Just 20 energy companies account for one-third of greenhouse emissions since 1965, according to a new study.
The Climate Accountability Institute’s Richard Heede tallied up all the fossil fuels extracted by every company through 2017 and calculated the emissions. The data is public, the math is straightforward and the emissions are indisputable.
The top 10 companies, in order, are, predictably, Saudi Aramco, Chevron, Gazprom, Exxon Mobil, National Iranian Oil Co., BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Coal India and PEMEX. More details are available online at http://climateaccountability.org/carbonmajors.html.
Heede chose 1965 as his start date because the Johnson administration released a report that year warning that the nation risked warming the planet by 2000 if it did not cut carbon dioxide emissions. The president of the American Petroleum Institute, the leading industry association, responded a few months later by calling for more lobbying to head off damaging regulations.
What is surprising in the Heede report is that 50 percent of greenhouse emissions have come since 1985, and that speaks to the energy industry’s culpability in contributing to climate change.
Companies may claim that climate change was not well understood in 1965, but by 1985 scientists knew humans releasing growing concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride were trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the planet.
National leaders meeting at the 1992 Rio Summit agreed to slow emissions. They signed a legally binding treaty in 1997 called the Kyoto Protocol. Yet today, some well-financed political forces are still trying to suppress the obvious evidence of human-man climate change.
How Exxon Mobil responded to climate change is the subject of a New York prosecution for securities fraud. The state attorney general alleges that Exxon executives misled investors by misrepresenting the potential financial impact of climate regulation on the company’s stock value.
“The company failed to manage the risks in the ways it promised,” prosecutor Kevin Wallace told the court. “The cost of that failure is staggering.”
New York alleges in court papers that Exxon’s behavior cost shareholders between $476 million and $1.6 billion. Exxon’s attorney Ted Wells responded by saying: “Exxon Mobil did nothing wrong.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed another lawsuit against Exxon on Oct. 24. That case alleges that executives misled investors about climate risks and deceived consumers about the role fossil fuels play in causing climate change.
“Our goal here is simple: to stop Exxon from engaging in this deception and penalize it for this conduct,” Healey told reporters.
Exxon replied in a statement: “We look forward to refuting the meritless allegations in court.”
Exxon scientists, though, have accepted climate change as fact since at least the mid-1980s. At the same time, the company supported political action groups that questioned the reality of climate change to deter environmental regulations.
The New York and Massachusetts cases will set precedents for a slew of climate lawsuits working through the courts. States, cities and environmental groups have dozens of legal angles they intend to test.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a motion by BP, Chevron, Exxon and other companies to move climate change lawsuits brought by Baltimore, Oakland, Calif., and Boulder, Colo. out of state courts and consolidate them in federal court. The cities want compensation for damage caused by climate change.
The federal government is also fighting lawsuits, including one brought on behalf of young Americans demanding more significant federal action on climate change. The Sierra Club wants an explanation for why the Securities and Exchange Commission has allowed corporations to quash proxy votes on climate-related issues.
These fights over responsibility for climate change are staking out new legal ground and will undoubtedly end up at the Supreme Court. The current makeup of the Court, though, casts reasonable doubt on whether it will accept these novel legal theories that could have dramatic impacts on the global economy.
If any of these lawsuits are successful, though, expect attorneys to cite the Climate Accountability Institute’s allocation of responsibility to inform how courts should assess actual and punitive damages. The higher the rank, the higher the potential liability.
The bigger question for fossil fuel companies is what the courts and government will expect them to do for climate damage going forward. Every significant oil, gas and coal company acknowledges that carbon dioxide is changing the planet’s climate.
The question our fuel suppliers will reasonably ask is what did consumers know, and when did we know it? Yes, these companies extracted the carbon, but we burned it, and we continue to burn it. How much responsibility rests with us?