Confidential Shell Oil Report Prompts Lawsuit: They Knew About Climate Change Decades Ago

This Real News Network interview with Carroll Muffett, President of the Center for International Environmental Law, discusses a confidential 1986 Shell report that documents what Royal Dutch Shell knew about fossil fuel driving climate change and when they knew it. The Shell report was  published last week by a Dutch source.

This DeSmogblog post from last week, Here is what #ShellKnew about Climate Change in the 1980s supplies further detail, from which I’ve extracted a link to the internal Shell report.

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

A trove of internal documents and reports of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell shows that oil giant has known for three decades that fossil fuel products would lead to catastrophic climate change. This according to an investigative report done by the Dutch newspaper De Correspondent. Interestingly, Shell also predicted that environmental NGOs would sue fossil fuel companies, claiming damages for extreme weather on the grounds of neglecting what scientists have been saying for years. And it turns out that the Dutch wing of Friends of the Earth has done just that, filing a lawsuit against Shell requiring them to comply with the climate targets set out by the Paris agreement to limit global temperature rise to one point five degrees Celsius, thereby severely limiting Shell’s investments in oil and gas worldwide.

A similar cache of leaked internal documents from Exxon Mobil led to investigative reports and ongoing legal lawsuits including ones by the attorney general of New York and the state of Massachusetts. The Friends of the Earth lawsuit is the first of its kind in a European-based case dealing with the European-based oil giant.

With us to discuss what Shell knew and when they knew it, we are joined by Carol Muffett. He is the president and CEO of the Center for International and Environmental Law. Thank you so much for joining us, Carol.

CAROL MUFFETT: It’s nice to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, so we know from the leaked documents that Shell knew back in the ’80s that the fossil fuel products would lead to catastrophic environmental and climate change challenges. So give us the takeaways from the released documents and the investigations that the Dutch newspaper did.

CAROL MUFFETT: So the most important takeaway from these documents is actually that the documents exist, and that the investigations that began with Exxon are clearly not going to end there. What we’re going to see is more and more information like this coming to light about these companies. The documents unearthed by Jelmer Mommers and De Correspondent are really important because they give us a piece of the puzzle that we didn’t have from Shell’s perspective in a critical period of the climate debate, from the 1980s through the 1990s. When we put that, those documents together with earlier pieces of the puzzle that we already had, what we begin to see is a picture of a company that really from the earliest stages of climate science was deeply immersed in and fully aware of that science. We can demonstrate that Shell, like other oil companies, was on early notice of climate risks by no later than the early 1960s and potentially as early as the 1950s.

But even more remarkably, in these documents we see Shell in its own words acknowledging climate risks, ranging from rising sea levels, to saltwater intrusion, to the destruction of ecosystems, to even the creation of climate refugees. And Shell actually in the 1980s quantified its own contribution to that problem and said last, in 1984, Shell’s products contributed to 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a remarkable acknowledgement from a company, and it aligns really well with research done by the Climate Accountability Institute and others to create those same figures for these companies.

And now Shell has given this its number, and its number is very significant, particularly in light of the emerging litigation that you mentioned.

SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, why did Shell, and we also know Exxon did, why did they engage scientists to research and uncover and make such recommendations to them?

CAROL MUFFETT: There’s a there’s a popular misconception, particularly in the U.S., where many many people from my generation grew up watching Dallas, that the oil industry is populated by rich, rich ill-informed hicks. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an industry that from the very beginnings of the 20th century was populated by scientists of the highest caliber. And not one or two scientists. Huge arrays of geologists, physicists, economists. These were companies that were at the cutting edge of scientific research on an array of fields. And so the fact that they would be fully immersed and fully engaged on climate science that was directly relevant to the impacts and potential risks of their products shouldn’t really surprise anyone.

SHARMINI PERIES: So you’re basically saying that R&D departments back then that spent a lot of money on that came up with these reports and documents. And you say that there is a trove of them. Now, the two organizations that was investigating went through all of these documents, as far as you know?

