Big Tobacco was brought to its knees when it lost a $208 billion judgment in 1998. The money was to be paid out over 25 years. One of the most important parts of the legal action that led up to the massive payout was evidence that the industry had hidden the truth about the health impact of tobacco use. Smoking tobacco was dangerous. Big Tobacco had information about the danger as early as the 1950s. The case against Big Oil is very similar to the Big Tobacco one. Industry giants have known, probably since the 1950s, the dangerous effects of fossil fuels on the environment.
The case against Big Oil has already started, both in the legal system and the realm of public opinion. Last September, California bought an action against Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Chevron. A lobbying operation, The American Petroleum Institute, was added for good measure. The suit was filed by the state’s attorney general, Rob Bonta. It echoes the case brought against Big Tobacco, which was settled in 1998 when 52 state and territory attorneys general signed the “Master Settlement Agreement (MSA)” with four major tobacco companies. The MSA finalized most of the state cases against the industry.
When the California case was filed last year, Richard Wiles, the president of the Center for Climate Integrity, told The New York Times, “California’s case is the most significant, decisive, and powerful climate action directed against the oil and gas industry in U.S. history,” Sharon Y Eubanks who was the lead counsel in the federal tobacco litigation “United States v Philip Morris USA, et al.” saw a day of judgment coming when she authored an editorial for The Guardian: “I led the US lawsuit against big tobacco for its harmful lies. Big oil is next.” She wrote: “Both industries lied to the public and regulators about what they knew about the harms of their products.”
Public opinion may not drive legal judgments, but Americans are aware of the enormous financial burden Big Oil costs the country because of its massive contribution to climate change. In a new “Data for Progress” poll, 66% of those queried said they would support a bill forcing oil and gas companies to pay a share of the climate damage caused by their pollution. It is good news for candidates who run on a platform that includes the payment of reparations by Big Oil.
There is no longer any reason to speculate whether there will be a coordinated action across a large number of states and the federal government, accusing Big Oil of deception and years of severely damaging the environment. The only question will be how many hundreds of billions of dollars Big Oil will have to pay.