Fossil Fuel Barons Facing Liability Nightmare

October 23, 2019

Above, Attorney Lindene Patton discusses increasing vulnerability of major carbon polluters to liability lawsuits.

“The improvements in attribution science,.. have now created a level of certainty that is important in a court of law.”

The Agenda:

By 2013, roughly a decade after Heede began his search, he had his answer: Just 90 companies had contributed nearly two-thirds of the world’s industrial emissions. He could even pinpoint the share of those emissions for which companies existing today are responsible.

In effect, Heede had established a pillar of a new field of research, now known as attribution science. But it wasn’t just an academic exercise: It’s a weapon that climate campaigners are starting to wield to put fossil fuel companies on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. It’s a kind of end run around a political system they see as forced into gridlock by fossil fuel industry influence.

Heede and his collaborators are part of a paradigm shift in how to assign blame for climate change. For decades, as signs have grown that the planet is warming, the public and defenders of industry have laid the blame on end users, the ordinary people who drove their cars too much or blasted air conditioning in their homes. Those add up. But attribution science has the effect of moving the blame back one step, away from consumers and onto the companies that extracted the oil, coal and gas that have powered our planet for decades.

If blame can be attributed to corporations or governments, they believe, it can have two powerful effects: create a strong incentive for those companies to once and for all move away from fossil fuels, and unleash — through lawsuits — financial resources that could be used to seed new technologies and better prepare communities for the calamities climate change is expected to bring.

Attribution science is now about to receive a very real test in the courts, as cities, states and ordinary citizens across the world are using it to try to send fossil fuel companies the bill for climate change damage.

New York Times:

The New York attorney general’s office will take its case against Exxon Mobil to trial on Tuesday, arguing that one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies misled its shareholders and the public by misrepresenting the risks that climate change poses to the value of its oil and gas assets.

The lawsuit is one of several the company is facing that if successful, would force Exxon Mobil, which took in some $290 billion in revenue last year, to account for the true costs of its nature-crushing fossil fuel business, making it less competitive with wind, solar and other renewable energy sources and thus accelerating the transition to a clean-energy economy.

This is Economics 101. It’s cheap to pollute if you don’t include the costs of the damage on your books. And for the world’s oil companies, those current and future damages are nearly incalculable if you consider how climate change is leading to the collapse of the planet’s diversity, and the financial losses and human suffering that will result from rising seas and temperatures. One recent study estimates that the world’s top 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 35 percent of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions since 1965. Exxon Mobil was the fourth-largest contributor on the list.

What makes this especially mind-numbing is that Exxon knew for decades that its business was altering the climate but repeatedly deceived the public, just as the tobacco companies knew their cigarettes caused cancer but denied it. The attorney general’s office, now under the command of Letitia James (her predecessor,Barbara Underwood, brought the suit) argues that to mislead the investing public, Exxon “erected a Potemkin village to create the illusion that it had fully considered the risks of future climate change regulation.” But “in reality, Exxon knew that its representations were not supported by the facts and were contrary to its internal business practices.”



6 Responses to “Fossil Fuel Barons Facing Liability Nightmare”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    “But attribution science has the effect of moving the blame back one step, away from consumers and onto the companies that extracted the oil, coal and gas that have powered our planet for decades.”

    Good luck.

    The companies that provide fossil fuels sold an essential and completely legal product. A product which was stable and had essentially zero GHG emissions when sold.

    These companies did not burn those fossil fuels. They did not own the machines that burned those fossil fuels. Private citizens, utilities, and government entities owned those machines. Private citizens, utilities, and government entities turned the keys every single day which made those machines burn those fossil fuels. Private citizens, utilities, and government entities made the laws which regulated those machines. And those machines performed their jobs in the interest of the public good.

    And these private citizens, utilities, and government entities, in every part of the world, were part of countries who had governments. And every one of these governments had the responsibility and the means and had governmental agencies responsible for the protection of the environment.

    Which is why in the United States we have had an agency with the curious name of the “Environmental Protection Agency”. Whose only job is to monitor, regulate, and limit pollution. And they, to this very day, have given their blessing to the sale of fossil fuels.

    Attribution science is trying to shift the blame for AGW onto the corporations who sell fossil fuels. But we all know who really failed us: our government and ourselves. Every single one of us has known for at least three decades that when we turn that key in the ignition of our cars, or leave unnecessary lights on, or use our furnaces that every one of those actions has a consequence.

    The selling of fossil fuels is not the crime of the fossil fuel companies. These actions of the “attribution science” brigade, even if successful in the legal arena, are deeply misguided.

    • Keith Omelvena Says:

      They are guilty of deception though Ginger. Without that deception, we would have transitioned away from their biosphere wrecking products decades ago. They are guilty as sin!

  2. Earl Mardle Says:

    Good luck, the ongoing coup in the US will lead to a state that dismisses all litigation against corporations by those affected by their predations. People forget that the foundation of fascism is corporatism, and this time the corporations are in the driving seat.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The real battle is being fought within the Democratic Party, where the grass-roots funded progressives are going up against the establishment corporatists. My only problem with Warren and Bernie are their ages, but at least they have vibrant minds and apparently healthy brains.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    The externalized costs for petroleum products include are GHGs, wars, and spills. For decades people made a lot of money selling a product which would not nearly have the private profit margin had those costs been built into the product, including raising the price at the pump, and forcing more efficient use.

    I can’t figure out if this falls under musical chairs, where only the last investors get sued when the music stops, or greater fool theory, where people make money off of continuously inflated value until the last buyer is left taking the loss.

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