CAROL MUFFETT: Well, there are many, many documents. And, and whether they’ve been able to go through, some of them running hundreds of pages, whether they’ve been able to go through all of them is hard to know. And this is something that we at CL understand firsthand. You know, the truth is there are massive amounts of information out there. Just in the course of preparing our own analysis we discovered we discovered an explicit recognition from Shell’s chief geologist from 1962 that climate change caused by the combustion of fossil fuels could have massive impacts on the global environment. And moreover, Shell’s chief geologist at that point highlighted the recommendations of other scientists that even at that point a shift should begin to solar energy.
SHARMINI PERIES: Carol, give us a survey of the kinds of litigations that are underway by the attorney general of California, of course New York and Massachusetts I mentioned off the top, that are underway and what you expect from them.

CAROL MUFFETT: The first thing that we anticipate is that the litigation is going to grow and accelerate really rapidly from here. Already we’re seeing suits by nine cities and counties in the United States, including the city of New York, the city of San Francisco. Los Angeles has adopted a resolution to investigate whether it should sue as well. This is in addition to the active investigations that are going on in Massachusetts and New York, and it’s in addition to the new notice of litigation that was just filed against Shell yesterday in the Netherlands.

And so I think what we’re witnessing is is a massive explosion in suits of this kind, and it’s building on the, the growing evidence in the public space that these companies were fully aware of the risks of their products for decades, and yet actively misled the public about those risks and continued to produce ever-greater quantities of fossil fuels.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, your organization is pursuing some of these cases as well?

CAROL MUFFETT: CL has worked to bring new evidence to light, to do a legal analysis of the responsibilities of these companies. We produced a report last fall on the legal and evidentiary basis for holding oil companies accountable for climate change. And we’ve, we’ve continued to be active particularly from the human rights perspective on this litigation. Working, for example, to provide support to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights as it investigates Shell and Exxon and other carbon majors for their role in climate-related human rights abuses in that country.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Carol, I thank you so much for giving us this quick report. There’s so much more to discuss. But I thank you for now, and we’ll be back to you really soon. Thanks so much for joining us today.

CAROL MUFFETT: Thanks very much.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on the Real News Network.

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  1. SimonGirty

    Next: Shell knew that most of their North Sea Oil platform cement jobs would be leaking methane, before putting Bullwinkle, Mars, Mensa, Ram Powell & Ursa in the Gulf?

    1. SimonGirty

      Also too: Shell knows any Marcellus wet gas gathering & crazy storage system, 97mile pipeline and $6B ethane cracker (adjacent to huge, OLD reactors, surrounded by fracked wells) will leak even worse stuff as annulars, cement & cheaply sourced casing fails, exponentially.

  2. Ed Seedhouse

    I knew about climate change in the 1980’s too, because I read Isaac Asimov’s essays. Anyone who was paying attention back then should have known, IMHO – it wasn’t a state secret!

    1. rjs

      exactly…anyone who was paying attention knew…maybe those who are suing Shell might be too young to have known, but the impact of fossil fuel use on warming was well known at least as early as 1976, when there were Science and Technology Subcommittee Hearings about the impact of atmospheric gases on the climate in the House…i talked with my congressman, Dennis Eckart, about it at that time, and i have the committee prints from the hearings around here someplace…they even published & distributed a litle brochure about it, 8 1/2 X 11, folded in half..

      the point is, we all knew and did nothing, just as nothing is being done today..

      1. jrs

        Even now it’s doing nothing. So it’s suing, so someone else maybe states gets some of the sweet lucre from sweet crude. Money which they will probably enrich themselves with and pocket, but even if it’s used for the common good – is it offsetting the carbon? Is it even preparing for the impacts of climate change? If it’s all just chasing money, and who can get some, it’s a very capitalist game, in a system that isn’t going change.

        What about actually doing something:

    2. SimonGirty

      Dear Jim Mullaney, of Pittsburgh’s Buhl Planetarium was teaching us snot nosed little punks about slowing of the Gulf Stream, what’s now known as Polar Vortices & was later termed the Clathrate Gun hypothesis in the VERY early sixties. Somehow, it wasnt contriversial back then? It was something the gas & oil industry was studying. So, it all decided to happen in our lifetime, so who knew?

    3. jrs

      yea my junior high teacher talked about it, so my tween self knew even. And worried! Everybody knew, but of course being involved in climate science is a much deeper level of knowledge, but at the most basic level everyone who cared to know knew …

      Now what I didn’t know so much back then and have since learned: is that we don’t live in a democracy, and it is extremely difficult for average people to have any voice in politics, in policies that affect well … the future of life on earth … or anything else for that matter.

