How does the oil and gas industry get away with harming so many of us for decades? Synergy; money (companies offer to take over studies/investigations and finance them); corrupting/controlling academia and “experts;” regulators deregulating while promising better regulation; and their ultimate tool of abuse: gag orders – enabled by lawyers and judges to silence the harmed and hide industry’s toxic pollution so that companies get to do it again “down the street” (slickly summed up by AER’s outside counsel Glenn Solomon).
The oil industry knew at least 50 years ago that air pollution from burning fossil fuels posed serious risks to human health, only to spend decades aggressively lobbying against clean air regulations, a trove of internal documents seen by the Guardian reveal.
The documents,which include internal memos and reports, show the industry was long aware that it created large amounts of air pollution, that pollutants could lodge deep in the lungs and be “real villains in health effects”, and even that its own workers may be experiencing birth defects among their children.
But these concerns did little to stop oil and gas companies, and their proxies, spreading doubt about the growing body of science linking the burning of fossil fuels to an array of health problems that kill millions of people around the world each year. Echoing the fossil-fuel industry’s history of undermining of climate science, oil and gas interests released a torrent of material aimed at raising uncertainty over the harm caused by air pollution and used this to deter US lawmakers from placing further limits on pollutants.
“The response from fossil-fuel interests has been from the same playbook – first they know, then they scheme, then they deny and then they delay,” said Geoffrey Supran, a researcher at Harvard University who has studied the history of fossil-fuel companies and climate change. “They’ve fallen back on delay, subtle forms of propaganda and the undermining of regulation.”
The effects of burning large amounts of coal, oil and gas from factories, cars and other sources has long been evident, with major cities in the US and Europe sometimes shrouded in smog before the advance of modern clean-air laws.
From the 1960s, however, a mass of historical documents from corporate archives at libraries in the US and Canada, scientific journals and paperwork released in legal cases shows the oil industry began to grasp the damage to health caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
In internal memos and reports, Imperial Oil, an Exxon subsidiary, acknowledged in 1967 the petroleum industry is a “major contributor to many of the key forms of pollution” and took surveys of “mothers who worried about possible smog effects”.
In an internal technical report in 1968, Shell went further, warning that air pollution “may, in extreme situations, be deleterious to health” and acknowledging the oil industry “reluctantly” must accept that cars “are by far the greatest sources of air pollution”. The report states that sulphur dioxide, given off by the burning of oil, can cause “difficulty in breathing” while nitrogen dioxide, also given off by vehicles and power plants, can cause lung damage and that “there will be a clamor to reduce [nitrogen dioxide] emissions, probably based on suspected long-term chronic effects”.
Small particles given off by fossil fuels, meanwhile, are the “real villains in health effects”, the Shell report admits, as they can bring toxins, including carcinogens, “deep into the lungs which would otherwise be removed in the throat.”
These microscopic specks of soot and liquid, known as particulate matter, are expelled when fuels are burned and inhaled by people. In 1971, Esso, a forerunner to Exxon, sampled particles in New York City and found, for the first time, the air was rife with tiny fragments of aluminum, magnesium and other metals. Esso scientists noted that gases from industrial smokestacks were “hot, dirty and contain high concentrations of pollutants” and suggested further testing was needed for symptoms including “eye irritation, excess coughing, or bronchial effects”.
By 1980, Imperial Oil had outlined plans to investigate incidences of cancers and “birth defects among industry worker offspring.” Esso experts, meanwhile, raised the “possibility for improved particulate control” in new vehicle designs to reduce the emission of harmful pollution.
1967 Internal document Imperial Oil Full report »
1968 Internal document Shell Full report »
1970 Public document Esso Full report »
1970 Internal document Imperial Oil Full report »
1980 Internal document Imperial Oil Full report »
Ten years later, an internal Exxon report stated: “We have become more aware of the potential impacts our operations might have on safety and health.” By this point, independent scientists in academia were amassing their own evidence of the influence of air pollution.
“The body is set up to keep particles out but these very small, fine particles are good at picking up toxins, bypassing your defenses and getting a free ride down into the lungs,” said George Thurston, an environmental health expert at New York University who co-authored a landmark 1987 study that found the smaller particles were far more deadly than larger fragments that could be coughed out.
Thurston and others have established fumes from car exhausts or power plants produce far more toxic particles than from other sources, such as wood burning or dust. “I don’t recommend breathing in wood smoke, but it’s far less toxic than fossil-fuel combustion particles, given the same concentrations,” Thurston said.
