Democrats try to link oil with the tobacco industry

Source: By Mark K. Matthews, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2019

House Democrats and climate activists yesterday pounded the fossil fuel industry — and Exxon Mobil Corp. in particular — for what they described as a concerted effort to obfuscate the risks of climate change even when the industry’s own scientists knew of the danger.

The criticism, which was levied for more than two hours during a hearing of the Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee, largely centered on past revelations that Exxon scientists were aware of global warming as early as the 1970s. And — in spite of these warnings — the company still advanced efforts to question climate science through advertisements or industry-friendly groups.

It’s an approach that Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) likened to the tobacco industry and its past work to downplay the health risks of smoking — a key theme in the emerging debate over who should be held responsible for global warming.

“The parallel leaps immediately to mind,” said Raskin, who chairs the subcommittee, in an interview after the hearing. “You had an industry which was aware of adverse health consequences of its product which suppressed it. And here we have an industry aware of the adverse public health and environmental consequences of its business that did whatever it could to obfuscate and confuse the public about it.”

To support that line of criticism, one of the witnesses called by Raskin to testify was Sharon Eubanks, an attorney who previously served as the director of the tobacco litigation team at the Department of Justice. She repeatedly drew a comparison between the tobacco and fossil fuel industries.

“Exxon Mobil, like the tobacco industry, engaged in a decades-long conspiracy to deceive the American public and funded a climate denial program years after its own scientists established that man-made climate change was real,” said Eubanks in prepared remarks. “As in the case of tobacco, the oil industry’s campaign of misinformation was conducted by individual companies and by trade groups, advertisers and other proxies that spread its message of doubt.”

One example cited in the hearing was an advertising campaign launched by Exxon Mobil in 2000 that questioned humanity’s contribution to global warming.

“Geological evidence indicates that climate and greenhouse gas levels experience significant natural variability for reasons having nothing to do with human activity,” read one ad called “Unsettled Science.” “Against this backdrop of large, poorly understood natural variability, it is impossible for scientists to attribute the recent small surface temperature increase to human causes.”

That messaging, argued House Democrats and activists, runs counter to the company’s own research into the link between climate change and fossil fuel consumption.

“Exxon knew of the anthropogenic climate change issue and considered it a sufficiently important problem to the company, and perhaps to society, that it funded and undertook a major research investigation of the world’s atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide levels,” said Ed Garvey, who was hired by the company in the late 1970s to study climate change, in his own prepared remarks. “The corporation was well aware of the potential problem caused by rising carbon dioxide levels.”

In response to the criticism, House Republicans and industry allies argued that it was unfair to accuse fossil fuel companies or Exxon of a cover-up because some of its early climate research was published in scientific journals. And they said that laying blame on the fossil fuel industry was unjust because of how the U.S. economy has benefitted for decades from its work.

“Let’s just remember about how our lives are powered,” said Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas). “Right here today. The electricity. Right here in this room. The air conditioning. The heat in this building throughout the winter.”

Mandy Gunasekara, another witness and head of the pro-Trump group Energy 45, criticized the attempt to link the tobacco and oil industries. She described the messaging as inaccurate and ineffective.

“I think they’re trying to revive a failed campaign that’s been debunked in the courts and debunked by the release of significant amounts of information — a lot of it was already in the public,” Gunasekara said. “What the Democrats do well is they use institutions to go after their political foes, and they were trying to use this hearing to go after the oil industry.”