After new evidence emerged last week showing that oil major Shell internally acknowledged the dangers of their fossil fuel products decades ago, a member of Congress is renewing his previous call for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Shell and other Big Oil companies’ “alleged campaigns of climate deception” may have violated federal law.
The company documents, first unearthed by Dutch researcher Vatan Hüzeir and reported last week by DeSmog and Follow the Money, reveal Shell executives and employees predicting “major adverse changes” to the climate from fossil fuel emissions — and admitting Shell’s role in causing the problem. “Global warming could challenge the very fabric of the world’s ecological and economic systems,” warned Shell executive Ged Davis in one newly uncovered document from 1989.
“This new set of documents further demonstrates that Shell privately knew about the dangers its products would cause to the environment yet continued to deceive the public in pursuit of company profits. This is wrong and potentially illegal,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), who along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) led 20 members of Congress in a letter last year urging the Department of Justice to look deeper into evidence that Shell, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel majors “lied — and continue to lie — to the public about their central role in exacerbating the climate crisis.”
“These new documents provide additional evidence and make our calls for an investigation even more urgent,” Lieu told ExxonKnews in response to the latest Shell revelations.
The lawmakers’ July 25 letter cited an initial batch of internal Shell documents released by Hüzeir last March. The evidence, they wrote, should inspire the DOJ to “investigate Exxon, Shell, and other members of the fossil fuel industry to determine whether they violated RICO, consumer protection, truth in advertising, public health, or other laws.”
A separate letter from U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Ed Markey (D-OR) urged the DOJ to go even further and “bring suits against the fossil fuel industry for its longstanding and carefully coordinated campaign to mislead consumers and discredit climate science in pursuit of massive profits.”
The latest documents add to an abundance of proof that Shell was well aware of the harm its products would cause — and acknowledged its culpability for the damage.
“If a product is used, as indicated by Shell, and annoying consequences nevertheless arise, Shell feels partly responsible,” representatives from Shell told researchers from the Dutch University of Leiden in 1970.
Those “annoying consequences” — which turned out to be more catastrophic and deadly than just annoying — were plainly elucidated by the company in the years to follow. In a 1985 journal article, Shell employee T.G. Wilkinson observed that the burning of fossil fuels has “upset the balance” of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and “will cause major adverse changes to some areas.”
“The dilemma therefore remains as to whether to encourage the continued use of fossil fuels with the potential enormous effects on the world’s climate,” Wilkinson wrote.
Two years later, an internal Shell report titled “Air Pollution: an Oil Industry Perspective” noted that a rise in CO2 in the atmosphere “could lead to a higher average surface temperature on Earth, which could have far-reaching environmental, social and economic consequences.”
In 1989, Shell executive Davis warned that “Two groups who could bear particularly heavy costs will be: Future generations who would have to live with the costs of adaptation, and…Those in countries yet to industrialise who would face constraints on energy use.”
Davis is now executive chair of world energy scenarios at the World Energy Council.
Armed with the information it needed to steer the world toward cleaner sources of energy, Shell embarked on a campaign to undermine climate action instead.
The same year Davis made his prediction in the OECD report, Shell helped found the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an oil industry lobbying group that worked to spread disinformation about climate science.
A year later, in an internal publication, Shell admitted the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and embrace alternative sources of energy — but stated that “by the time the enhanced greenhouse effect has been conclusively proven, it may be too late to do anything about it.”
Shell went on to promote the idea that climate science was uncertain and downplayed the role of fossil fuels in the years to come. “It is very difficult to aportion [sic] the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations to any particular cause,” read one paper published by the company in 1992.
When Shell left the GCC, citing its opposition to the Kyoto climate agreement, it explained in a 1998 report that “The Shell view is that prudent precautionary measures are called for.”
Hüzeir, the researcher who unearthed these reports, told DeSmog that documents like this could help litigators make the case against Shell in a growing wave of lawsuits seeking to hold the company accountable for knowingly fueling climate chaos. “Shell’s deepening embrace of the precautionary principle, as revealed in this document, shows that Shell was well aware of the crisis ahead,” he said. “What else did they know?”
The documents add to a heap of evidence that could spur the country’s most powerful public interest law firm to investigate Big Oil.
“If the allegations against ExxonMobil, Shell, and other major fossil fuel companies are true, their coordinated efforts to deceive Americans constitute the most consequential deception campaign in history, with potentially existential consequences for our planet,” Lieu and other members of Congress wrote in their July letter to the DOJ. “We respectfully request that the DOJ investigate whether these actions violated federal law.”
Since that letter was sent last year, more state and local governments have taken the companies to court for that deception. California — the most populous state in the nation and one of the world’s largest economies — sued Shell and other fossil fuel majors for climate damages and consumer fraud. Two Indigenous tribal governments in Washington State, forced to spend millions relocating their communities due to rising seas, filed their own lawsuit against oil giants. Honolulu’s climate accountability lawsuit cleared motions to dismiss the case by fossil fuel defendants, putting it on a path to be the first case of its kind to go to trial.
The stakes of these legal efforts are only getting higher, as climate disasters continue to batter many of the same communities awaiting their day in court. The DOJ threw its support behind the plaintiffs in a U.S. Supreme Court brief the agency filed last March, but it hasn’t yet taken independent action against the fossil fuel industry.
“It’s time to hold polluters accountable for their lies, which could have existential consequences for our planet,” Lieu said.