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What Big Oil knew, and when they knew it

Frontline’s “The Power of Big Oil,” covers the oil industry’s increasingly desperate, more-than-four-decade-long-and-still-going struggle to deny, delay, dispute and minimize climate change.

ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Refinery
In 1982, Exxon distributed an internal document detailing that its own research showed global warming was real and caused by fossil fuel combustion.
REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

Part one of an epic three-part series by the great PBS documentary unit “Frontline” airs tonight.

Titled “The Power of Big Oil,” the whole series covers the oil industry’s increasingly desperate, more-than-four-decade-long-and-still-going struggle to deny, delay, dispute and minimize the growing body of evidence that America’s (and the world’s) addiction to gasoline is a massive threat to the environment.

Part one premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS stations, including KTCA Channel 2 in the Twin Cities. Parts two and three will air on the following two Tuesdays. I’ve been able to preview only part one, which is 90 minutes long.

Part one covers the early decades of climate change awareness, from the 1970s up to the mid-1990s, when the U.S. and the world grew more aware that burning fossil fuels was creating a “greenhouse effect,” trapping the sun’s warmth in the lower atmosphere and thus raising the earth’s temperature.

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By now, of course, you know that there is a consensus among scientists that this is occurring, with colossal and frightening implications that even the early assessments described as “quite dramatic,” and “potentially catastrophic.” On this basic point, the scientific community early on achieved virtually unanimous agreement within various ranges of how hot and how fast it would occur.

One of the Exxon scientists quoted in the film recalls that in those early years he was convinced that Exxon wanted to understand the greenhouse effect “in order to be part of the solution, not so we could deny the problem.”

But Neela Banerjee, author of “Exxon: The Road Not Taken” said that Exxon soon developed a culture of “climate change denialism.” By 1982, the film says, when the bottom briefly fell out of oil prices, Exxon cut back on and then totally stopped doing research on alternative energy sources.

Exxon (now ExxonMobil), by the way, declined to provide interviews to Frontline and instead released this statement:“For more than 40 years, we have supported development of climate science in partnership with governments and academic institutions… ExxonMobil has never had any unique or superior knowledge about climate science, let alone any that was unavailable to policymakers or the public.”

The industry’s knowledge may or not have been “unique” or “superior,” although its responsibility was certainly among the highest.

Dr. Ben Franta, a climate historian and activist, says in the film that:

“There are [oil company] documents from the 1980s and 70s talking about climate change. So to only learn about it in 2010 shows that knowledge doesn’t necessarily go in a unidirectional fashion. We now know that Shell [Oil Company], for example, had a sophisticated understanding of the climate change issue by the end of the 1980s. The coal industry, too. So there’s a level of foreknowledge by the fossil fuel industry that ‘business as usual’ would lead to disaster around the world.”

“Exxon: The Road Not Taken” sets 1988 as the year the climate change issue became a staple of environmental policy disputes, with the industry adopting a strategy of “strategic uncertainty” to fight off calls for urgent action.

Al Gore, congressman, senator, vice president and presidential nominee, embraced the issue early and said that tackling climate change was “the principal task that he set for himself” when he rose to national prominence as Bill Clinton’s 1992 running mate, according to Mark Chupka, a Gore advisor quoted in the film.

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Bill Clinton was well aware of this when he chose Gore as his 1992 running mate and Gore played a big role in getting Clinton to embrace a “BTU tax,” roughly a tax on global warming, in his first budget proposal. But against enormous oil company resistance, Clinton pulled it down, although the idea remained in play ever since, against tremendous energy industry resistance.

Clinton did sign the “Kyoto protocol” in 1998, a multinational pledge to tackle climate change. That was certainly a high moment in U.S. government support for global climate action. But enforcement of any action to fulfill that pledge the action was subject to Senate approval and it became a top issue for the energy industry’s resistance to strong action on climate change.

The arguments against Kyoto did not go to the heart of climate policy. Rather, they argued that that the accord put too much of the burden for fixing the climate on rich, industrialized countries. That argument caught on, big time.

George W. Bush ran as an opponent of Kyoto, arguing that it put too much of the burden for climate action on the rich countries of the world, and, by an astonishing 95-0, the Senate rejected the Kyoto protocol.

That breathtaking setback for the forces of climate action is roughly where the first part of this series ends. I haven’t had a chance to watch parts two and three, which will air on PBS stations a week from tonight, and a week after that. It’s not fun or easy, but if you watch part one I’m sure it will inspire you to come back next week.