US government knew climate risks in 1970s, National Petroleum Council documents show

“It’s not just Exxon. This is industry-wide knowledge of the fact that the fossil fuel industry’s products were going to cause climate change, and that was going to have damaging side effects for the world.”

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Image Credit: Rex Curry/Greenpeace

A series of newly discovered documents clarify the extent to which the U.S. government, its advisory committees and the fossil fuel industry have understood for decades the impact carbon dioxide emissions would have on the planet.

The documents obtained by Climate Liability News show how much the National Petroleum Council (NPC), an oil and natural gas advisory committee to the Secretary of Energy, knew about climate change as far back as the 1970s. A series of reports illuminate the findings of government-contracted research that outlined the dangers associated with increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

They also shed light on how this advisory group to the federal government understood the fossil fuel industry’s contributions to climate change, and unveil the strategies it used to downplay the industry’s role.

“These documents reaffirm that, to one extent or another, the fossil fuel industry as a whole has known for decades about the basics of climate change and its implications. But rather than warning the public and taking action, many of them turned around and orchestrated anti-science, anti-policy denial campaigns dwarfing even those of Big Tobacco,” said Geoffrey Supran, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who has extensively studied those denial campaigns.

Many of the documents were compiled by Hugh MacMillan, then a senior researcher on water, energy and climate issues for Food & Water Watch, an environmental nonprofit. He was preparing to file a public comment to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in response to the Trump Administration’s plan to replace the Clean Power Plan. MacMillan compiled archived NPC reports published on the organization’s website, copies of federal laboratory findings on climate change, which were published in scientific journals, and a book that  documented the history of the NPC. MacMillan shared those documents with CLN.

“I wanted to educate myself on the evolution of rhetoric on climate change within the federal energy policy making apparatus. The archived NPC reports chronicle that evolution – from early acknowledgment of the potential for an ecological crisis, to acceptance of the notion of carbon budgets, to deploying de-regulation in the decades since,” said MacMillan, who no longer works for Food & Water Watch.

According to Supran and other experts, the documents are an important step in explaining what fossil fuel companies knew and how long ago they knew it, a critical element in any attempt to hold oil companies accountable in climate liability lawsuits.

“This illustrates that the National Petroleum Council’s failure to advocate for bold government action to avoid the worst effects of climate change and to facilitate a transition to a low-carbon economy hasn’t been based on ignorance of the problem,” said Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate & energy program.

The documents also include more recent evidence that despite having understood the climate ramifications of fossil fuel burning for many years, the companies still have plans to expand oil production in the U.S. In a presentation at the 2018 U.S. Energy Information Administration Conference, Plains All American Pipeline, a company that recently joined forces with ExxonMobil, outlined the ways in which the U.S. oil industry is thriving. The presentation states that continental U.S. oil production peaked in 1970 but is, “likely to equal or exceed initial peak in 2020.”

Exposing industry-wide knowledge, potential liability

The Yes Men posing as oil executives with the National Petroleum Council
The two leading members of “The Yes Men” pose as Exxon oil executives with the National Petroleum Council shortly after pulling a stunt at the Oil and Gas Expo in 2007 in Calgary, Alberta. Credit: ItzaFineDayCC BY 2.0

The National Petroleum Council (NPC) membership lists include now-former chairmen, presidents and chief executives of at least eight oil companies including Texaco, Marathon Oil, Conoco and Phillips, which have since merged, and Occidental Petroleum Corporation. The documents show that the knowledge was widespread in the industry, and not just limited to individual companies like ExxonMobil and Shell, whose internal files have been uncovered in a series of journalistic investigations that show their longtime understanding of the risks of climate change. That the knowledge was widespread could affect the dozens of climate liability suits that have been filed against the industry by various communities around the country.

Proof that organizations like NPC knew that fossil fuels largely caused climate change could be enough to hold individual oil companies liable in court, said Benjamin Franta, a postdoctoral candidate at Stanford University whose research focuses on the history of the fossil fuel industry.

“Industries are held to the expert in the field so they can be liable for things even if they don’t know about it,” Franta said. “Anything climate scientists were saying in the field, that’s the expert knowledge that fossil fuel companies had a duty to know about it.”

Mulvey said the fear of being held liable for the cost of climate change impacts could also cause a domino effect. More insider information may become public, which is what happened when whistleblowers came forward during lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1980s.

“As more and more companies are directly tied to the concept of deception, some of them may see fit to differentiate themselves from their competitors, which might include being more transparent or offering up information about what was really going on inside the industry,” Mulvey said.

The Department of Energy was warned

One of the newly uncovered documents obtained by Climate Liability News was prepared by the energy division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory and presented in 1982. The lab is funded by and has contracts with the Department of Energy, meaning the federal government was aware of the research results.

