March 15, 2022 Wayne Northey

What Goes Around . . .: Big Oil and Gas Kept a Dirty Secret for Decades. Now They May Pay the Price.

Via an unprecedented wave of lawsuits, America’s petroleum giants face a reckoning for the devastation caused by fossil fuels.

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Chris McGreal

Wed 30 Jun 2021
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photo above: Loïc Manegarium
Communities are now demanding the oil conglomerates pay damages and take urgent action to reduce further harm from burning fossil fuels.

NOTE: The article highlighted below is the first of a series in The Guardian about the sheer unbridled Greed and outright Prevarication over decades of the oil and gas industry. See:

Climate crimes

How Big Oil and Gas kept a dirty secret for decades – and how they might finally be held accountable

WN: Whatever payouts from lawsuits, etc. will be made by the oil and gas industry, the colossal cost to humanity and the Planet utterly dwarfs them. My two brothers, not to mention other family members working in the oil patch in Alberta, have for decades joined a gaggle of millions of ____ duped naysayers–you fill in the blank!–about the realities overwhelmingly on the ground and all around. There seems to be something else at play, something primordial. For it is all of a piece: ACD denialism (Anthropogenic Climate Disruption); racism; anti-immigration; anti-Muslim; anti-feminism; anti-etc.

The “something else” is scapegoating–clicking on the word will take you to numerous posts on my website. The premier anthropologist of this universal phenomenon is René Girard, around whose thought a continuing annual conference (Colloquium on Violence and Religion–COV&R) takes place.1

We read of scapegoating:

In the Christian Bible, in the Gospel of John, the high priest Caiaphas explains to the people why Jesus should be executed. “It is expedient,” he says, “that one man should die for the people (John 11:50).” The same principle is advanced by Robespierre at the trial which condemns Louis XVI to death during the French Revolution. “Louis must die,” Robespierre says, “because the country must live.” The idea is found again in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where one of the characters makes a graphic prediction of the benefits of Caesar’s death. “From you,” he says to Caesar, “great Rome shall suck reviving blood.”

The concept, in all cases, is the same. The sacrifice of one saves all; a little bloodshed forestalls the threat of general violence. In all three cases, the sacrifice is presented in a favourable light. It is presented as something both necessary and beneficial, but contemporary people are not apt to take this view. We call this transfer of the community’s baggage onto one individual’s back “scapegoating,” by which we mean that we think the victim is actually innocent and the whole procedure arbitrary and unjust. According to René Girard, this connotation of cruelty and irrationality now surrounding the word “scapegoat” represents a remarkable historical achievement, because what the word originally referred to, he says, was a ritual undertaken in good conscience and in defense of their society by the ancient Hebrews. (Cayley, David. The Ideas of Rene Girard: An Anthropology of Religion and Violence (pp. 24-25). Kindle Edition; emphasis added.)

It is always violent. It is always wrong. It is ubiquitous–across all time and place. Wrong in being morally reprehensible. Wrong, because it never forestalls the threat of general violence. Ubiquitous, but transcendable.

When the tobacco industry was finally shown to be lying through its collective teeth (with CEOs and Executives who never stuck a cigarette in between them–all knowing better!) for decades, at least it was primarily smokers (notwithstanding secondary smoke) who paid the tragic health price.

The oil and gas industry, for over 100 years, like an Earth-encircling rolled cigarette, however forced the entire Planet’s atmosphere–like a worldwide Global Lung–to breathe in the “targantuan” toxic output. As if all humanity were gathered into a single enclosed room filled with the industry’s unrelenting direct and secondary smouldering “deathicity.”

In light of what that industry has known and denied for at least a half century, according to the article highlighted below, the sheer evil of that level of greed beggars description. Welcome to American militarized capitalism 2, whose ubiquitous tentacles throttle the Planet in a bid to squeeze out the very last dregs/drags of Profit; the final attainment of which will become coterminous with the Earth’s implosion.

That is: if the existential threat of nuclear conflagration in this moment of history won’t occasion the Globe’s explosion first . . .

So we pray: Lord, have mercy.

