What do cigarettes and oil have in common?
The answer: Both are deadly, but the industries that produce them covered up the risks to continue profiting from Americans’ addiction to their products. Both actively promoted their products even though their own scientists warned them about the dangers. Executives from both industries denied any wrongdoing while testifying before Congress.
What’s the difference between cigarettes and oil?
The answer: Tobacco companies are paying billions of dollars every year in perpetuity to compensate states for health care costs related to smoking. However, big oil companies are paying nothing for the damages caused by global warming.
“Both Big Tobacco and Big Polluters have spent vast amounts of money to influence or silence public discussion on the effects of their products, in order to weaken political will for action,” the organization Corporate Accountability points out. “Now, as lawsuits against Big Polluters like the fossil fuel industry gain steam, the story of how Big Tobacco was ultimately held liable in the U.S. sheds some helpful light for those seeking to do the same with Big Polluters.”
The oil companies’ campaign to deceive Congress and the public has been well documented by news, environmental and science organizations. Exxon (now ExxonMobil) learned from its own scientists in the 1970s that fossil-fuel pollution was changing the Earth’s climate in dangerous ways. Exxon not only suppressed these findings; it also joined other big oil companies in casting doubt on the same conclusions of nearly all other climate scientists.
America’s efforts to reduce fossil energy pollution would have been simpler and less expensive had they begun in the 1980s. Instead, Republicans in Congress joined the industry in branding the science as “unsettled” and climate action as premature. Congress remained gridlocked on the issue for decades.
As scientists anticipated, the number and cost of weather disasters climbed quickly. Between 1980 and 2001, the U.S experienced an average of 7.7 disasters annually. The average shot up to 18 disasters annually during that period’s last five years. More than 330 weather and climate disaster — each a billion-dollar disaster — caused combined damages of nearly $2.3 trillion from 1980 to 2021.
Meanwhile, it took four years to resolve the states’ lawsuits against Big Tobacco. The result was a historic settlement agreement in which four large cigarette companies consented in 1998 to pay states billions of dollars annually in perpetuity to compensate them for tobacco-related medical expenses. In subsequent years, additional cigarette makers joined the settlement until there were 50 by October 2018.
The damages from oil and gas consumption are much more egregious. They go beyond climate change. The American Lung Association reports more than 137 million adults and children — 40 percent of us — live in places where air pollution from tailpipes and power plants can cause lung diseases, including cancer. People can choose not to smoke; they can’t choose not to breathe.
At last count, at least 20 states and localities had filed lawsuits against oil companies, most of them focused on the industry’s failure to disclose what it knew about climate change. The industry has been able to delay resolution of these lawsuits, often by trying to get the cases shifted from state to federal courts, which appear more sympathetic to business.
Meantime, global-warming pollution continues largely unabated. The consequences — unprecedented floods, fires, droughts and rising sea levels — will last for centuries. Now the issue is how much worse we will allow those consequences to become.
The growing severity of weather disasters has forced fossil energy companies to end their outright denial of climate change. Several have promised to neutralize their carbon pollution by 2050. However, a congressional investigation just concluded that Big Oil still “relies on accounting gimmicks, tricky language, and delay tactics to claim the mantle of climate leadership while continuing to be a primary cause of an ongoing climate catastrophe.”
Oil and gas companies spent nearly $64 million on lobbying in 2020, the most in 30 years, according to the data organization Statista. As of Aug. 15, the industries’ political action committees had given nearly $7.6 million to political candidates in the 2021-2022 election cycle.
Today, the United States remains the world’s top oil producer. The U.S. Energy Information (EIA) projects that without major policy changes, fossil fuels will still dominate America’s energy mix at mid-century.
Yet, the technologies exist to shift to zero-carbon energy. At global scale, the transition to clean energy has been called the biggest market opportunity in history. The U.S. oil and gas industry could capture a significant share of that market if it joined rather than opposed the shift. However, the International Energy Agency says global oil and gas companies are expected to earn $4 trillion this year, but they are putting only 5 percent of their capital expenditures into clean energy.
We will see whether the courts apply the same level of accountability to the oil industry as they applied to cigarette manufacturers. Meantime, Congress need not wait. It can make up for past mistakes by ending billions of dollars it spends annually to subsidize oil and gas production; putting a price on carbon to reflect its real impacts on society and the environment; explicitly authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas pollution if carbon pricing proves insufficient to meet America’s pollution reduction goals, and passing “polluter pays” legislation like that introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to tax the oil and gas companies most responsible for carbon pollution.
Oil companies don’t need more help from Congress — our communities clearly do.
William S. Becker is a former U.S. Department of Energy central regional director who administered energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies programs, and he also served as special assistant to the department’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Becker is also executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, a nonpartisan initiative founded in 2007 that works with national thought leaders to develop recommendations for the White House as well as House and Senate committees on climate and energy policies. The project is not affiliated with the White House.