The document, titled “Energy supply and demand implications of CO2,” clearly outlines the conclusion by researchers that action must be taken to reduce fossil fuel use in order to curb CO2 emissions: “Use of fossil fuels should peak and start to decline within the next several decades, possibly as early as 2010. Explicit actions to retard fossil-fuel use would need to become effective in the next 10–20 yr.” A more concise statement opens the report: “Intensive development of non-fossil energy sources appears warranted.”

The report also advises against attempting to extract as much oil, gas and coal as possible.

“The world’s remaining recoverable resources of oil, gas, and coal are estimated to contain nearly 4,000 billion metric tons of carbon,” the report said. “This is enough, if burned and if half of the emitted carbon dioxide remains airborne, to increase the concentration of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere by nearly a factor of four. That is almost certainly too much. ‘Acceptable’ levels of CO2 may be no more than 1.5 to 2.5 times the present concentration. Thus, the world’s cumulative use of fossil fuels, at least during the next two centuries, may need to be restricted to levels far below the estimated recoverable resources.”

Earth’s temperature has already risen by one degree Celsius and scientists have recently reduced their estimate – from two degrees to 1.5 degrees Celsius – for the maximum amount the planet can warm by the end of this century if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Although the Oak Ridge National Laboratory report illustrates the U.S. federal government was made aware of this in 1982, the nation has opted out of the Paris Agreement which outlines a coordinated global effort to reduce greenhouse-gas-emissions mitigation.

Another report, also from 1982, which was prepared by the NPC, worked to downplay scientists’ knowledge of how carbon dioxide drives climate change: “Some long-term possible problems, such as the CO2 ‘greenhouse’ effect, are not yet understood well enough to determine impacts or to establish final control strategies.”

Playing naive to the fossil fuel industry’s contributions to climate change is not the only tactic the new documents help clarify. Some reports, such as a 1981 report titled The Oil and Gas Industries: An Overview , claimed fossil fuel pollution had been mitigated: “The petroleum industry has made substantial progress in environmental conservation in the past decade, and the major environmental concerns perceived in the 1970’s as arising from the industry are now vastly diminished because pollution sources are under effective control.”

According to Mulvey, statements like this illustrate a decades-long coordinated effort by the fossil fuel industry to simultaneously invest further in oil and stave off public knowledge of the danger surrounding an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. The difference is that this time, advisors to the federal government were involved.  

“While there’s liability associated with selling a product you know to have harmful side effects and lying about it, there’s also potential liability with giving the government information that you know to be false. That could constitute fraud,” Franta said.

One 1983 document underscores how the NPC recognized the importance of controlling what information reached lawmakers. “While the CO2 issue remains – appropriately so, in our view – largely in the research communality, it is important to consider the possibility that the issue may become prominent in political arenas,” the report said. “It is important that we fashion perspectives and programs that can be sustained through periods of excessive attention or inattention to the issue.”

For this reason, Mulvey said some information related to fossil fuels and climate change may have been kept private within the NPC.

“The NPC is an industry dominated group that many have felt it wasn’t in the industry’s best interest to make the government aware of this,” Mulvey said. “Or it could be that it was conveyed to the government but the industry was simultaneously using its political influence to thwart action.”

A record of what they knew

These documents show not only how widespread the knowledge of climate impacts was decades ago, but also how deeply the subject was studied. The research delved into the overall impact of climate change on the planet, but also sought to understand which places would be hit the hardest.

A 1983 document recognizes that the effects of climate change will be exacerbated in some regions. “The foreseeable consequences of climate change are no cause for alarm on a global scale but could prove to be exceedingly bad news for particular parts of the world,” the report said, going on to specifically name Bangladesh, where, “coastal flooding is already serious.”

Such documentation could be legally valuable if certain countries or regions file lawsuits against oil companies for climate damages. The Pacific island nation of Vanuatu recently announced it is considering such a suit, and is recruiting other vulnerable nations to join it.

Another document acknowledged that climate change had long been the focus of discussions among oil industry representatives, and that burning fossil fuels would likely contribute to “catastrophic climate changes” that could be mitigated by tighter regulation: “The reason that the subject continues to cause debate and to stimulate research is that it is so very closely tied to the world energy problem. If fossil fuel combustion is the major cause of increasing atmospheric CO2, if the increasing CO2 content will result in large or possibly catastrophic climate changes, and if natural constraints are either inadequate or too slow to keep the situation stable, then action must be initiated fairly soon to reduce the discharge of CO2 into the atmosphere.”

Documents like these paint a broader picture of the extent to which the fossil fuel industry as a whole was aware that its product would cause catastrophic environmental damage. Being able to illustrate what organizations such as the NPC, and even the federal government, knew expands the field of parties that could be held liable.

“It’s not just Exxon. This is industry-wide knowledge of the fact that the fossil fuel industry’s products were going to cause climate change, and that was going to have damaging side effects for the world,” Franta said.

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