OWOE has pointed out similarities between today’s Big Oil and last millennium’s Big Tobacco several times over the years. In September 2022 we published “Don’t Blame the Suppliers, Unless They Are Big Oil” where we shared articles documenting the efforts of the fossil fuel companies to engage in a public relations campaign to sow doubt in the science of climate change by following the playbook of the tobacco industry. And in August 2023 we published “Big Oil Stuns Again” where we addressed the greenwashing that the oil companies are currently engaged in and speculated that Big Oil’s lack of civic responsibility might become legal liabilities in the future, similar to what happened with the tobacco industry. Recent events have made it even more clear that, yes, Big Oil is following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco and is likely to meet a similar fate.
There has been a significant and rapidly growing number of lawsuits around the world involving climate litigation against the oil companies (see Fig 1) with a growing focus on climate disclosures and greenwashing. However, this year in particular has seen a number of significant actions from states, countries, and the public, including a key ruling by the US Supreme Court:
- In April the US Supreme Court denied a petition (see State of Rhode Island and Sierra Club) that would have moved a case filed in 2018 by the State of Rhode Island and four other related cases to federal court. The suits attempt to hold a number of fossil fuel companies liable for knowingly concealing the fact that use of their products leads to climate change and catastrophic consequences to people, economies, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Rhode Island is one of more than two dozen states, counties, and cities that have brought forth similar lawsuits. This was a very damaging result for the oil companies who expect to receive more favorable consideration from federal courts.
- In August a judge in Montana ruled that that state is violating the rights of young people with its policies that prohibit consideration of climate change effects when it reviews coal mining, natural gas extraction and other fossil fuel projects. This was the first youth-led climate case to reach trial in the US and could influence similar cases nationwide.
- In September the California Legislature passed a bill that would require major companies to publicly disclose their greenhouse gas emissions. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been working on similar regulations at the national level but have gotten strong objections from industry. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, California often sets the trend for the nation with regard to environmental regulations and will likely accelerate the national effort. In early October California Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill.
- Also in September six young people from areas in Portugal ravaged by wildfires and heatwaves filed a lawsuit against 27 EU member states as well as Britain, Switzerland, Norway, Russia and Turkey alleging that their failure to act fast enough on climate change is a violation of their human rights. It is the largest climate case ever to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). A ruling is expected in the first half of 2024.
- Also in September a lawsuit was filed on behalf of the people of California against ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and the American Petroleum Institute (API) claiming that, starting in the 1950s, they intentionally downplayed the risks posed by fossil fuels to the public, even though they understood that their products were likely to lead to significant global warming.
The current situation regarding Big Oil lawsuits appears to mirror the history of Big Tobacco lawsuits going back almost 70 years. The first wave of tobacco lawsuits in the 1950s attempted to link cigarette smoking to cancer, and the tobacco companies prevailed in all of them. In the 1980s a second wave accused the tobacco companies of knowing that cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer but did not warn the public. Most of those lawsuits, but not all, were won by Big Tobacco. Then in the 1990s plaintiffs began winning these lawsuits when cigarette company documents were leaked showing the companies were aware of the addictive nature of tobacco.
Another interesting parallel involves Big Oil’s drive to increase the use of plastics and other petrochemicals, which currently account for as much as 12% of fossil fuel use. A 2020 documentary presented on NPR found evidence that Big Oil believed that plastic recycling could never be made economical yet spent tens of millions of dollars on advertising to sell the public on the idea that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled. As a result, plastic production has been growing about 5% annually, yet under 10% of the plastic produced is recycled. Compare this to the University of Kansas study published also this past September that uncovered that the chemically addictive fatty, salty and sweet foods that make up 68% of the American food supply were developed and marketed by tobacco companies when they owned some of the largest food companies in the world including Nabisco and Kraft-General Foods.
Despite all the parallels, there is one big difference between Big Oil and Big Tobacco. At the height of use in 1965, approximately 50 million Americans over the age of 18 smoked tobacco products or approximately 1/3rd of the adult population. Thus, 2/3rds of the adults in the US did not smoke. As the health effects of smoking became known, public opinion within the non-smoking population and peer pressure on smokers helped drive the anti-smoking health campaign. In contrast, today, essentially 100% of the US population is addicted to fossil fuel. Even those of us who have embraced electric vehicles (EVs), your author included, are dependent on fossil fuel. Air travel, heating, cooking, plastics, consumer products, clothing…virtually every aspect of daily life is tied to fossil fuel products. So, yes, OWOE sees Big Oil as the new Big Tobacco, but the path toward breaking our addiction is much less clear.