Italian oil giant Eni knew about climate change more than 50 years ago, report reveals

"They’ve been playing us all for fools."

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SOURCEDeSmogBlog

Italian oil major Eni knew of the climate impacts of fossil fuel extraction since 1970, according to a report by Greenpeace Italy and advocacy group ReCommon shared with DeSmog. 

The report comes four months after the two organizations announced a lawsuit against the company alleging Eni used “lobbying and greenwashing” to push for more oil and gas production, despite having known about the risks fossil fuels posed over the past 53 years.

The two groups had previously unearthed a 1970 report by Eni’s Isvet research centre that warned of the “catastrophic” climate risk from the build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by burning fossil fuels. They also found a 1978 report produced by Eni’s Tecneco company that included a projection of how much atmospheric CO2 levels would rise by the turn of the 21st century.

But, until now, compared to other oil majors, relatively little evidence was uncovered that Eni had longstanding knowledge of the damage its fossil fuel products would cause. 

“Our investigation shows how Eni joins the long list of fossil fuel companies that, as emerged from numerous international investigations conducted in the recent years, were aware at least since the early 1970s of the destabilizing effect of coal, gas, and oil exploitation on global climate balances, due to greenhouse gas emissions,” said Felice Moramarco, a communications strategist with Greenpeace Italy, who coordinated the research for this report.

“If we find ourselves today in the midst of a climate crisis that threatens the lives of each and every one of us,” he added, “the responsibility falls mainly on companies like Eni, which have continued for decades to exploit fossil fuels, ignoring the alarming and growing warnings from the global scientific community.”

The report aims to build on evidence in Eni’s 1970 and 1978 report, and is the result of months of research within public and private archives in Italy, including the company’s own archive.

The findings add to the existing body of research that fossil fuel companies have been aware of the climate risks of burning fossil fuels since at least the 1970s and 80s, but still chose to expand oil and gas production and obstruct climate action. 

In response to the report, the oil giant said in a statement, “Eni has already responded to the claims of the two organizations in the court of Rome, through the procedural tools provided and within the timeframe assigned by the law. The complexity of the matter is such that it merits spaces which are not compatible with journalistic reductions.” 

The statement also said that Eni will make public in due course, “the respective documents and arguments so that anyone can get a full, correct and accurate idea of the issues and complexities associated (free from misleading ideologies), as well as the correctness of Eni’s behavior and its energy transition strategy (already explained in the company’s sustainability documentation and strategic plan).” 

‘They’ve been playing us all for fools’

Last week, California filed what may be the most consequential climate lawsuit yet against a range of Carbon Majors, including Exxon, Shell, Chevron, and BP for covering up what they knew about emissions and misleading the public for decades about the climate crisis. Speaking about the fossil fuel defendants, California Governor Gavin Newsom charged, “They’ve been playing all of us for fools,” and noted that the legal action could “illuminate their deception and their lies over 50, 60, 70 years.”

The report in the Italian case shows that Eni also foresaw damages from its products going back more than 50 years. 

In 1971, Eni set up a new company in Rome to study pollution problems called Tecneco. In a 1973 report, Tecneco predicted that human activities could cause permanent changes to the atmosphere, including changes that could “gradually cause the disappearance of all life on earth.” Among the atmospheric changes listed was “climatic modifications.” Another section of the report stated that the increase of carbon dioxide “in the atmosphere is considered a potential cause of climate change.”

Another 1978 Tecneco report was even clearer, stating, “Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the ultimate oxidation product of fossil fuels … it exists in air in concentrations of about 300 ppm [parts per million] and only human activity increases this value by interfering with natural processes, so that above a certain threshold it becomes a pollutant.” 

The report warned that continued production and use of fossil fuels would “alter the heat balance of the atmosphere, leading to climatic change with serious consequences for the biosphere.” Another section predicted that “climatic changes may occur on a regional scale due to the continued, increasing consumption of fossil fuels, and this may become a major problem by the end of the century … the best available data indicate that the CO2 content of the atmosphere will reach 375–400 ppm in the year 2000; this would increase the temperature of the atmosphere by 0.5 °C.” Eni’s prediction was quite accurate: Global warming in the year 2000 was exactly 0.5 °C and CO2 concentrations were around 370 ppm.

Eni also understood the need to limit fossil fuel pollution decades ago, according to the report. A 1988 issue of the company’s corporate magazine Ecos – widely read by employees and executives – warned that continued use of “fossil sources” of energy would produce a “greenhouse effect that could lead to climate change with devastating effects on the entire earth’s ecosystem.” Another issue of the magazine from the same year stated that as research on global warming continued, “it is incumbent on us to work as of now, as far as possible, to contain the phenomenon of carbon dioxide emissions. … It is generally agreed that it is very important to ‘buy time’ so as to refine the complex prediction models and identify the most appropriate solutions. Buying time means limiting the increase in CO2 as far as possible.”

The same issue also includes an article detailing the link between “greenhouse effect” and fossil fuel “combustion processes,” and contains information on CO2 concentration: “From samples of air trapped in glaciers, data on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air in past times can be obtained. It has been estimated by this route that the concentration of CO2 in the air has increased by about 25% in the last 200 years, from a level of 275 parts per million by volume to a current level of around 330-340 ppm (volume).”

In 1992, Eni claimed it needed more research before taking action on climate change. Credit: Petar Milošević Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-2.0)

Earlier this year, a DeSmog investigation also found that Eni has misleadingly promoted fossil gas since the 1980s as the “clean energy of the future,” despite its damaging effects on the climate. 

Eni also continued to be a member of IPIECA – the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association. Starting in the late 1980s, the organization  coordinated Big Oil’s efforts to delay fossil fuel controls around the world (and weaken the foundational UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) by emphasizing scientific uncertainty and misleading the public about the industry’s own knowledge.

The report reveals that at a 1992 IPIECA symposium in Rome co-hosted by Eni, for example, the company’s manager of Safety, Quality and Environmental Protection department insisted that “before taking political decisions, such as adopting a carbon tax, which could lead to dire and unexpected economic consequences, it is necessary to obtain more data … on several controversial points such as the role of the oceans and clouds in climate change, as well as data on their behaviour in various countries and economic and geographic areas.” 

Experts say Big Tobacco and other polluters used the “we need more researchrefrainas a delay tactic. The Eni manager at the 1992 symposium added that “Eni feels that its objectives are very similar to those of IPIECA and strongly supports this important international association founded by oil companies.”

On July 25, Greenpeace Italy and ReCommon received a “request for mediation” from Eni in response to their lawsuit. This is a mandatory prerequisite for filing a defamation lawsuit under Italian law. The company also stated it may seek at least 50,000 euros in damages from each group.

In Eni’s statement about the new report, the company said, “For the benefit of inevitable journalistic brevity, we would like to mention that the logic laid out by the NGOs is devoid of any foundation or knowledge of the industrial and technological history of energy systems, as well as the evolution of economic and industrial systems and the energy mix required for their functioning. Whoever in the last 50 years has used fossil fuels would have ignored such ‘alarms’ and would be similarly responsible for their emissions generated with their use.” 

“We intend to resist this attempt at intimidation by Eni and call for the support of all people and public and private entities who care about the cause of climate justice, starting with those who live and work in the territories that are suffering the catastrophic consequences of the crisis themselves,” said Antonio Tricarico,  program director at ReCommon.

Benjamin Franta contributed to this story.

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