Big Oil Knew—Big Oil Lied—And Planet Earth Got Fried

— by Jon Queally, staff writer at Common Dreams
New report exposes why fossil fuel companies didn’t need the warning from the public scientific community to start a decades-long campaign of denial. They already knew their business model was a threat.

Image: Union of Concerned Scientists

A new report, The Climate Deception Dossiers, chronicles how Exxon and other major fossil fuel companies did not take action to disclose or reduce climate risks in the ensuing years, but instead actively misled the public and policymakers about them.

They knew. They lied. And the planet and its people are now paying the ultimate price.

It’s no secret that the fossil fuel industry—the set of companies and corporate interests which profit most from the burning of coal, oil, and gas—have been the largest purveyors and funders of climate change denialism in the world.

Now, a new set of documents and a report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) answers the age-old question always asked when it comes to crimes of corruption, cover-up, and moral defiance: What did they know and when did they know it?

As it turns out, “The Climate Deception Dossiers” shows that leading oil giants such as ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell—just like tobacco companies who buried and denied the threat of cancer for smokers—knew about the dangers of global warming and the role of carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions long before the public received warning from the broader scientific community. And what’s worse, of course, is not only that they knew—but how they have spent the last nearly thirty years actively denying the damage they were causing to the planet and its inhabitants.

The new report, explains UCS president Ken Kimmell, “is a sobering exposé of how major fossil fuel companies have … neither been honest about, nor taken responsibility for, the harms they have caused by extracting and putting into commerce the fossil fuels that now place our climate in grave danger. Instead, either directly or indirectly, through trade and industry groups, they have sown doubt about the science of climate change and repeatedly fought efforts to cut the emissions of dangerous heat-trapping gases.”

And as this video shows:

The new report reviews internal documents from some of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies—including BP, Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil, Peabody Energy, Phillips, and Shell—spanning the course of 27 years. UCS obtained and reviewed memos that have either been leaked to the public, come to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The documents show that:

  • Companies have directly or indirectly spread climate disinformation for decades;
  • Corporate leaders knew the realities of climate science—that their products were harmful to people and the planet—but still actively deceived the public and denied this harm;
  • The campaign of deception continues, with some of the documents having surfaced as recently as in 2014 and 2015.

UCS has made the complete collection of 85 internal memos—totaling more than 330 pages—available online.

As part of its research, UCS discovered that as early as 1981—nearly seven years before NASA scientist James Hansen made his famous testimony before Congress about the dangers of human-caused global warming—internal discussions about the reality of the threat were already occurring inside the corporate offices of ExxonMobil and others.

In the case of Exxon, an email by one of the companies key scientists explains that, “Exxon first got interested in climate change in 1981 because it was seeking to develop the Natuna gas field off Indonesia.” The email explains that the company knew the field was rich in carbon dioxide and that it could become the “largest point source of CO2 in the world,” accounting for 1 percent of projected global CO2 emissions.

The email in question was written in response to an inquiry on business ethics from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics at Ohio University.

Speaking with the Guardian newspaper, director of the Institute Alyssa Bernstein said the email makes it clear “that Exxon knew years earlier than James Hansen’s testimony to Congress that climate change was a reality; that it accepted the reality, instead of denying the reality as they have done publicly, and to such an extent that it took it into account in their decision making, in making their economic calculation.”

Though stating she did not want to appear “melodramatic,” Bernstein told the Guardian that Exxon’s behavior amounts to a supremely larger moral offense than even the tobacco industry’s obfuscations on smoking “because what is at stake is the fate of the planet, humanity, and the future of civilization.”

Given the scale of their crime, UCS says the “time is ripe to hold these companies accountable for their actions and responsible for the harm they have caused.”

Offering recommendations for what the industry should be doing, the group said companies must:

  • Stop disseminating misinformation about climate change. It is unacceptable for fossil fuel companies to deny established climate science. It is also unacceptable for companies to publicly accept the science while funding climate contrarian scientists or front groups that distort or deny the science.
  • Support fair and cost-effective policies to reduce global warming emissions. It is time for the industry to identify and publicly support policies that will lead to the reduction of emissions at a scale needed to reduce the worst effects of global warming.
  • Reduce emissions from current operations and update their business models to prepare for future global limits on emissions. Companies should take immediate action to cut emissions from their current operations, update their business models to reflect the risks of unabated burning of fossil fuels, and map out the pathway they plan to take in the next 20 years to ensure we achieve a low-carbon energy future.
  • Pay for their share of the costs of climate damages and preparedness. Communities around the world are already facing and paying for damages from rising seas, extreme heat, more frequent droughts, and other climate-related impacts. Today and in the future, fossil fuel companies should pay a fair share of the costs.
  • Fully disclose the financial and physical risks of climate change to their business operations. As is required by law, fossil fuel companies are required to discuss risks—including climate change—that might materially affect their business in their annual SEC filings. Today, compliance with this requirement is not consistent.