Please see as well: Biden Calls Out Oil and Gas Companies as Oil Prices Drop But Gas Remains High. We read:

Experts say that profit-seeking is at least part of the reason that gas prices are high. Wall Street investors are insisting that dividends and profits stay high amid several ongoing crises, and high gas prices can maintain payouts for them and executives. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry is pushing for subsidies like tax breaks as customers are fleeced at the gas station.

Last week, Democrats introduced legislation to tax barrels of oil produced or imported by large oil and gas companies in order to discourage profiteering. The revenue raised from the tax would be given back to consumers in the form of quarterly checks under the bill.

excerpts:

Via an unprecedented wave of lawsuits, America’s petroleum giants face a reckoning for the devastation caused by fossil fuels

After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, America’s petroleum giants face a reckoning for driving the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes.

An unprecedented wave of lawsuits, filed by cities and states across the US, aim to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels – and covering up what they knew along the way.

But, even more strikingly, the nearly two dozen lawsuits are underpinned by accusations that the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit to suppress warnings from their own scientists about the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and dupe the American public.

The environmentalist Bill McKibben once characterized the fossil fuel industry’s behavior as “the most consequential cover-up in US history”. And now for the first time in decades, the lawsuits chart a path toward public accountability that climate activists say has the potential to rival big tobacco’s downfall after it concealed the real dangers of smoking.

“We are at an inflection point,” said Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.

But, even more strikingly, the nearly two dozen lawsuits are underpinned by accusations that the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit . . .

“Things have to get worse for the oil companies,” he added. “Even if they’ve got a pretty good chance of winning the litigation in places, the discovery of pretty clearcut wrong doing – that they knew their product was bad and they were lying to the public – really weakens the industry’s ability to resist legislation and settlements.”

For decades, the country’s leading oil and gas companies have understood the science of climate change and the dangers posed by fossil fuels. Year after year, top executives heard it from their own scientists whose warnings were explicit and often dire.

In 1979, an Exxon study said that burning fossil fuels “will cause dramatic environmental effects” in the coming decades.

“The potential problem is great and urgent,” it concluded.

But instead of heeding the evidence of the research they were funding, major oil firms worked together to bury the findings and manufacture a counter narrative to undermine the growing scientific consensus around climate science. The fossil fuel industry’s campaign to create uncertainty paid off for decades by muddying public understanding of the growing dangers from global heating and stalling political action.

The urgency of the crisis is not in doubt. A draft United Nations report, leaked last week, warns that the consequences of the climate crisis, including rising seas, intense heat and ecosystem collapse, will fundamentally reshape life on Earth in the coming decades even if fossil fuel emissions are curbed.

To investigate the lengths of the oil and gas industry’s deceptions – and the disastrous consequences for communities across the country – the Guardian is launching a year-long series tracking the unprecedented efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry to account.

But instead of heeding the evidence of the research they were funding, major oil firms worked together to bury the findings and manufacture a counter narrative to undermine the growing scientific consensus around climate science.

The legal process is expected to take years. Cities in California filed the first lawsuits back in 2017, and they have been tied down by disputes over jurisdiction, with the oil companies fighting with limited success to get them moved from state to federal courts where they think the law is more favorable.

But climate activists see opportunities long before verdicts are rendered in the US. The legal process is expected to add to already damning revelations of the energy giants’ closely held secrets. If history is a guide, those developments could in turn alter public opinion in favor of regulations that the oil and gas companies spent years fighting off.

A string of other recent victories for climate activists already points to a shift in the industry’s power.

Municipalities such as Imperial Beach, California – the poorest city in San Diego county with a budget less than Exxon chief executive’s annual pay – faces rising waters on three sides without the necessary funding to build protective barriers. They claim oil companies created a “public nuisance” by fuelling the climate crisis. They seek to recover the cost of repairing the damage and constructing defences.

The public nuisance claim, also pursued by Honolulu, San Francisco and Rhode Island, follows a legal strategy with a record of success in other types of litigation. In 2019, Oklahoma’s attorney general won compensation of nearly half a billion dollars against the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson over its false marketing of powerful prescription painkillers on the grounds it created a public nuisance by contributing to the opioid epidemic in the state.

