Category Archives: energy

Big Oil and Gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price

(Guardian Design)
(Guardian Design)

After a century of wielding extraordinary economic and political power, America’s petroleum giants face a reckoning for driving the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes.

An unprecedented wave of lawsuits, filed by cities and states across the US, aim to hold the oil and gas industry to account for the environmental devastation caused by fossil fuels — and covering up what they knew along the way.

Coastal cities struggling to keep rising sea levels at bay, midwestern states watching “mega-rains” destroy crops and homes, and fishing communities losing catches to warming waters, are now demanding the oil conglomerates pay damages and take urgent action to reduce further harm from burning fossil fuels.

But, even more strikingly, the nearly two dozen lawsuits are underpinned by accusations that the industry severely aggravated the environmental crisis with a decades-long campaign of lies and deceit to suppress warnings from their own scientists about the impact of fossil fuels on the climate and dupe the American public.

The environmentalist Bill McKibben once characterized the fossil fuel industry’s behavior as “the most consequential cover-up in US history.” And now for the first time in decades, the lawsuits chart a path toward public accountability that climate activists say has the potential to rival big tobacco’s downfall after it concealed the real dangers of smoking.

“We are at an inflection point,” said Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.

“Things have to get worse for the oil companies,” he added. “Even if they’ve got a pretty good chance of winning the litigation in places, the discovery of pretty clear-cut wrong doing — that they knew their product was bad and they were lying to the public — really weakens the industry’s ability to resist legislation and settlements.”

For decades, the country’s leading oil and gas companies have understood the science of climate change and the dangers posed by fossil fuels. Year after year, top executives heard it from their own scientists whose warnings were explicit and often dire.

In 1979, an Exxon study said that burning fossil fuels “will cause dramatic environmental effects” in the coming decades.

“The potential problem is great and urgent,” it concluded.

But instead of heeding the evidence of the research they were funding, major oil firms worked together to bury the findings and manufacture a counter narrative to undermine the growing scientific consensus around climate science. The fossil fuel industry’s campaign to create uncertainty paid off for decades by muddying public understanding of the growing dangers from global heating and stalling political action.

The urgency of the crisis is not in doubt. A draft United Nations report, leaked last week, warns that the consequences of the climate crisis, including rising seas, intense heat and ecosystem collapse, will fundamentally reshape life on earth in the coming decades even if fossil fuel emissions are curbed.

To investigate the lengths of the oil and gas industry’s deceptions — and the disastrous consequences for communities across the country — the Guardian is launching a year-long series tracking the unprecedented efforts to hold the fossil fuel industry to account.

The legal process is expected to take years. Cities in California filed the first lawsuits back in 2017, and they have been tied down by disputes over jurisdiction, with the oil companies fighting with limited success to get them moved from state to federal courts where they think the law is more favorable.

But climate activists see opportunities long before verdicts are rendered in the U.S. The legal process is expected to add to already damning revelations of the energy giants’ closely-held secrets. If history is a guide, those developments could in turn alter public opinion in favor of regulations that the oil and gas companies spent years fighting off.

A string of other recent victories for climate activists already points to a shift in the industry’s power. 

Last month, a Dutch court ordered Shell to cut its global carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the decade. The same day, in Houston, an activist hedge fund forced three new directors onto the board of the U.S.’s largest oil firm, ExxonMobil, to address climate issues. Investors at Chevron also voted to cut emissions from the petroleum products it sells.

Earlier this month, developers of the Keystone XL pipeline cancelled the project after more than a decade of unrelenting opposition over environmental concerns. And although a federal court last year threw out a lawsuit brought by 21 young Americans who say the US government violated their constitutional rights by exacerbating climate change, the Biden administration recently agreed to settlement talks in a symbolic gesture aimed to appease younger voters.

For all that, American lawyers say the legal reasoning behind foreign court judgements are unlikely to carry much sway in the U.S. and domestic law is largely untested. In 2018, a federal court knocked back New York City’s initial attempt to force Big Oil to cover the costs of the climate crisis by saying that its global nature requires a political, not legal, remedy.

Other regional lawsuits are inching their way through the courts. From Charleston, South Carolina, to Boulder, Colorado, and Maui, Hawaii, communities are seeking to force the industry to use its huge profits to pay for the damage and to oblige energy companies to treat the climate crisis for what it is — a global emergency.

