What did the oil industry know, and when?

It’s a key question for GOP attorney general candidate Jim Schultz

October 10, 2022 6:00 am

View above the Black Fire in New Mexico, May, 2022. Photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Every day the effects of climate change become more tangible, not as a future to fear, but as a reality to endure. 

Sometimes we feel like we’re in a biblical parable. Western drought and heat waves are destroying grapes for wine, particularly ominous given its ancient association with fertility. Fires are ripping through forests and mocking civilization’s encroachments. Elsewhere, rain storms evoke Noah and Utnapishtim. And there are far fewer species to welcome aboard any ark after the great dying currently being ushered in by humans. 

Unlike ancient societies, however, we don’t need to invent mystical causes for our calamities. Our understanding of the physical world means we know what’s caused this, and we have for a long time. 

Exxon researchers were considering the effects of global warming on their business as far back as the 1970s, “funding its own internal science as well as research from outside experts at Columbia University and MIT,” according to the Los Angeles Times

The conclusion: It’s happening, and it’s caused by CO2 emissions. 

They were saying so semi-publicly as far back as 1991. “Certainly any major (energy) development with a lifespan of say 30-40 years will need to assess the impacts of potential global warming,” said Ken Croasdale, an Exxon ice researcher, at an engineering conference, according to the L.A. Times reporting. “This is particularly true of Arctic and offshore projects in Canada, where warming will clearly affect sea ice, icebergs, permafrost and sea levels.”

Croasdale also said gasses are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels,” and that “Nobody disputes this fact.”

Of course Exxon researchers were studying this phenomenon and considering its ramifications. After all, it’s real, and it has a major impact on their business. These are not stupid people. 

Meanwhile, however, the company was using its money and vast influence with Republicans and the right-wing media to push a very different story, which in turn led to stories in the mainstream media about a “debate” about the issue, sowing doubt about global warming and its causes. 

As the Guardian reported as part of a comprehensive examination of the oil industry’s climate denialism: “ExxonMobil continued to fund climate denial through at least 2018. One of their 2004 advertorials claimed ‘scientific uncertainties’ precluded ‘determinations regarding the human role in recent climate change.’ That was untrue. Nine years earlier, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had concluded a ‘discernible human influence on global climate.’” 

The punchline: “ExxonMobil’s chief climate scientist was a contributing author to the report.”

All this reporting suggests when oil companies discussed climate change internally and with other industry insiders, they said one thing. When they talked to the public, they said something entirely different, ensuring they delayed any policy response to global warming, thus protecting their continued profits. 

What would you call this behavior? 

The office of Attorney General Keith Ellison is suing ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and three Koch Industries entities for perpetuating what Ellison calls a fraud against Minnesotans. 

Jim Schultz, Ellison’s Republican opponent in the fall election, doesn’t think much of the case. 

“There’s extraordinarily little evidence that they, in fact, you know, deceive, things like that,” he said at a Star Tribune State Fair forum. 

“If they, you know, if they or anybody else did, you know, break Minnesota law, whether that is deception of consumers, I would be the first one to bring the case, but I do not believe, I don’t believe this is a strong case. Ultimately, once it gets through the initial jurisdictional phases of this, I’m confident it will be thrown out… .” 

In that same interview, he used a historical analogy: Failed lawsuits against fast food companies for climbing rates of obesity and resulting ill health.  

He sidestepped a more relevant analogy: Tobacco companies, which were telling the public — and the U.S. Congress — that their products weren’t addictive even as they were amping up the addictive properties of cigarettes.

The state of Minnesota sued the tobacco companies and came away with $6.5 billion in 1998 — among other important public health concessions — and tobacco use among young Minnesotans plunged until vaping came along. 

Perhaps Schultz — a former lawyer for Värde Partners, which has money in fossil fuel investments — is so shrouded in an epistemic cocoon that he’s unfamiliar with the evidence when it comes to the oil industry.

If he’s elected he should take some time off before he takes office and travel to the state’s northern forests — which in the long term are threatened by global warming — and read up on the fossil fuel industry’s conduct these past 40 years. 

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and two young children