“These companies aren’t just trying to block new polices, they’re trying to roll back clean energy and climate laws that are working and are widely supported by the public,” said Nancy Cole, a report author and UCS’s campaign director for climate and energy. “Climate change is already underway – and many communities are struggling to protect their residents and prepare for future changes. The deception simply must stop. It’s time for major carbon companies to become part of the solution.”


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It Was a Good Week in the Fight to Stop Tar Sands

Statoil postpones Alberta tar sands mine project;  pipeline expansion that would have gone through conservation area on hold

by Andrea Germanos, CommonDreams staff writer

A demonstration against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline expansion project. (Photo:  Niall Williams/flickr/cc)

Opponents of tar sands got some good news this week.

Oil and gas company Statoil announced Thursday that it was shelving its Corner tar sands project in Alberta.

The Norwegian firm’s decision to postpone the project “for a minimum of three years” is due to economic costs of labor and materials, according to a press statement from the company.

“Market access issues also play a role—including limited pipeline access which weighs on prices for Alberta oil, squeezing margins and making it difficult for sustainable financial returns,” part of the statement reads.

A similar announcement was made earlier this year by French energy firm Total, which said it was shelving its Joslyn tar sands mine in Alberta because of escalating costs. In addition, Shell announced in February that it was stopping work on its Pierre River mine in the Alberta tar sands.

Anthony Swift writes at NRDC’s Switchboard blog that these announcements show it is

…time to abandon the tattered argument that major pipelines like Keystone XL would not enable substantial tar sands expansion and associated carbon emissions. Industry doesn’t believe it – and neither should policy makers.

[…]

If we build Keystone XL, we’ll see many of the tar sands projects that are being cancelled and postponed become viable once again. At a time when decisive action on climate change is urgently needed, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline would make the problem of carbon pollution worse – enabling the production of some of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuels.

Also on Thursday, tar sands critics in the city of Burnaby, British Columbia scored at least a temporary victory in their fight to stop energy giant Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion—a project facing strong opposition.

Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) said that at this time it could not force the city to allow the company to conduct its surveys and studies for the work in the conservation area, which would violate the city’s bylaws.

CBC News reported that “Kinder Morgan wants to bore a hole under [Burnaby] mountain as part of a proposal to nearly triple the capacity of the existing pipeline, but the city has vowed to block the project however it can.”

In its statement, the NEB writes “that the motion filed by Trans Mountain raises a constitutional question as to whether City of Burnaby bylaws are inapplicable to the company as it exercises its powers under the National Energy Board Act and whether the city should be prevented from enforcing those bylaws.”

It is now up to the company to provide formal notice to the attorneys general of Canada and the provinces if it wants to continue, and the issue would then return to the NEB.

Environmental group ForestEthics has said that among the tar sands pipeline’s problems is that it could “increase tanker traffic in the region from about 80 a year to over 400 tankers a year.”

Mayor of Burnaby and pipeline foe Derek Corrigan said at a rally this month that “that is the scariest concept for us as a city and as a province that you can imagine. When you think about the potential catastrophe that could occur as a result of one of those tankers being damaged in our inlet—the destruction that that would cause to the reputation of this city…the people that surround that inlet…[and] to the wildlife—and never mind the tourism.”


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Dear Secretary John Kerry

As someone concerned with climate change, I want to thank you for your years of climate leadership as a Senator. As Secretary of State, you have the opportunity to have an even greater impact on combating climate change. One of the main ways you can do that now is by telling President Obama that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is not in our national interest and should be rejected.

Climate action starts at home, and one of the first and clearest actions you could take would be to recognize that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a climate issue. The evidence is clear that Keystone XL could increase production levels of tar sands oil in Alberta, and therefore significantly add to carbon emissions. Moreover, the massive investment would lock us into dependence on this dirty fuel for decades, exacerbating carbon pollution just when we have to move quickly and decisively in the other direction.