Municipalities such as Imperial Beach, California — the poorest city in San Diego county with a budget less than Exxon chief executive’s annual pay — faces rising waters on three sides without the necessary funding to build protective barriers. They claim oil companies created a “public nuisance” by fuelling the climate crisis. They seek to recover the cost of repairing the damage and constructing defences.

The public nuisance claim, also pursued by Honolulu, San Francisco, and Rhode Island, follows a legal strategy with a record of success in other types of litigation. In 2019, Oklahoma’s attorney general won compensation of nearly half a billion dollars against the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson over its false marketing of powerful prescription painkillers on the grounds it created a public nuisance by contributing to the opioid epidemic in the state.

Other climate lawsuits, including one filed in Minnesota, allege the oil firms’ campaigns of deception and denial about the climate crisis amount to fraud. Minnesota is suing Exxon, Koch Industries, and an industry trade group for breaches of state law for deceptive trade practices, false advertising, and consumer fraud over what the lawsuit characterises as distortions and lies about climate science.

The midwestern state, which has seen temperatures rise faster than the U.S. and global averages, said scorching temperatures and “mega-rains” have devastated farming and flooded people out of their homes, with low income and minority families most at risk.

Minnesota’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, claims in his lawsuit that for years Exxon orchestrated a campaign to bury the evidence of environmental damage caused by burning fossil fuels “with disturbing success.”

“Defendants spent millions on advertising and public relations because they understood that an accurate understanding of climate change would affect their ability to continue to earn profits by conducting business as usual,” Ellison said in his lawsuit.

Farber said cases rooted in claims that the petroleum industry lied have the most promising chance of success.

“To the extent the plaintiffs can point to misconduct, like telling everybody there’s no such thing as climate change when your scientists have told you the opposite, that might give the courts a greater feeling of comfort that they’re not trying to take over the U.S. energy system,” he said.

Fighting the facts 

Almost all the lawsuits draw on the oil industry’s own records as the foundation for claims that it covered up the growing threat to life caused by its products.

Shell, like other oil companies, had decades to prepare for those consequences after it was forewarned by its own research. In 1958, one of its executives, Charles Jones, presented a paper to the industry’s trade group, the American Petroleum Institute (API), warning about increased carbon emissions from car exhaust. Other research followed through the 1960s, leading a White House advisory committee to express concern at “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” by the year 2000.

API’s own reports flagged up “significant temperature changes” by the end of the twentieth century.

The largest oil company in the U.S., Exxon, was hearing the same from its researchers.

Year after year, Exxon scientists recorded the evidence about the dangers of burning fossil fuels. In 1978, its science advisor, James Black, warned that there was a “window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategy might become critical.” 

Exxon set up equipment on a supertanker, the Esso Atlantic, to monitor carbon dioxide in seawater and the air. In 1982, the company’s scientists drew up a graph accurately plotting an increase in the globe’s temperature to date.

“The 1980s revealed an established consensus among scientists,” the Minnesota lawsuit against Exxon says. “A 1982 internal Exxon document … explicitly declares that the science was ‘unanimous’ and that climate change would ‘bring about significant changes in the earth’s climate.’ “

Then the monitoring on the Esso Atlantic was suddenly called off and other research downgraded.

What followed was what Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the report America Misled, called a “systematic, organised campaign by Exxon and other oil companies to sow doubt about the science and prevent meaningful action.”

The report accused the energy companies of not only polluting the air but also “the information landscape” by replicating the cigarette makers’ playbook of cherry picking data, using fake experts, and promoting conspiracy theories to attack a growing scientific consensus.

Many of the lawsuits draw on a raft of Exxon documents held at the University of Texas, and uncovered by Columbia University and the Los Angeles Times in 2015.

Among them is a 1988 Exxon memo laying out a strategy to push for a “balanced scientific approach,” which meant giving equal weight to hard evidence and climate change denialism. That move bore fruit in parts of the media into the 2000s as the oil industry repositioned global heating as theory, not fact, contributing to the most deep-rooted climate denialism in any developed country.

The company placed advertisements in major American newspapers to sow doubt. One in The New York Times in 2000, under the headline “Unsettled Science,” compared climate data to changing weather forecasts. It claimed scientists were divided, when an overwhelming consensus already backed the evidence of a growing climate crisis, and said that the supposed doubts meant it was too soon to act.

Exxon’s chairman and chief executive, Lee Raymond, told industry executives in 1996 that “scientific evidence remains inconclusive as to whether human activities affect global climate.”

