The Boulder City Council has done some astonishingly stupid things when it steps outside of its core areas of incompetence, which include managing growth, development, traffic and the public purse. But the Council’s decision to sue ExxonMobil and Suncor sets a new record for stupid local politician tricks.
And a new record for intellectual dishonesty in public life.
The City’s case against ExxonMobil and Suncor is based on the legal theory used in similar suits against oil companies brought by New York, San Francisco and several other left coast cities. Which is the same theory that was successfully used in product liability suits brought against tobacco companies: that the companies knew for decades that their products were doing great harm and that they not only deliberately hid knowledge of the dangers, but lied about them in order to stay in business and keep their obscene profits rolling in.
Exxon and Suncor “knowingly and substantially contributed to the climate crisis” and are responsible for “billions of tons of the excess greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere,” the suit claims. And “by hiding what they knew about, and affirmatively misrepresenting the dangers of unabated fossil fuel use, the defendants protected fossil fuel demand, and obstructed the changes needed to prevent or at least minimize the impact of climate change.”
Boulder’s suit hangs on a skeleton of lies.
Lie no. 1: That there is a legal and moral equivalence between tobacco and fossil fuels.
Tobacco is an inherently addictive drug with extraordinarily lethal long-term health effects and virtually no uses apart from the pleasure it gives its users. If it were to disappear tomorrow, there would be no noticeable changes in American life, other than making 40 or 50 million ex-smokers crabby.
Fossil fuels — oil, natural gas and coal — are not inherently addictive. They’re critical to survival. They are currently only slightly less critical to survival than food and water. If they were to disappear tomorrow, civilization as we know it would collapse in a matter of weeks, and within a year, half the people reading this column could well have died from starvation or lack of heat and electricity in the winter.
Lie no. 2: ExxonMobil and Suncor tricked people into using their products by withholding information and making false claims.
The truth is oil companies don’t trick anyone into buying oil and gas, and, for the best of business reasons, they don’t have to. Americans consume fossil fuels because fossil fuels make their quality of life orders of magnitude better than it would be without them — not because they were fooled by ExxonMobil or anyone else.
Lie no. 3: ExxonMobil blocked the transition to non-fossil fuel energy.
No, it didn’t. The folks most responsible for blocking America’s transition to non-fossil fuels were the American environmentalists and green-washed Marxists who killed the expansion of the American nuclear power industry in the 1970s.
In the 1970s the only practical non-fossil fuel replacement for fossil-fuel-generated electricity was nuclear power, and at the time the United States was well on the way to replacing coal-burning power plants with nuclear ones.
But then the environmental movement launched an all-out attack on nuclear power, which, with the Three Mile Island disaster providing a decisive shove, resulted in the cancellation of dozens of nuclear plants. Utilities turned to coal and natural gas to meet increasing demand for electricity.
The upshot was that annual coal consumption by U.S. electric utilities rose from 390 million tons in 1974 to more than a billion tons in 2005. During the same period, natural gas use by electric utilities rose from 3.4 trillion cubic feet a year to 6.5 trillion cubic feet. Today, thanks to the fracking revolution, U.S. utilities are burning less coal (679 million tons in 2016) and more natural gas (nearly 10 trillion cubic feet in 2016).
The explosion in U.S. coal and natural gas use by utilities caused by their inability to transition to nuclear power resulted in the addition of an estimated 40 or 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere that wouldn’t be there if the transition had been made.
Lie no. 4: Boulder would have acted differently if in the 1970s and 1980s it had only known what ExxonMobil knew then.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Boulder was burning with anti-nuclear activism. Would Boulder have gotten behind a transition to nuclear energy if it had seen Exxon’s studies at the time? Fat chance.
But that was then, what about now?
Even without the benefit of ExxonMobil’s secret studies, the Boulder City Council has been aware of the potential consequences of global warming for at least a generation.
But that hasn’t stopped it from pursuing policies that have increased the consumption of fossil fuels within the city. Especially in recent years.
According to statistics compiled by the Boulder County Clerk’s office, between 2006 and 2016, the number of cars and trucks registered by residents in the City of Boulder grew from 57,492 to 65,676, an increase of 8,184 in a decade. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
That’s because three-fourths of those vehicles were added between 2012 and 2016 — the period during which the City Council was putting the pedal to the metal in terms of approving more in-fill development and supposedly affordable housing.
In-fill development was supposed to make people less dependent on the automobile.
It didn’t work out that way. The added population growth directly translated into more cars and trucks and more traffic — and, of course, a greater demand for gasoline.
It wasn’t Exxon’s meddling that caused this, it was the City Council’s.
The tragic flaw of democracies dating back to the Athenian polis isn’t hubris. It’s ingratitude. And nowhere is it on more brazen display than in the way Boulder’s elected officials treat those like ExxonMobil and Suncor who make their way of life possible.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.