By TJ Faircloth
We are at the same tipping point now with Big Oil and its dirty partners that made Big Tobacco a pariah decades ago. Just as federal investigations unearthed the outrageous extent to which the tobacco industry lied, deceived and cheated its way around commonsense public health protections, so, too, will the New York attorney general's investigation into ExxonMobil allow us to see the dirty truth behind big polluters and their PR.
1. Tip of the iceberg
If it’s anything like what happened with Big Tobacco, this investigation might well spur other attorneys general to investigate the actions of not just ExxonMobil, but also a suite of fossil fuel corporations that may also have obscured information about the role fossil fuel extraction and combustion have played in driving climate change. Not to mention the ways these corporations have used that information to slow, water down and block climate policies.
2. Parallels to Big Tobacco
We're at the same tipping point that we faced with Big Tobacco in the 1990s. At that time, investigations by attorneys general resulted in a massive legal settlement, known as the Master Settlement Agreement
, and forced the release of millions of internal documents. And in 2006, a federal judge ruled that tobacco corporations had knowingly deceived the public
. These and other legal actions shaped the current public climate, in which Big Tobacco is barred from participating in public health policymaking. We can now see a future in which fossil fuel corporations will be regarded in the same light.
3. What this means for COP21 and beyond
This investigation dovetails with the growth of a global movement
to address the conflict of interest inherent in allowing polluters like ExxonMobil to have a seat at the negotiating table. To date, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel corporations have heavily influenced climate policymaking -- at the U.N. and in national governments -- via their lobbyists and front groups like the American Petroleum Institute. This development peels back any veneer of impartiality and reveals their true intentions.
After decades of taking lessons in deception from Big Tobacco’s playbook, it’s Big Oil’s turn to reckon with its abuses. This is Big Oil’s Big Tobacco moment.
Image credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart
TJ Faircloth is deputy director of campaigns and research for Corporate Accountability International. He has a background and focus on international policy and strategic corporate research.