“It’s a long and dangerous leap to conclude that we should, therefore, cut fossil fuel use,” he said.

Documents show that his company’s scientists were telling Exxon’s management that the real danger lay in the failure to do exactly that.

In 2019, Martin Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University, told a congressional hearing that as a consultant to Exxon on climate modelling in the 1980s, he worked on eight scientific papers for the company that showed fossil fuel burning was “increasingly having a perceptible influence on earth’s climate.” 

Hoffert said he “hoped that the work would help to persuade Exxon to invest in developing energy solutions the world needed.” That was not the result.

“Exxon was publicly promoting views that its own scientists knew were wrong, and we knew that because we were the major group working on this. This was immoral and has greatly set back efforts to address climate change,” said Hoffert.

“They deliberately created doubt when internal research confirmed how serious a threat it was. As a result, in my opinion, homes and livelihoods will likely be destroyed and lives lost.” 

Exxon worked alongside Chevron, Shell, BP and smaller oil firms to shift attention away from the growing climate crisis. They funded the industry’s trade body, API, as it drew up a multimillion dollar plan to ensure that “climate change becomes a non- issue” through disinformation. The plan said “victory will be achieved” when “recognition of uncertainties become part of the ‘conventional wisdom.’ “

The fossil fuel industry also used its considerable resources to pour billions of dollars into political lobbying to block unfavourable laws and to fund front organisations with neutral and scientific sounding names, such as the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). In 2001, the U.S. state department told the GCC that President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “in part, based on input from you.”

Exxon alone has funded more than 40 groups to deny climate science, including the George C. Marshall Institute, which one lawsuit claims orchestrated a “sham petition” denying man-made global climate change. It was later denounced by the National Academy of Science as “a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists.”

Drilling down

To Sharon Eubanks the conspiracy to deny science sounded very familiar. From 2000, she led the U.S. justice department’s legal team against nine tobacco firms in one of the largest civil cases filed under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (Rico) Act, which was designed to combat organised crime.

In 2006, a federal judge found that the industry had spent decades committing a huge fraud on the American public by lying about the dangers of smoking and pushing cigarettes to young people.

Eubanks said that when she looked at the fossil fuel industry’s strategy, she immediately recognised big tobacco’s playbook.

“Big Oil was engaged in exactly the same type of behaviour that the tobacco companies engaged in and were found liable for fraud on a massive scale,” said Eubanks. “The cover up, the denial of the problem, the funding of scientists to question the science. The same pattern. And some of the same lawyers represent both tobacco and big oil.”

The danger for the fossil fuel industry is that the parallels do not end there.

The legal process is likely to oblige the oil conglomerates to turn over years of internal communications revealing what they knew about climate change, when and how they responded. Given what has already come out from Exxon, they are unlikely to help the industry’s case.

Eubanks, who is now advising attorneys general and others suing the oil industry, said a turning point in her action against big tobacco came with the discovery of internal company memos in a state case in Minnesota. They included language that talked about recruiting young people as “replacement smokers” for those who died from cigarettes.

“I think the public was particularly stunned by some of the content of the documents and the talk about the need for bigger bags to take home all the money they were going to make from getting people to smoke,” said Eubanks.

The exposure of the tobacco companies internal communications shifted the public mood and the politics, helping to open the door to legislation to curb smoking that the industry had been successfully resisting for decades.

Farber, the Berkeley law professor, said the discovery process carries a similar danger for the oil companies because it is likely to expose yet more evidence that they set out to deceive. He said that will undercut any attempt by the energy giants to claim in court that they were ignorant of the damage they were causing.

Farber said it will also be difficult for the oil industry to resist the weight of U.S. lawsuits, shareholder activism, and shifting public and political opinion. “It might push them towards settlement or supporting legislation that releases some from liability in return for some major concessions such as a large tax to finance responses to climate change.”

The alternative, said Farber, is to take their chance on judges and juries who may be increasingly inclined to take the climate crisis seriously.

“They may think this is an emergency that requires a response. That the oil companies should be held responsible for the harm they’ve caused and that could be very expensive,” he said. “If they lose, it’s catastrophic ultimately.” 

