Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable

For Immediate Release

Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable

BONN, Germany - A new report released today by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) synthesizes years of research exposing what the oil industry and other major fossil fuel producers knew about climate change, when they knew it, and what they did about it. The report, Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis, evaluates that evidence in light of fundamental principles of legal responsibility and concludes major carbon producers can and should be held accountable for climate impacts.

The report finds that oil and gas companies were on notice of potential climate risks as early as the 1950s, and they were repeatedly warned of those risks from the 1960s onward. It documents how major oil companies had the opportunity and capacity to reduce those risks, either by developing technologies under their control or by warning consumers and investors about climate change. Instead, there is extensive evidence that major oil and gas producers worked, individually and in concert, to undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action. By producing oil and gas in ever greater quantities despite clear evidence of its risks, oil and gas companies contributed significantly to global emissions of greenhouse gases and to increasingly disastrous climate impacts.

“The individual data points in this report, viewed in aggregate, tell the story of an industry with advanced knowledge and expertise about climate change. There is a reasonable public expectation that if there was a problem with their products, big oil would have been the first to know about it and would have had a responsibility to affirmatively warn the public. Instead they actively sowed confusion and doubt,” says Steven Feit, CIEL Staff Attorney. “Over the seven decades in this timeline, liability may attach to different companies for different theories at different times. However, looking at the evidence as a whole, over time, and across the industry, the answer to whether big oil is responsible is yes.”

Countries, cities, communities, and even individuals can now quantify climate change impacts and harms against them. Meanwhile, researchers are increasingly able to attribute historical carbon and methane emissions to a handful of private companies who can be sued as defendants whose contributions to the climate crisis are identifiable, measurable, and significant. The evidence in this report suggests that under multiple theories of law, major oil producers could be held liable for knowing of climate risks linked to their products and failing to take action to avoid or reduce those risks—either by eliminating them or by properly warning consumers, regulators, and the public about them.

“Exxon and its oil industry allies have given us a decades-long history of climate change, climate denial, and climate chaos,” says Carroll Muffett, CIEL President. “This report exposes that history and suggests that the future of these companies will be marked by climate litigation and climate accountability.”

Across the United States and around world, investigations into and litigation against major carbon producers are accelerating. Amidst growing calls to hold Exxon and other major carbon producers accountable for the dire impacts of climate change, the question arises: Can they be held responsible? And should they be? The evidence in this report makes clear that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.

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