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How Do Big Oil Companies Talk about Climate Science? Four Takeaways from a Day in Court


How Do Big Oil Companies Talk about Climate Science? Four Takeaways from a Day in Court

Kristy Dahl

In front of a standing room only courtroom audience, the case of The People of California vs. B.P. P.L.C. et al. took an important step forward yesterday. In this case, the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., are aiming to hold five major fossil fuel companies responsible for climate damages, particularly with respect to sea level rise.


Fossil fuel companies think they are too big for justice.
Let’s show them they’re wrong.


I’m a little confused how the state of California is going to play this off as entirely BP or Chevron’s fault for damages, when the state signs contracts with these companies to refine and transport materials throughout the state as well as the state has previously bough the product from these companies. Not just in the 1970s, but the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and still today.


The legal question is whether the participation of others dilutes the culpability of the source. For instance, could a cigarette company be held accountable (particularly if it knew of the medical risks early on) - even though the people harmed willingly purchased and smoked cigarettes? In that case, courts have found big tobacco liable.


The problem is that the damages of cigarettes are directly applicable, versus the adverse effects of climate change are indirectly caused by fossil fuels. These companies are being sued for damages caused by sea level rise and wildfires. The CO2 emitted did not directly cause these weather events. Instead the CO2 concentrated over a period of time increased energy stored in the atmosphere, which increased the probability in which more harmful conditions could occur in the future. That is dramatically different than selling a carcinogenic product to a consumer and then discovering they have cancer.

Furthermore this product is not the only cause nor the major cause of attributable damage. According the EPA (not under trump btw) electrical production is the #1 cause of GHG emissions in the atmosphere, of which 70% of nearly 30% is caused by coal production. BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell are not coal producing companies. The major emissions of the product are natural gas production and transportation. However these companies aren’t in the business of selling fossil fuel cars either. I don’t see how you can find a company liable to emitting GHGs from transportation, when they don’t sell cars, nor do they sell fuel directly to the consumer. The greatest source of actual emissions would come from natural gas, and petroleum coke power plants and refineries.

Environmentalists love to compare this situation to big tobacco, but in reality the scenarios are completely different. This is not a product that consumers buy for convenience and to take the edge off. Consumers buy this product for necessity, which is one of the largest reasons that 40 years after their wrong-doing consumers are buying MORE not less of the product.


In any case, the focus should be on reducing emissions as quickly as possible. By the time this case is settled we could be past 2C. More solar, more wind, more energy efficiency.


This is not solution. Petroleum accounts for less than 1% of electrical production in the USA, which is the sole purpose of solar and wind generation.


Yes we need to reduce emissions, but you also need to think a little harder than just suggesting solar, wind and energy efficiency. First of all solar and wind primarily produce electricity, and the largest product sold by oil and gas companies is petroleum, which is primarily not used for electricity. According to the EIA, petroleum coke accounted for .6% of net generation in 2017, yet petroleum is the #1 energy source in the USA- we use that energy for other industries. Other industries, where solar and wind do not produce these products.

Second of all solar and wind would need to replace natural gas, which is likely to only be feasible if you implement a carbon tax. Currently natural gas’s median price is cheaper than both solar and wind in the USA, and is dramatically cheaper when you factor in the cost of storage. This is why when I compare pricing of nuclear to natural gas I always keep it in the context of a tax implemented on natural gas. Additionally unlike coal, natural gas is increasing at a faster rate than even wind. Furthermore, it is likely that natural gas will continue to increase as states try to push out nuclear. California and New York have plans in 2020-2025 to remove over 30,000 GWh of nuclear, and despite their reports and green marketing, 5 new natural gas plants are conveniently popping up in and near the states with contracts to supply electricity.

Third of all, when you say energy efficiency it is critical that you explain this point. Energy efficiency is a very wide topic that includes everything from changing a lightbulb to building a platinum LEED building.