Beyond the effects on our climate, activities to remove those toxic materials have already had a serious impact on wildlife who call that area home.  Plus, the dangerous pipeline would put the water supply and the bread basket we use to feed millions of Americans at risk. After a year in which many communities across the USA were harmed by spills from existing pipelines, we cannot allow any more of the dirtiest, most toxic tar sands immersed in solvents that NO ONE knows how to clean up, to spill and permanently contaminate our farm lands, our aquifers and our waterways.

President Obama will have the final say on the Presidential Permit for Keystone XL, but your department, as the lead agency, will point the way. Although the State Department’s environmental impact statement underestimated the likelihood that Keystone XL pipeline would fuel climate change, you can set the record straight in your National Interest Determination.

At a minimum, you could say that Keystone XL is not in our national interest. But to be totally blunt, this pipeline would be an absolute disaster not only for our country, but also for our planet! Not only is there is no available “Planet B” within migrating distance, we have no viable means to get there even if there were a likely “Planet B.”

All we ask is that you get your facts right and support our fight against climate change in your decision on Keystone XL. We’re sure that once you have studied the issue carefully, you will see that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a significant climate issue, and must be stopped.


The final comment period is open for 30 days.  Send your own letter to Secretary Kerry asking him to “reject the Keystone XL pipeline.”

A Key Proposal for the Administration’s Second Term

It’s up to Obama to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

By Andrew Korfhage

Andrew Korfhage

After avoiding the topic of climate change throughout his second presidential bid, Barack Obama renewed his commitment to the climate in his first news conference following his re-election.

“I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions,” he said. “And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”

If Obama believes what he said, he’s got a clear choice in front of him at the very beginning of his second term. He needs to reject — once and for all — the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry viscous tar sands petroleum from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s up to Obama to stop the pipeline.

And it’s not a terribly difficult decision. Releasing the carbon from the Canadian tar sands into our atmosphere is a climate disaster waiting to happen. But even beyond the climate argument, it should be hard for the president to argue that it’s important to allow a foreign corporation — TransCanada — to bisect our country with the longest oil pipeline in the Western Hemisphere. This project puts Americans’ land and water at risk of damaging oil spills, while gaining very little for the American people in benefits like jobs and energy security.

The pipeline’s proponents tend to exaggerate its meager benefits.

image

For example, estimates of jobs this project would create range only from a high of about 20,000 (TransCanada’s estimate) to as low as 5,000 (the State Department). Even TransCanada acknowledges that its figure includes 13,000 temporary jobs, according to a formula that counts one person working for two years as two jobs. By comparison, the low-impact extension of the wind-energy Production Tax Credit passed as part of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations is projected to create and maintain far more clean-energy jobs — up to 54,000 of them.

The pipeline would advance U.S. energy security even less than job creation.

TransCanada can sell its oil — a global commodity — into the global market as it sees fit, which is why the pipeline terminates at a port in the Gulf of Mexico. This oil won’t necessarily stay in the United States. Even if it did, Canadian tar sands petroleum can’t “reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” It is foreign oil. Meanwhile, with both U.S. renewable energy production and oil drilling on the rise under Obama, we’ve already reduced our oil imports by around 1 million gallons a day (or 10 percent) between 2010 and 2011. We can continue lowering oil imports and increasing energy security without the risks of the Keystone pipeline.

In that first post-election press conference, as the East Coast began its recovery from Superstorm Sandy, Obama acknowledged “an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America,” as well as the acceleration of polar ice caps melting and global temperature rise. He took pride in the rise in fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks during his first term, and also acknowledged that “we haven’t done as much as we need to.”

This is Obama’s chance to do much, much more.

Tar sands oil is so much dirtier than conventional crude that Obama’s own EPA calculated that a full-capacity Keystone XL pipeline will add as much as 27 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere annually. That’s the equivalent of adding 6.2 million more cars to our roads. So much for those new fuel-economy standards.

The damages of the Keystone pipeline will far outweigh its benefits. Obama should reject the Keystone pipeline at the start of his second term.


Andrew Korfhage is Green America’s online and special projects editor. GreenAmerica.org.  Distributed via OtherWords (OtherWords.org)