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/big-oil-and-gas-kept-dirty-secret-decades-now-they-may-pay-price

Virginia shines as solar hot spot in Catholic Energies expansion

In July, a 421-kilowatt solar system was installed at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, in Falls Church, Virginia. The rooftop solar array is projected to offset almost 90% of the parish’s energy use and save it upwards of $1.3 million over 25 years. (Catholic Energies)

A quick scan of the parishes and groups partnering with Catholic Energies reveals a noticeable geographic pattern: Virginia is a growing hotbed of solar activity.

Last month, three parishes in the Arlington Diocese powered up new solar installations, each developed and financed through Catholic Energies, the burgeoning program of the Catholic Climate Covenant that helps church institutions find outside funding to take on energy initiatives without the initial burden of hefty upfront costs.

With the new installations, the parishes — St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church, St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield and Nativity Catholic Church in Burke — will collectively offset the carbon dioxide emissions produced by powering 3,500 homes for a year or burning 15,000 tons of coal. Just as attractive to their finance councils, the solar projects came at no cost and forecast sizeable savings.

At St. Anthony of Padua, the 421-kilowatt rooftop solar system — the largest of the three parishes — is expected to cover almost 90% of the parish’s energy demand. The solar panels, along with LED lighting upgrades, are projected to save St. Anthony upwards of $1.3 million over the 25-year term of the power purchase agreement.

The rooftop panels at Nativity are part of several green initiatives under way at the parish. Its creation care ministry has also begun a community vegetable garden, and its school is developing an outdoor learning space with native plants and species. In bulletins this summer, the ministry team and pastor Fr. Robert Cilinski included reflections on “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” to mark the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical. While the panels will save the parish money — more than $200,000 — they also reflect Christian values to safeguard creation.

“Our solar panels are on the rooftop shouting the wisdom of Laudato Si’, the social teaching of the church,” Cilinski recently told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper.

With each Richmond parish, none paid any upfront costs, an arrangement made possible by Catholic Energies.

The program first works with groups to determine if solar is a fit, then seeks funding, primarily through power purchase agreements. In those deals, an outside investor finances the project and sets a fixed rate for energy usage, often lower than local utility rates, which is paid directly to the investor.

Since launching in fall 2017, Catholic Energies has completed 11 solar projects in the past 13 months. Eleven more are under contract and expected to be completed by the end of 2020. By then, the program will have footprints in eight states, along with Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

But the biggest business for Catholic Energies so far has been the region around Virginia. Of the 22 solar installations in all it expects to have completed by the end of the year, 10 are in the Old Dominion and two are in the Washington, D.C., area, where it is also working to finalize contracts with three more Catholic clients.

The completed projects include the 2-megawatt solar installation for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, the largest solar project in the city and to date the largest completed by Catholic Energies, which is based in the District of Columbia. The array’s 5,000 panels began producing power in April. Since then, the electricity it has generated from the sun has offset roughly 1 million pounds of carbon emissions, or the equivalent of planting 25,000 trees, according to Catholic Energies.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/virginia-shines-solar-hot-spot-catholic-energies-expansion

Good for planet and people? Renewable energy firms urged to clean up act on human rights

Workers walk at a solar power station in Tongchuan, Shaanxi province, China December 11, 2019. Picture taken December 11, 2019. REUTERS/Muyu Xu

BARCELONA, – Companies that produce clean energy are crucial for curbing climate change – but they’re not always the “good guys”, according to a report that tracks their human rights record for the first time.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) says 16 of the world’s largest publicly-traded wind and solar producers are not doing enough to protect their workers and the local communities affected by their operations.

Here are the key takeaways:

What’s the bigger picture?

A push to use less fossil fuel and curb climate change has seen nearly $2.7 trillion invested in renewables – mainly in solar and wind power – in the past decade, and the sector employed 11 million people in 2018.

Many of the companies are seen as saviours when it comes to tackling global warming – but the same can’t be said of how they treat human rights, according to Phil Bloomer, BHRRC executive director

That is a particular concern for indigenous people whose land has in some cases been used for clean energy projects without their agreement or fair compensation.

Which companies have been assessed and what are the key results?

Spanish energy corporations Iberdrola and Acciona, followed by Denmark’s Orsted and Italy’s Enel, had the best human rights record overall, with French and German firms dominating the middle tier – but no company scores above 53% on the benchmark.

The worst performers are Chinese and North American companies, as well investors Brookfield and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, which own many renewable projects.

Companies, on average, scored better on indicators covering the basic human rights responsibilities, including having policies and grievance mechanisms in place, similar to other high-risk industries like apparel, agricultural products and tech manufacturing.