Naomi Oreskes and others have documented that Big Oil’s climate disinformation campaign was hatched by the very same key strategists who delivered Big Tobacco’s cancer disinformation campaign. That’s why this comparison is appropriate.


The issue is not with the incident but of liability related to the charge. These companies are being sued for damages related to sea level rise and wildfires, not that they lied to the general public (that is a different case). The problem is that it is very difficult to determine these companies liability for events in the future, when the correlation is not direct. It was easy for courts to find tobacco companies liable, because the product they sold contained known carcinogens. Sea level does not change directly because of CO2, after all the oceans are made of H2O not CO2 (primarily).

The reason for change in sea levels is due to the expansion of molecules and the addition of stored water from glacial ice. CO2 along with other types of molecules “store” heat energy in the atmosphere and transfer the energy to the surface which energizes molecules and causes them to expand from one another (the actual conditions of CO2 “absorbing” energy is rather complex, if you want to learn more look up Rotational–vibrational spectroscopy and equipartition theorem).

However, this information only tells part of the story for liability. Given that the pollution from these companies is only partially responsible, you have to determine all factors that are responsible for liability, so you can determine the percentage of risk asserted by the companies, and determine a value of how much the companies are responsible. This is where the discussion gets even more interesting, because in the instance of sea level rise the amount of damage caused is closely related to how cities develop infrastructure. Pollution can indirectly cause an increase in sea level rise, but the actual risk to citizens is largely due to their location to the ocean and the risk of flooding. This is the reason, why many cities have laws against development so close to the ocean, but if the city chose not to implement these regulations then in my opinion the city is more liable to damages than the companies that created pollution.


The state could argue that BP and Chevron knew all along the damage they were doing but kept it a secret from the public and thus from the state of California.


Just like any lawsuit you go after whomever you can.


CO2 along with other types of molecules “store” heat energy in the atmosphere and transfer the energy to the surface which energizes molecules and causes them to expand from one another (the actual conditions of CO2 “absorbing” energy is rather complex, if you want to learn more look up Rotational–vibrational spectroscopy and equipartition theorem).

I don’t think greenhouse gasses, of which CO2 is one, store energy. They absorb and re-radiate infrared electromagnetic energy at specific wavelengths dependent on their molecular composition. For example: although methane is a greenhouse gas it does not absorb infrared energy at the same wavelengths as carbon dioxide. In any event, it’s the re-radiation of infrared energy which would normally escape the atmosphere back to the planet that causes the earth to “heat up”. Anyway that’s the way I understand it so feel free to correct me if I have missed something.


I say sue them all and let the courts sort it out. The information released to the public during a trial may be more important in changing people’s minds than the value of any money recovered.


That’s why I said “store”. What really happens is a lot more complicated. Photons energize the molecular bonds in CO2, and as a result these bonds vibrate. The exact vibration can be calculated and factors into the way in which infrared radiation is transferred to other molecules in the atmosphere.


As discussed above the problem is with the claim of the suit. The plaintiffs are claiming that these companies are responsible for damages caused by sea level rise and wildfires. In the private studies conducted by some of these companies it was concluded that their pollution could increase the sea level height and increase the potential risk of storms. However this is not evidence that their pollution actually caused x event or that they should be held responsible for damages of sea level increase. As I discuss above the actual cause of damages to society is largely attributed to infrastructure policy as in the location of buildings near the ocean, the type of materials used, and the effect of infrastructure on soil, erosion, permeability, evaporation etc. Additionally these companies only contribute a percentage of emissions as opposed to the tobacco cases the product contained materials that were directly responsible for damages.


There certainly are many aspects in which our legal system doesn’t seem likely to cut the mustard, in the context of a dying Earth. How do you measure the value of hundreds of species driven extinct every day? How do the rights of generations yet to be born merit consideration? How do you parcel out blame, when virtually every beneficiary of imperial privilege (such as myself) deserves part of the blame?

Perhaps a suit like this can clarify that the legal issues are unprecedented because the prognosis for Life on Earth is unprecedented.


You go


You forgot Big Ag.