Apparently It’s Sue Big Oil Week

Illustration for article titled Apparently It’s Sue Big Oil Week
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It’s lawsuit week for Big Oil. A day after Minnesota filed a groundbreaking suit, Washington, DC District Attorney General Karl Racine sued ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell, alleging that the companies “systematically and intentionally misled consumers ... about the central role their products play in causing climate change.”


Racine’s consumer protection lawsuit accuses the three defendants of knowing that their products’ carbon emissions have harmful climate consequences as early as the 1950s, and promoting false information to hide that knowledge from the public.

“The companies financed and employed industry associations and front groups to distort and conceal the dangers their fossil fuel products represented,” Racine said in a statement emailed to Earther.

Racine’s lawsuit charges the companies with violating Washington, DC’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act by allegedly carrying out a communications campaign to cast doubt on climate science, exaggerate their commitments to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and hide the impact their products have on the environment.

“If successful, this lawsuit would end the companies’ ability to deceive and lie to the people of Washington, D.C. It could also subject them to large financial penalties for their deception,” Richard Wiles, executive director of legal advocacy group Center for Climate Integrity, told Earther.

Internal company documents indicate that oil majors have done as much. If the court rules in Racine’s favor, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Shell could be forced to turn over more documentation that could provide evidence this deception campaign took place. That deception, Racine said, continues to this day.


“In advertisements across newspapers, online, and in the District’s metro system, Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, and Shell all exaggerate their commitment to green, renewable energy sources,” he said. “These ads obscure the fact that none of these companies invests more than 2.3% of capital expenditures in renewables—and that BP, Exxon Mobil, and Shell are planning to expand fossil fuel production by 20% to 35% through 2030. And now that the companies are seeking to sell more natural gas, they market it as ‘safe,’ ‘clean,’ and ‘emissions reducing.’”

In addition to the two lawsuits against Big Oil filed by Racine and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, there are currently 14 other ongoing lawsuits across the U.S. aiming to hold fossil fuel companies and their allies in government liable for climate damages.


Both the Washington, DC, suit and the one filed by Minnesota and Massachusetts on Wednesday come amid historic protests demanding justice for Black people, who are also disproportionately hurt by the fossil fuel industry’s pollution. A 2017 study found that more than 1 million Black Americans live within half a mile of an oil and gas operation, and more than 6.7 million live in a county that is home to a refinery.

“The fossil fuel industry has knowingly fueled the climate crisis without regard for the impact its business has on the environment and people, especially Black, Brown and Indigenous people around the globe,” Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability, said in a statement emailed to Earther. “This lawsuit is one more step toward justice.”


Updated: 6/25/2020, 4:26 p.m. ET: This post has been updated to include comments from Wiles.

Earther staff writer. Blogs about energy, animals, why we shouldn't trust the private sector to solve the climate crisis, etc. Has an essay in the 2021 book The World We Need.


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Advocacy by flooding the courts may work or it may not. God only knows. We’ll have to wait and see.

Let’s breakdown the life cycle GHG emissions for various crude oil from extraction through combustion by the consumer. A report Titled, “Canadian Oil Sands: Life-Cycle Assessments of Greenhouse Gas Emissionswas prepared to compare Canadian Tar Sands to other crude oil sources around the globe back in the teens (2014).

Citing the EPA 2005 average (top line in the graph below), production emissions (extraction, transport, refining, finished fuel transport by various entities) are about 20 percent of total life cycle or wells-to-wheels GHG emissions. Combustion emissions (what goes out the end users’ vehicle tailpipe, etc) are about 80 percent of total. That seems to vary by crude oil type. 

Gasoline combustion emissions apparently are all the same below (yellowish bars). What seems to vary is emissions from intrinsic properties of crude oil type and production methods (various shades of blue bars).