February 22, 2018 Climate

Fossil Fuel Industry Cries Wolf Against Environmentalism

By Eliza Racine

As the sun begins to set on oil and gas extraction, fossil fuel companies across the globe intensify their strategies to try and attack, slander, and discredit the people and organizations working toward a just transition to renewable energy.

Such actions are clearly the death throes of a rapidly expiring industry.

Back in Dec. 2017, the city and county of Santa Cruz filed lawsuits against 29 fossil fuel companies for their disproportionately large role in creating and worsening the current climate change disaster. The plaintiffs seek to hold these companies financially liable for the environmental damages their activities have inflicted and will continue to inflict on Santa Cruz — along with other coastal communities in the state — in the coming decades.

According to a report released in June, 2017 by the Central Coast Wetlands Group — a research group dedicated to studying, preserving and restoring California wetlands — continued reliance on fossil fuels will lead to climate catastrophe across our coastline. This includes, but is not limited to, a 4-inch sea level rise by 2030, a 98 percent likelihood of a three foot flood by 2050, and 12 miles of the coastline — including the low-lying areas of the Boardwalk, Capitola and Rio Del Mar — underwater by 2100.

Overall, 850 buildings and $742 million in assets are at jeopardy across the county.

Santa Cruz joins several other California cities and counties, such as San Francisco, San Mateo, Oakland, Marin, and Imperial Beach, in suing fossil fuel companies for similar damages.

On Jan. 8th, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil filed a counter action against these California cities. In a 60-page motion filed in a Texas court, the oil company stated the allegations made against them “are not honestly held and were not made in good faith.” Exxon lawyers also named multiple city and county officials in California to depose before the lawsuit under accusations of “civil conspiracy” and violating the company’s First Amendment rights.

Sadly, this recent legal maneuver is not the only case of the fossil fuel industry and supporters trying to worm their way out of accountability by suggesting the opposition is lying or engaged in racketeering. ExxonMobil cannot claim their constitutional rights were violated when they knew for decades of the environmental risks of their fossil fuel projects, and their deceit is ready to bite them back as more cities prepare lawsuits similar to Santa Cruz’s.

Last month, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will divest $5 billion from fossil fuels within the next five years. This declaration was joined by the announcement of a lawsuit against the five oil companies — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell — de Blasio believes make the largest contribution to global climate change. The divested funds will be added to the annual $20 billion the city already spends to protect New Yorkers from the effects of rising sea levels, increased temperatures and powerful storms.

This action — a great step forward in the fight of divestment to defund the fossil fuel industry and hold them accountable for their actions against the planet — even inspired Los Angeles officials to begin motions to for their own lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry.

“We’re bringing the fight against climate change straight to the fossil fuel companies that knew about its effects and intentionally misled the public to protect their profits,” said de Blasio in his announcement,

"As climate change continues to worsen, it’s up to the fossil fuel companies whose greed put us in this position to shoulder the cost of making New York safer and more resilient."

– New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

The lawsuit against the fossil fuel industry cites a peer-reviewed Harvard study by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes that explicates some of the instances in which the fossil fuel industry was fully aware of risks posed by climate change as well as their role in exacerbating it. The study examined ExxonMobil’s communications and documents from 1977 to 2014, which not only acknowledged climate change as real and human-caused, but conspired to mislead the public about the facts. Supran and Oreskes’ research inspired the campaign #ExxonKnew to spread the company’s history of deception.

Exxon denied the study’s findings as lies fabricated by activists, and criticized the lawsuit as an unneeded attack against the industry with a call for “well-meaning and good faith attempts to address the risks of climate change.” Shell has also called for “sound government policy and cultural change” instead of lawsuits to address climate change. Chevron dismissed the lawsuit as lacking facts and refuses to further discuss climate change, while Conoco and BP remain silent.

The industry’s supporters, like the National Association for Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute, also criticized New York City’s actions as an attack on American jobs, pensions, and the economy. They referred to it as a cheap political move by misguided activists despite all the stacking evidence against the fossil fuel industry which prove its guilt and the potential damage it can still cause. Never mind that the risks of extreme weather events like floods, storms, and fires should take higher priority than a few dirty jobs and profits for wealthy CEOs and investors — especially when cleaner, more equitable energy sources already exist and are economically competitive.

The fossil fuel industry, with its decades-long history of constant environmental degradation, public disinformation, and political machinations, threw away its chance for respectful dialogue. It cannot expect peace when it consistently denied the facts about climate change to protect market share. This is not a senseless attack against honest companies. This is the people putting their foot down and demanding accountability for the — entirely avoidable — climate disaster unfolding around us.