But they scored zero across the board when it came to commitments such as respecting local land rights and relocating or compensating communities affected by renewables projects.

The companies scored well in some areas, including anti-corruption due diligence and health and safety disclosures.

So big renewable energy firms are doing the right thing for the planet but the wrong thing for people?

The centre has tracked allegations of abuse against renewables companies over the past decade, and says complaints increased 10 times between 2010 and 2018.

Since 2010, the centre has identified 197 allegations of human rights abuses related to renewable energy projects, and asked 127 companies to respond to those allegations.

They include: killings, threats, and intimidation; land grabs; dangerous working conditions and poverty wages; and harm to indigenous peoples’ lives and livelihoods.

Allegations have been made in every region and across the wind, solar, bioenergy, geothermal and hydropower sectors, with the highest number in Latin America.

https://news.trust.org/item/20200701164637-rk6o4/

Calling Promotion Betrayal of Planet, Groups Denounce Schumer for Giving ‘Fossil Fuel Servant’ Joe Manchin Top Spot on Energy Committee.

“Appointing Senator Manchin as ranking member of the Energy Committee is completely at odds with any plan for real climate action.”

Energy photo“This is the wrong choice at the wrong time for the Democrats,” said David Turnbull, strategic communications director with Oil Change USA. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

By Jake Johnson, staff writer

At a time when people throughout the U.S. and around the world are rallying behind bold solutions to the climate crisis and urgently warning that there is no time to waste, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) decided late Tuesday to betray his constituents and the planet, groups warned, by promoting “fossil fuel servant” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to the top Democratic spot on the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Schumer is out of touch with the progressive voters who will continue to push for a Green New Deal in the next Congress.”
—Erich Pica, Friends of the Earth

“Appointing Senator Manchin as ranking member of the Energy Committee is completely at odds with any plan for real climate action,” May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said in a statement. “Manchin has taken every opportunity to put Big Oil before the health and safety of communities and our climate.”

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, argued that the appointment of the pro-coal West Virginia senator to a top Energy Committee slot is a “stark failure of Chuck Schumer’s leadership” in the midst of dire scientific warnings that the world must cut carbon emissions in half by 2040 to avert planetary catastrophe.

“Schumer is out of touch with the progressive voters who will continue to push for a Green New Deal in the next Congress,” Pica declared, alluding to the demonstrators who have flooded the halls of Congress and faced mass arrests in recent weeks to pressure lawmakers to support ambitious climate solutions.
The West Virginia senator’s promotion—which was ratified Tuesday evening by members of the Senate Democratic caucus—came amid a wave of opposition from environmental groups, who adopted an “anyone but Manchin” stance in the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement.

“Not even this foolish decision can stop the groundswell of momentum that’s building for a Green New Deal.”
—May Boeve, 350.org

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)—who is pushing for the formation of a Green New Deal Select Committee in the House—joined progressive advocacy groups in warning against the appointment of Manchin, who has raked in over $156,000 in campaign cash from the fossil fuel industry in 2018, and is reportedly still profiting from a coal brokerage company he helped run before entering politics.

“I have concerns over the senator’s chairmanship just because I do not believe that we should be financed by the industries that we are supposed to be legislating and regulating and touching with our legislation,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a press conference on the Green New Deal last month.

While corporate media outlets worked hard to blame Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—currently the ranking member on the powerful Senate Budget Committee—for not abandoning his post to block Manchin, commentators were quick to note that Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) all have seniority over Manchin and could have taken the seat, but chose not to.

Ultimately, progressives placed the blame squarely on Schumer for refusing to heed grassroots demands to appoint a climate leader over a fossil fuel puppet.

“This is the wrong choice at the wrong time for the Democrats,” said David Turnbull, strategic communications director with Oil Change USA. “Senator Schumer has failed in finding a ranking member for this committee that truly understands that the climate crisis requires us to take on the fossil fuel industry, not cater to its demands.”

While dismayed by Manchin’s promotion, Boeve of 350.org expressed confidence that “not even this foolish decision can stop the groundswell of momentum that’s building for a Green New Deal.”

“With the leadership of communities and support from truly progressive members of Congress,” she concluded, “we’ll fight tooth and nail for climate policy that transitions us off fossil fuels to a 100 percent renewable energy economy.”

 

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/12/12/calling-promotion-betrayal-planet-groups-denounce-schumer-giving-fossil-fuel-servant