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How an Early Oil Industry Study Became Key in Climate Lawsuits

Yale Environment 360: “For decades, 1960s research for the American Petroleum Institute warning of the risks of burning fossil fuels had been forgotten. But two papers discovered in libraries are now playing a key role in lawsuits aimed at holding oil companies accountable for climate change. Carroll Muffett began wondering in 2008 when the world’s biggest oil companies had first understood the science of climate change and their product’s role in causing it. A lawyer then working as a consultant to environmental groups, he started researching the question at night and on weekends, ordering decades-old reports, books, and magazines off Amazon and eBay, or from academic libraries. It became a years-long quest, and as he pressed on, Muffett noticed one report kept coming up in the footnotes of the memos and papers he was poring through — a 1968 paper commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the powerful fossil fuel trade group, and written by Elmer Robinson and Bob Robbins, scientists at the Stanford Research Institute, known as SRI. Muffett wasn’t sure what it said, but it was cited so often he knew there must be something big in it. Then part of Stanford University, SRI wasn’t an ordinary department, but a contract research outfit that had been intertwined from its founding with oil and gas interests. The paper had been delivered privately to the petroleum institute, not published like typical academic work, and only a few copies had spilled into the public realm. Long since forgotten, they had been gathering dust in a handful of university libraries. Eventually, through an interlibrary loan, Muffett managed to get a hold of one…”

Minnesota, Delaware, Rhode Island, Baltimore, and Honolulu are among about two dozen U.S. states and localities suing the industry. Some of the cases seek compensation for the damage wrought by climate-driven disasters like floods, fires, and heat waves, plus the cost of preparing for future impacts. Others allege violations of state or local laws prohibiting fraud and other deceitful business practices, or requiring companies to warn consumers of a product’s potential dangers. The defendants, which vary from case to case, include the American Petroleum Institute as well as major companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, BP, and ConocoPhillips…”

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