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From climate to plastics, Big Oil faces a reckoning

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It’s the subject of congressional investigations, state and municipal lawsuits, a new television documentary, as well as an upcoming Hollywood docu-drama: a series of lies told by one industry, with consequences so far-reaching that they have triggered a profound and existential crisis facing every person on Earth. 

The script may sound familiar. Many corporations, from tobacco companies to opioid manufacturers, have lied about the danger of the products they sold and advertised. But in the span of human history, none hold a candle to the harm caused by the oil and gas industry, which appears, at long last, to be facing a reckoning for deceiving the public for decades about the “catastrophic” risk of their fossil fuel products (their own words).  

A new PBS Frontline special, “The Power of Big Oil,” and an upcoming film from Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky, “Black Gold,” focus on the role that ExxonMobil, a global leader in climate science in the 1970s and 80s, played in undermining the evidence of climate change and pushing denial as a means of defeating government intervention that could hurt its bottom line. “Black Gold” calls it “the coverup of the century.”

These new exposés, featuring tell-all former Exxon employees and industry lobbyists, are being released at the same time that House Democrats are leading a first-ever congressional investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s past and present campaign of climate disinformation. 

In a historic hearing last October, executives from Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP were forced to testify about their industry’s early knowledge of climate change and their subsequent efforts to undermine the science and block climate action. Each of the companies have deceptively sought to portray themselves as partners in climate solutions — and yet every executive dodged, under oath, a lawmaker’s request to pledge that they would stop lobbying against efforts to address the crisis.  

But that is just the half of it. Big Oil is also a central character in the plastic trash problem that is plaguing the planet, because —wait for it — they apparently lied about the recyclability of plastics as well. Last month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched a first-of-its-kind investigation into the role that the fossil fuel industry has played in global plastic pollution, which has gotten so severe that every human is now estimated to ingest about a credit card’s worth of plastic a week, and microplastics were for the first time found in human blood

Bonta said his office is targeting major oil and gas companies, who are also major plastic producers, for their “historic and ongoing efforts to deceive the public” by perpetuating the “myth” that most plastic can be recycled, when more than 90 percent is not

Bonta’s investigation is starting with ExxonMobil, whom the attorney general called “one of the leaders when it comes to deception.” 

If Bonta ultimately takes Exxon to court on the basis of deceiving the public, he won’t be the first. Exxon and other major fossil fuel polluters are currently facing lawsuits from seven other state attorneys general, and more than a dozen municipal governments, for carrying out another decades-long “campaign of deception,” over climate change, in the words of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison. 

Despite Big Oil’s relentless efforts to derail these lawsuits, they are gradually making their way toward trial, with major rulings bringing two of the cases — in Massachusetts and Hawaii — closer to presenting the evidence of Big Oil’s climate deception to juries in state court. 

Polls show that the public isn’t very happy with oil companies right now. Nearly 90 percent of voters want lawmakers to take action against the industry for raking in record profits while they charge working families higher and higher prices at the gas pump as inflation rises during a global pandemic. 

Once again, Big Oil’s lies are at the heart of the problem: we’re hooked on fossil fuels because these companies misled the public about the dangers of their product, running a multi-decade disinformation campaign designed to undermine any and all efforts to shift toward cheaper, cleaner, more reliable energy. If Exxon and other corporate polluters had not kept the world addicted to fossil fuels, the transition to renewables would be much further along, the world would be less dependent on Russian gas, and high gas prices would be far less disruptive to people’s lives. 

From climate change to recycling, lying has long been Big Oil’s business model. But in the face of new investigations, lawsuits, and public exposure, the industry’s days of escaping accountability for its deception are clearly numbered. 

Richard Wiles is president of the Center for Climate Integrity.

Tags Big Oil Climate change climate crisis Darren Aronofsky Fossil fuels Global warming oil and gas Rob Bonta

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