Other climate lawsuits, including one filed in Minnesota, allege the oil firms’ campaigns of deception and denial about the climate crisis amount to fraud. Minnesota is suing Exxon, Koch Industries and an industry trade group for breaches of state law for deceptive trade practices, false advertising and consumer fraud over what the lawsuit characterises as distortions and lies about climate science.

Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, claims in his lawsuit that for years Exxon orchestrated a campaign to bury the evidence of environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels “with disturbing success”.

“Defendants spent millions on advertising and public relations because they understood that an accurate understanding of climate change would affect their ability to continue to earn profits by conducting business as usual,” Ellison said in his lawsuit.

[Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment] said cases rooted in claims that the petroleum industry lied have the most promising chance of success.

“To the extent the plaintiffs can point to misconduct, like telling everybody there’s no such thing as climate change when your scientists have told you the opposite, that might give the courts a greater feeling of comfort that they’re not trying to take over the US energy system,” he said.

Fighting the facts

Almost all the lawsuits draw on the oil industry’s own records as the foundation for claims that it covered up the growing threat to life caused by its products.

Farber said cases rooted in claims that the petroleum industry lied have the most promising chance of success.

Shell, like other oil companies, had decades to prepare for those consequences after it was forewarned by its own research. In 1958, one of its executives, Charles Jones, presented a paper to the industry’s trade group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), warning about increased carbon emissions from car exhaust. Other research followed through the 1960s, leading a White House advisory committee to express concern at “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” by 2000.

API’s own reports flagged up “significant temperature changes” by the end of the twentieth century.

The largest oil company in the US, Exxon, was hearing the same from its researchers.

What followed was what Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the report America Misled, called a “systematic, organised campaign by Exxon and other oil companies to sow doubt about the science and prevent meaningful action”.

The report accused the energy companies of not only polluting the air but also “the information landscape” by replicating the cigarette makers’ playbook of cherry-picking data, using fake experts and promoting conspiracy theories to attack a growing scientific consensus.

Many of the lawsuits draw on a raft of Exxon documents held at the University of Texas, and uncovered by the Columbia Journalism School and the Los Angeles Times in 2015.

Among them is a 1988 Exxon memo laying out a strategy to push for a “balanced scientific approach”, which meant giving equal weight to hard evidence and climate change denialism. That move bore fruit in parts of the media into the 2000s as the oil industry repositioned global heating as theory, not fact, contributing to the most deep-rooted climate denialism in any developed country.

Exxon worked alongside Chevron, Shell, BP and smaller oil firms to shift attention away from the growing climate crisis. They funded the industry’s trade body, API, as it drew up a multimillion-dollar plan to ensure that “climate change becomes a non- issue” through disinformation. The plan said “victory will be achieved” when “recognition of uncertainties become part of the ‘conventional wisdom’”.

. . . a 1988 Exxon memo laying out a strategy to push for a “balanced scientific approach”, which meant giving equal weight to hard evidence and climate change denialism.

Drilling down

To Sharon Eubanks the conspiracy to deny science sounded very familiar. From 2000, she led the US justice department’s legal team against nine tobacco firms in one of the largest civil cases filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act, which was designed to combat organised crime.

In 2006, a federal judge found that the industry had spent decades committing a huge fraud on the American public by lying about the dangers of smoking and pushing cigarettes to young people.

Eubanks said that when she looked at the fossil fuel industry’s strategy, she immediately recognised big tobacco’s playbook.

Please click on: Big Oil and Gas Kept a Dirty Secret for Decades

Footnotes
  1. The very best introduction to his ideas is a broadcast series on CBC Ideas by David CayleyTHE SCAPEGOAT: RENÉ GIRARD’S ANTHROPOLOGY OF VIOLENCE AND RELIGION (MARCH 2001). You may obtain the entire transcript (click on the above); and listen to the podcasts of all five episodes (seen below).

    1. One
    2. Two
    3. Three
    4. Four
    5. Five

    Cayley also edited: The Ideas of René Girard: An Anthropology of Religion and Violence.[]

  2. See development of this term in: Trump Card: The Bully Who Exposes Our Bully Nation.[]

Wayne Northey

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.

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