that rising seas will cause them and their citizens. How might Noto’s words affect that litigation? Pat Parenteau, a climate litigation expert and professor at Vermont Law School, says Noto’s comments are a significant admission. They could “play big” in a trial. “If you can get these facts in front of a jury in a state court of California, watch out.” Careful readers will note that the San Francisco/Oakland suit was originally filed in a California court but was transferred to federal court at the request of the defendants.

The climate advocacy group DeSmogBlog claims ExxonMobil spent $33 million between the time of the merger until 2016 to promote climate denial groups such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Society, along with dozens of others. Those of you who followed our story about white evangelicals and climate change will notice those groups have deliberately targeted white evangelicals to help them deflect responsibility for their actions. It’s like a real life version of The Usual Suspects. The same propaganda organizations keep appearing over and over again. There is a lot of money to be made in the deliberate falsehood industry, apparently.

Shell Also Caught With Its Pants Down

Things just keep getting worse for the fossil fuel giants. As Joshua Hill wrote yesterday, the Netherlands-based company has had a few skeletons in its closet revealed lately, namely a treasure trove of internal company documents that show it knew full well the consequences of its business on the environment while funding the public cover-up orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry. As early as 1989, it was taking steps to protect its offshore drilling rigs from rising ocean levels while publicly saying the equivalent of “Nothing to see here. Move along.”

The Center For International Environmental Law has published a new report entitled A Crack In The Shell: New Documents Expose A Hidden Climate History. 

It includes these prophetic words:

“Information breeds new information. Whether in investigation or litigation, one document leads to another, yielding names, dates, and connections that create an ever-expanding (and ever more accurate) road map to where additional documents might be found. For this reason, this latest set of documents is significant, filling in missing pieces of a story that spans decades, continents, and an array of disciplines. Just as the disclosure of Exxon documents has informed and fueled new investigations into that company’s conduct, the availability for the first time of a significant number of Shell documents heralds a potential step change in the speed and scale of future revelations.”

The discovery of the long-buried video of Lucio Noto’s remarks in 1998 is proof of the “information breeds new information” concept. The web of deceit and lies is unraveling and the pace at which new information is being revealed is increasing. All that new information will become relevant in the climate litigation cases currently going forward in the US and around the world, including the case brought by 21 young plaintiffs assisted by Our Children’s Trust.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Let’s assume all this new information succeeds in destroying the greedy bastards who have poisoned the Earth’s atmosphere to make a buck. What then? Putting all the executives in jail won’t lower average global temperatures. Stripping the companies of all their assets and forcing them into bankruptcy won’t lower average global temperatures. But it would bring the world of commerce to a screeching halt, throwing hundreds of millions of people out of work, and perhaps leading to wars as people being mass migrations in search of food, water, and shelter.

It’s the old conundrum about the dog chasing a car. What does he do with it after he catches it? The way to maximize the amount of money oil companies have available to clean up their mess is to continue extracting fossil fuels to generate more money that goes into a public trust, but that’s rather self-defeating, isn’t it?

The truth is, no one knows what will happen if the good guys — the forces of light and all things good — actually succeed in their assault on the fossil fuel industry. There isn’t enough renewable energy available yet to replace what would be lost if the world suddenly stopped using fossil fuels. As much as we may enjoy watching the wicked fossil fuel companies get what they so richly deserve, then what?

What if Russia decides to plunge ahead with its plan to plunder the Arctic for its natural resources? Should some nations be able to tell other nations what to do? What if the fate of the world depends on unified action by all nations? It’s not like there is a long history of success for that model. The only factor that has proven to consistently motivate people is greed. If someone could come up with a way to make greed work for rather than against our common interests, humanity might have a chance of survival, albeit a slim one.


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About the Author

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may take him. His muse is Charles Kuralt -- "I see the road ahead is turning. I wonder what's around the bend?" You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.



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