  3. John

    Ideally, Shell would have to pay huge sums of money for its contribution to climate change, but legally, it doesn’t make sense. We don’t hold companies responsible for externalities. If we did, then every company (and household, perhaps) would have to pay for theirs. Aside from campaign finance reform and maybe restrictions on the concentration of media ownership, there is no policy I’d rather see in place than Pigovian taxes. But the public is a long ways off from accepting something like that, especially because of the rise in energy and food (particularly red meat) prices that would hit the poor the hardest.

    1. John Wright

      If Shell were required to pay large sums, one can wonder if the funds would simply fund more energy consuming consumption.

      If oil companies were forced to sell less of their product and it was not substituted for with some product that produced even more CO2 per kilo-watt-hour, we would make some mild progress against climate change.

      But I remember when the sales of oil were restricted by the suppliers, specifically the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970’s. The USA population was not happy, energy independence was promoted, and the Carter doctrine was promulgated to allow USA military action to keep oil flowing.

      I suspect the climate change problem cannot be solved by lawsuits or new laws because the pandering to energy users, including me, will rule the day.

      There is a possibility there is no politically acceptable solution for climate change, and we can simply observe and compensate as we can as climate change effects manifest.

      The mix of increasing population, the quest for a more energy consumptive lifestyle by many of the world’s humans and the lack of solutions that scale up or scale up in time, appear to me to make any serious attempt to limit climate change effects implausible.

      Asking people to sacrifice THEIR lifestyle to lessen climate change will result in a spin on “don’t tax me for climate change, don’t tax thee for climate change, tax the man behind the tree”.

    2. jrs

      It’s a hard maybe insolvable problem, but not for any of the reasons given. Not because it will hit the poor the hardest, you make up for this by doing straight income redistribution to the poor. That’s an EASY problem.

      Not because people don’t want it at a superficial level (they dislike oil shortages etc.) because what people want is sometimes entirely a product of their society (a society where living itself is car dependent). But things can be done about that.

      But no it’s a hard problem for deeper reasons than that the current social relations can’t be changed, of course they can (but out lack of democracy slows it).

  4. Dwight

    The Senate voted 95-0 in 1997 to effectually do nothing about climate change, not because they didn’t believe the science, but for economic reasons. (Byrd-Hagel Resolution). The U.S. had already acknowledged the risks of climate change, and had agreed that developing countries should act first and that uncertainties should not be an excuse for inaction, when it ratified the Rio climate treaty in 1994. When it came time to act on the treaty, the U.S. said no.

    Since then, Democratic administrations have chipped away with measures that don’t require Congress, for example by getting the Supreme Court to agree that greenhouse gas emissions are a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.

    These lawsuits are another way for Democrats to chip away at the problem, I guess, but these efforts don’t change the 1997 bipartisan decision not to act, at a time that was less late. We now desperately need to fund adaptation as well as emissions reduction, and I doubt this can be done through tort actions, and especially not through securities actions.

    The children’s public trust doctrine suit is the case that make the most sense to me, at least in principle, as only the federal government can force and fund the necessary mobilization.

    It seems like we’re blaming oil companies for giving us the oil we wanted, and blaming them for our own failure to act. The Devil made us do it, and all that.

    1. Webstir

      Yes, I can hear the corporate defense lawyers sharpening their ‘contibution’ arguments now.

  5. Tyronius

    Suing oil companies for malfeasance is legitimate but it’s important to remember that their responsibility is limited.

    Moving on to asking the consumer to sacrifice; frankly, 90% of all Americans have been progressively squeezed for half a century and so making do with less has very much become second nature. It’s the top 10% who will need to learn to pay their taxes and learn to live with some limits to their extremely, conspicuously unsustainable behavior.

    Same goes for the rest of the world; it isn’t the vast majority who most need to learn to tighten their belts, it’s the upper classes.

    When the lower classes finally come to understand just how badly the rich have wrecked things for everyone, the political will to make the necessary changes will materialize very quickly. This change will be revolutionary in nature, not incremental. I can only hope that the brand of revolt involved is peaceful- but I have my doubts.

    I know how ‘Leftist’ this sounds, but history has repeatedly shown this to be the paradigm. The only other alternative is truly the end of civilisation.

    Are we humans really so shortsighted that we can see the end coming but won’t do what’s needed to save our collective future? I believe the upcoming century will provide the answer. I expect to live long enough see only the first half.