Following a further major report in 1993, known as the Harvard “six cities” study, which found air pollution was spurring deaths from heart disease and lung cancer, pressure began to mount on the US Environmental Protection Agency to set pollution limits for the smallest particles, known as PM2.5 as they measure less than 2.5 micrometers across, or about a 30th of the diameter of a human hair.
Faced with the prospect of federal government regulation, the fossil-fuel industry swung into action. “The health issue is increasing in importance,” noted the minutes of a meeting of the Global Climate Coalition, which was a business lobby group, in 1997. “The GCC has got to be prepared to respond to the issue this year.”
A scientist commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API), a US oil and gas industry group, promptly told a congressional hearing in 1997 the link between air pollution and mortality was “weak”, before Exxon pushed out its own study claiming “there is no substantive basis” for believing PM2.5 was causing more deaths.
1990 Internal document Exxon Full report »
1996 Public document Exxon Full report »
1997 Internal document Global Climate Coalition Full report »
1997 Public document Senator James Inhofe in a congressional hearing on EPA’s PM2.5 pollution regulations Full report »
1997 Public document Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology’s critical review of EPA efforts to reform particulate matter standards Full report »
1998 Public document Exxon Full report »
This undermining of air-pollution science is likened by some researchers to efforts by tobacco companies to muddy the connection between cigarette smoking and cancer.
“The fossil-fuel industry was sowing uncertainty to maintain business as usual, and in all likelihood they were collaborating with other groups, such as the tobacco industry,” said Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law.
“When you look at these historical documents in context it becomes clear that the oil and gas industry has a playbook they’ve used again and again for an array of pollutants. They used it around climate change but absolutely we are seeing it around PM2.5 as well. It’s the same pattern.”
The EPA did, however, impose the first standards for PM2.5 emissions in 1997 and scientists have since uncovered more on air pollution’s assault on the human body. Once in the bloodstream, particles can cause dangerous inflammation and degrade the immune system, affect women’s fertility, heighten the risk of stroke, heart attacks, Alzheimer’s and pneumonia, and even damage people’s eyesight.
In a major finding last month, a team of US and UK researchers calculated that nearly one in five of all deaths worldwide each year is due to particulate pollution, a stunning death toll that is greater than that caused by HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Around 350,000 of these deaths occur annually in America. While overall air pollution trends have improved in recent decades in the US, pockets of stubborn pollution remain, often concentrated in poorer communities, among people of color and those living in the Rust Belt.
“There is now very consistent and solid evidence across many countries of the link between fine particulate matter and harm to health,” said Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard. “There is also a ton of evidence that lots of people are dying in the US from exposures even below the current limits. This pollution is very harmful and stricter regulation is needed.” That’s synergy talk, to enable oil and gas and frac polluters to keep poisoning the world. Companies, notably the big brutes, will just do their usual, and ignore the regulations, bribe and or coerce regulators to look the other way, or get their people to manage/head regulators, e.g. at AER – Encana/Ovintiv’s Mark Taylor, Gerard Protti, Dave Goldie, and reward Encana crime enablers – Bev Yee, Peter Watson, etc. etc. etc. And, regulators and politicians will publicly spout strengthening regulations while secretly letting industry lawyers/lobbyists/think tanks deregulate behind closed doors at petroleum clubs.
Knowledge of the health impact of air pollutants was “relatively thin” in the 1970s and some skepticism over the link was understandable for a while, according to Arden Pope, an air pollution expert at Brigham Young University who said he got a “lot of pushback” from industry over his work, which includes the six cities study.
“But the evidence has grown dramatically and, boy, it’s just hard to deny now,” he said. It’s overwhelming.”
Undeterred, oil and gas interests have sought to stymie tighter standards on air pollution while mobilizing an effort to cast doubt over this science. A gathering called by the Heartland Institute, a conservative thinktank, in 2006 on clean-air rules helped set the tone – two speakers were from Exxon and the title of one session was “Uncertainty of NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) Health Science”.
“Their goal is to undermine the scientific method, science itself,” said Thurston.
2006 Internal document Heartland Institute Full report »
2009 Public document Exxon’s letter to the EPA on review of air pollution standards Full report »
2012 Public document American Petroleum Institute (API) Full report »
2013 Public document API-funded researcher Full report »
Even as the major oil companies publicly accepted the reality of climate change and vowed to address it, they have continued to dismiss the mounting evidence of harm caused by direct air pollution. Exxon has told the EPA that estimating a risk of death from particulate matter is “unreliable and misleading” while, in 2017, API demanded the agency relax standards around nitrogen dioxide – a pollutant linked to asthma in children and higher mortality in adults from heart disease and cancer – claiming there was no proven association with harm and existing rules were “more stringent than necessary.”
