Supporters of suits by Oakland and San Francisco say the courts are the proper forum to hold Big Oil accountable for its role in climate change because those corporations have held political sway over the legislative and executive branches of government. Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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By Dana Drugmand

Support piled in last week for the liability suits filed by San Francisco and Oakland against five oil companies, including friend-of-the-court briefs from six Democratic senators, several government associations as well as former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy.

Their arguments—that courts are the proper forum to hold Big Oil accountable for its role in climate change because those corporations have held political sway over the legislative and executive branches of government—also got a lift last week with new research showing how much the industry has spent lobbying government officials over the past three years.

According to the report by the United Kingdom-based research group Influence Map, the top five largest oil and gas companies (BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, and Total) spent more than $1 billion on misleading climate messaging and lobbying since 2015.

The brief filed by six Democratic senators last week to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals backing San Francisco and Oakland’s suits highlighted just that, detailing the oil companies’ “multi-million dollar campaign of deception and obstruction against progress on climate change.” The brief outlines multiple examples of fossil fuel industry lobbying against proposed legislation and regulations addressing carbon emissions, as well as funding politicians who oppose climate action.

The briefs were filed in support of the cities’ appeal to the Ninth Circuit, trying to reverse the cases’ dismissal by U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup last year. Alsup said the courts should not decide issues involving climate change because the issue is better suited for the other branches of government.

“As United States Senators with decades of collective experience in Congress, we have watched from the front row the efforts of these Defendants, directly, through trade associations, and through other groups they fund, to block climate action in the other coequal branches,” wrote Sens. Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris of Calif., Richard Blumenthal of Conn., Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Ed Markey of Mass., and Sheldon Whitehouse of R.I. Other supporting briefs came from former federal government officials and diplomats including Kerry and McCarthy; 11 state attorneys general; the California State Association of Counties; the National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association; a group of scholars studying climate deception, including Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes of Harvard; foreign relations and conflict of laws scholars; more than a dozen law professors; climate scientists; and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As the senators wrote in their brief, large trade associations that major oil companies support or maintain membership in have actively lobbied against environmental and climate policies. Over the last two decades, the American Petroleum Institute has spent more than $112 million in federal lobbying, the National Association of Manufacturers spent more than $163 million and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent more than $1.5 billion. The Chamber of Commerce and NAM both filed amicus briefs backing fossil fuel companies in other climate liability lawsuits currently under appeal.

While industry trade associations continue to lobby on behalf of fossil fuel corporations, the corporations themselves are spending millions on public messaging and political influence.   Influence Map’s research found the five largest oil companies invested $195 million annually on public relations and “branding” campaigns touting low-carbon technologies and support for the Paris Climate Agreement. At the same time, these companies spent another $200 million annually on lobbying against climate policy and regulations, directly and through trade associations. As the report notes, “This lobbying has hindered governments globally in their efforts to implement such policies post-Paris.”

Chevron refuted the report’s characterizations.

“We were not been afforded the opportunity to review the data but we disagree with the assertion that Chevron has engaged in ‘climate-related branding and lobbying’ that is ‘overwhelmingly in conflict’ with the Paris Agreement,” a Chevron spokesperson said in a statement. “We lobby ethically, constructively, and in a nonpartisan manner. We lobby in accordance with all laws.”

The spokesman said Chevron has invested $1.1 billion in carbon capture and storage projects in Australia and Canada, and spent $8.5 billion since 2000 on research and development on energy alternatives. “We are taking action to address potential climate change risks to our business and investing in technology and low carbon business opportunities that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said.

But this investment pales in comparison with capital spending on the core oil and gas business, the Influence Map report said. “Company disclosures show low carbon investments will comprise only about 3 percent of the oil majors’ expected investments, with the rest of their combined annual capital expenditure ($115Bn for 2019) focused on fossil fuel related businesses,” the report said.

The report also said the oil companies are increasingly leaving the lobbying efforts to their trade associations.

“Just last month, trade association American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), which counts BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell among its largest members, reiterated its opposition to carbon pricing despite the fact that BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell all publicly claim to support carbon pricing,” the senators’ brief said.

The report notes the mounting pressures facing the fossil fuel industry from media scrutiny, to pressure from shareholders and emerging liability lawsuits. “While none of these suits has caused the oil majors any financial stress thus far, this may change should a precedence be set in a future court ruling,” the report said.

The senators concluded their brief with the notion that the oil majors should be held liable for the impacts of climate change.

“Having spent three decades directly obstructing climate action in Congress, at executive agencies, and in international fora, while simultaneously funding myriad trade associations and front groups to lead the obstruction charge, Defendants do not have clean hands,” they said.

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