  6. JBird

    It is nice to know that my hometown might have a slight decrease in size for capitalism’s benefit. Actually much of the San Francisco Bay Area will have as much of the Bayfront is 150 years of land fill. It has been suggested to find ways to bring back some of the formerly extensive marshlands. Problem solved.

    It’s also good to know that much of the “debate” over global warming was hi-jacked using propaganda, lies, and bribes along with the willing support of Congress. Label it a Democratic liberal conspiracy, make the possible collapse of civilization, certainly war, famine, disease, and massive population shifts as “Conservative” while increasing social conflicts and governmental dysfunction.

    The potential for climate change was noted during the early Industrial Revolution. I don’t think it was widely known but a few scientists/academics did know. That’s like two centuries.

  7. JE

    Yes, but what to do? I’ve been thinking about how to take action on this for myself and my family, reducing our carbon footprint. We already have 5kW of solar, have an air-source heat pump to heat our home (MN), and drive efficient vehicles. Analysis of our data shows that driving, even a hybrid, is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases that I am able to track (The primary untracked source is the emissions represented by our food.) Our home energy use is about 8500 lbs of CO2 per year. Driving our two vehicles is around 13500 lbs of CO2 per year from about 20k miles per year (US household average miles for two vehicles is 23.7k). Switching to electric vehicles would only reduce that to around 8000 lbs of CO2 per year assuming 1.21 lbs CO2 per kWh and .333 kWh/mile. Clearly we have to change the way we move ourselves around. That is the only way to go. Ideas?

    If we do sue the petroleum purveyors, I’d like to see the money invested in a solution rather than enriching lawyers and papering over bad governmental debts. Funding the hyperloop? Investing in walkable communities? Pushing telecommuting-enabling legislation?

    1. blennylips

      Yes, but what to do? I’ve been thinking about how to take action on this for myself and my family, reducing our carbon footprint.

      Take that whole reduction, how many feet of one voyage of one of these do you think you’ve offset?

      How 16 ships create as much pollution as all the cars in the world (dailymail, 2009)

      With a more recent followup:

      The Environmental Horrors of Bunker Fuel: Climate Action MIT Style

      We do what we can so that we can live with ourselves.

      1. JTMcPhee

        All those ships burning bunker oil are doing, we must remember, that Holiest of All Holy Acts, TRADE. The lifeblood of this cancer-ridden carcass of a planet-smearing species. Never to be challenged or God Forbid, replaced by Autarky,, (as contrasted with and NEVER to be confused with that other Holy of Holies, Autarchy,…)

        And that TRADE sanctification leads on to something that looks very much like angiogenesis, which for those of you who don’t recognize the term, means this: Because without TRADE, we would not have megatons of cheap sh!t from China exchanging places with megatons of cheap money from Other Places, and ships carrying coal to Newcastle, and all the other “benefits”? that TRADE confers on the human mopery and the other dismissable species that get to vanish under the gentle ministrations of TRADE lovers…

        And yes, even Autarks have to “trade,” small letters, and transport stuff around a bit, from the truck garden to the farmer’s market and so forth. But that is not the same thing as TRADE, the bane of the planet. And the wellspring of “wealth, enormous, gluttonous wealth,” for the very few, and the likely death sentence our and so many other species are now under. Thanks to our appetites and preferences (as carefully cultivated by the masters of TRADE.)

      2. JE

        Wow. I wasn’t aware of the details around shipping pollution. Thank you. Now what to do? Stop buying stuff transported over the ocean? Semi-doable. Better to enact standards for ship pollution as well as limiting consumption of trade goods from overseas. I’ll get right on it!

        1. blennylips

          Well, it just so happens that IMO is having their MEPC right now in London.

          IMO == International Marine Organization
          MEPC == Marine Environment Protection Committee

          This is the 72nd time they’ve considered, you know, protecting the seas:

          Some customers are taking note this time:

          1. blennylips

            Okay, after that green gaslighting (correct usage?), back to reality:

            HMM Sets Course for 1 Million TEU Fleet with Megaship Order
            April 10, 2018

            By Mike Wackett (The Loadstar) – South Korea’s largest surviving ocean carrier, Hyundai Merchant Marine (HMM) has now officially confirmed its plans to order 350,000 teu (Twenty-foot equivalent unit) of new capacity, including 12 x 20,000 + teu ultra-large vessels.


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