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CIEL Press Release: Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable

November 16, 2017

BONN – A new report released today by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) synthesizes years of research exposing what the oil industry and other major fossil fuel producers knew about climate change, when they knew it, and what they did about it. The report, Smoke and Fumes: The Legal and Evidentiary Basis for Holding Big Oil Accountable for the Climate Crisis, evaluates that evidence in light of fundamental principles of legal responsibility and concludes major carbon producers can and should be held accountable for climate impacts.

The report finds that oil and gas companies were on notice of potential climate risks as early as the 1950s, and they were repeatedly warned of those risks from the 1960s onward. It documents how major oil companies had the opportunity and capacity to reduce those risks, either by developing technologies under their control or by warning consumers and investors about climate change. Instead, there is extensive evidence that major oil and gas producers worked, individually and in concert, to undermine public confidence in climate science and in the need for climate action. By producing oil and gas in ever greater quantities despite clear evidence of its risks, oil and gas companies contributed significantly to global emissions of greenhouse gases and to increasingly disastrous climate impacts.

“The individual data points in this report, viewed in aggregate, tell the story of an industry with advanced knowledge and expertise about climate change. There is a reasonable public expectation that if there was a problem with their products, big oil would have been the first to know about it and would have had a responsibility to affirmatively warn the public. Instead they actively sowed confusion and doubt,” says Steven Feit, CIEL Staff Attorney. “Over the seven decades in this timeline, liability may attach to different companies for different theories at different times. However, looking at the evidence as a whole, over time, and across the industry, the answer to whether big oil is responsible is yes.”

Countries, cities, communities, and even individuals can now quantify climate change impacts and harms against them. Meanwhile, researchers are increasingly able to attribute historical carbon and methane emissions to a handful of private companies who can be sued as defendants whose contributions to the climate crisis are identifiable, measurable, and significant. The evidence in this report suggests that under multiple theories of law, major oil producers could be held liable for knowing of climate risks linked to their products and failing to take action to avoid or reduce those risks—either by eliminating them or by properly warning consumers, regulators, and the public about them.

“Exxon and its oil industry allies have given us a decades-long history of climate change, climate denial, and climate chaos,” says Carroll Muffett, CIEL President. “This report exposes that history and suggests that the future of these companies will be marked by climate litigation and climate accountability.”

Across the United States and around world, investigations into and litigation against major carbon producers are accelerating. Amidst growing calls to hold Exxon and other major carbon producers accountable for the dire impacts of climate change, the question arises: Can they be held responsible? And should they be? The evidence in this report makes clear that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.


Amanda Kistler, Communications Director: akistler@ciel.org1.202.742.5832


Read the report here.
Read six-page synopsis here.
Social media kit here.
View press release online.

Key Findings 

  • Theories regarding the potential link between fossil fuel combustion and atmospheric temperature increase were widely reported in scientific literature and academic texts relevant to the oil industry from the early decades of the 20th Century.
  • The oil industry had incentives, opportunity, and relevant expertise to investigate and understand climate science
  • Documentary evidence demonstrates the oil industry was on notice of potential climate risks by 1957-1958.
  • Humble Oil, at the time a wholly-owned subsidiary of Esso (now ExxonMobil), published research acknowledging the link between fossil fuels and atmospheric CO2 in 1957.
  • Industry records document that industry research into air pollution issues was highly coordinated and shared widely within the industry and that this included research into fossil carbon in the atmosphere by no later than 1958.
  • Industry records and other sources indicate that this coordinated industry research program was used to mobilize public opposition to the regulation of air pollutants by sowing doubt regarding air pollution science.
  • The oil industry was expressly warned of the potential severity of climate risks by its own consulting scientists in 1968 and repeatedly thereafter.
  • Numerous industry documents demonstrate these risks were communicated by industry scientists to executives at the highest levels of the industry many over the ensuing decades.
  • The oil industry held early patents on numerous technologies that might have reduced climate change risk.
  • Even while blocking public action to address climate change, oil companies took steps to protect their own assets from climate risks. This divergence between industry communications to the public and industry action to safeguard its own investments began as early as the 1970s and is well established by the 1980s.
  • Notwithstanding their own best information, leading oil companies and industry associations actively participated in or funded climate misinformation efforts for decades through media intended to reach wide audiences of consumers, investors, and the general public.

What others are saying about this report:

Bill McKibben, author and co-founder,

“We're used to talking about the 'crime of the century,' but this heist is unique in geologic time -- these companies have done their best to steal our future as a species and a planet."

Sharon Eubanks, Counsel, Bordas & Bordas, former lead counsel for the Justice Department in federal tobacco litigation

“CIEL’s Smoke and Fumes Synthesis Report ‘clears the air’ with respect to the petroleum industry’s sinister efforts to block sound climate policy with knowingly false denials of the harms associated with climate change. Just as the tobacco industry engaged in a long history of denial, obfuscation, and attacks on science, the report demonstrates that the petroleum industry was similarly engaged. CIEL’s report paves the way for solid litigation support in any case against the industry.”

Richard Heede, Climate Accountability Institute

“CIEL illuminates what the oil and gas industry knew about climate risks and when they knew it going back to the late 1950s. Insofar as industry is obliged to understand and act on the environmental and societal consequences of producing and marketing carbon fuels to global customers, this report underscores the failure of companies and trade associations to warn regulators and the public about the risks and damages from climate change that their own scientists saw coming with continued use of fossil fuels. Damnably, oil company management was also warned, yet not only failed to act, but instead obfuscated and lied in order to assure uninterrupted profits at public and planetary expense. The report makes cogent legal and ethical arguments for the culpability of industry in knowingly destabilizing our climate.”

May Boeve, Executive Director,

“This report underlines the necessity of all of us to coming together to hold Exxon and its ilk accountable for lying about the reality of climate change. With climate litigation on the rise, our courts are an increasingly crucial channel to make sure it's fossil fuel billionaires—not our communities—who pay for the transition to a fossil free world that puts people and our planet first."

Richard Harvey, Barrister (England & Wales), Legal Counsel on Campaigns and Actions at Greenpeace International

"CIEL's clear and convincing evidence proves beyond doubt that the oil and gas industry has been systematically lying about its destructive practices and fabricating bogus science for more than half a century. The case against the industry is unanswerable. Big Oil and Gas have conspired to make massive short term profits, in full awareness that they were passing on massive longer term costs to present and future generations. Those costs cannot be calculated in mere dollar terms; the industry's emissions contribute to extreme weather events that are already destroying thousands of lives, devastating entire countries and regions, and threatening to make uninhabitable some of the most populous areas on our planet. It is high time to hold the industry to account."

Kathy Mulvey, Climate Accountability Campaign Manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

“CIEL’s report should be a useful tool for shareholders who are demanding companies like ExxonMobil disclose their climate risks and plan for a carbon-constrained world. Frontline communities, as well as the lawyers representing them, may also find it a foundational resource in building a case for why fossil fuel companies must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change and their climate science deception.”

Social Media Kit​