“We’ve seen the oil and gas industry’s disinformation campaign come full circle with the renewed attacks on research that tells us what we’ve known for decades – air pollution kills,” said Kert Davies, director of Climate Investigations Center, which uncovered some of the historical documents.
The industry’s approach bore fruit during Donald Trump’s administration, where senior executives from Exxon, Chevron, Occidental Petroleum and API met the then-US president in the White House. A cavalcade of clean air regulations were scaled back, such as rules to limit pollution from cars and trucks, while a so-called “transparency” rule for science risked invalidating studies based on confidential medical data, which is vital for bedrock air pollution research.
2007 Public document American Petroleum Institute (API) comments to EPA on nitrogen dioxide standards Full report »
2020 Public document 13 industry groups Full report »
2020 Public document American Petroleum Institute (API) PM standards shouldn’t be improved during the Covid pandemic despite a Harvard study linking air pollution to more deaths: “Proponents of more stringent standards offered studies claiming to show positive health effects, but these failed to adequately quantify errors and uncertainties. …the study clearly puts forward preliminary findings, is not peer reviewed and not intended to be used for policy making. Certainly, amid the COVID-19 crisis, it’s easy to see how the report’s value could be overstated.” Full report »
Under Trump, Tony Cox, a researcher who received funding from API and allowed the lobby group to copy edit his findings, was named as chairman of a key EPA clean air advisory board. Cox, whose previous work has questioned the harm caused by particulates, accused EPA experts of bad science and subjectivity when they found that particles can be deadly even in low concentrations.
Last year, in the midst of an historic pandemic of respiratory disease, Trump’s EPA decided to not strengthen standards around fine soot particles. A Harvard study found that air pollution was associated with worse outcomes for people with Covid-19. API said the Harvard paper merely included “preliminary findings” that had provoked “scare headlines and erroneous media reports”.
The attacks on the Harvard research were “very hard and very stressful”, according to Dominici, one of the paper’s authors. “If you’re breathing pollution for a long time and get Covid you will have worse consequences, this is very unsurprising,” said the researcher, who has since established there are now more than 60 studies from around the world that associate air pollution with poor Covid outcomes.
“I was surprised there was such a ferocious criticism. It’s really unfortunate that it’s easier to discredit science than produce good science. Gosh, that’s so frustrating.”
In a statement, Bethany Aronhalt, spokeswoman for API, said: “Our industry’s top priority is advancing public health and safety while delivering affordable, reliable, and cleaner energy.
“Largely due to increased use of natural gas in the power sector and cleaner motor fuels, the US has seen significant environmental progress over the years – including improved air quality – with annual concentrations of PM2.5 declining 43% since 2000.”
Refer also to:
Pollution could be damaging your brain, even leading to dementia but Health Canada still not making public their 2012 damning report admitting significant health hazards and risks to groundwater and air caused by frac’ing!
2014 02 04: Broken trust: Alberta family without answers about oil sands’ health impact, When an Alberta mom met with an ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie about oil-sands emissions pollution, his advice stunned her
Oil fumes so painful, families forced to move
When she finally met with an ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie who diagnosed her with having airborne pollution, his advice stunned her.
“He just told me to move,” Labrecque said under oath at the hearing that ended Friday. “He said… you are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don’t matter. Move.”
The industry-funded oversight agency heard two weeks of testimony from Peace River residents with health concerns about odours and emissions from the oil sands industry. Labrecque claims the specialist who made the provocative comments was Dr. Mel Delacruz.
The Vancouver Observer called Dr. Delacruz at his medical office Friday, but he said he was instructed by his lawyer not to speak about the matter, and hung up the phone.
2014: Compendium 2: State of Science on Harms by Fracking to Public Health and Water: Health Professionals, Scientists Release Analysis of 400 Peer-Reviewed Studies on Fracking along with Major Scientific Compendium Update
2014: SPOG begins making propaganda housecalls; CAPP and Alberta’s Energy Regulator must be getting desperate to bring Albertans back into the silent, obedient Synergy fold, believing lies and not asking questions
2014: Synergy and blanket approval to give industry free-for all fracking in Alberta! Watch out Fox Creek and the rest of Canada, Synergy is brainwashing controlled by industry, incredibly evil and works well
2015 02 19: British Columbia’s Ministry Health withholding data, report of scientific research on how oil and gas operations are affecting human health in northeast communities; Refusing to release even under FOIP: “could be harmful to the financial interest of a public body”
2015 03 05: British Columbia’s answer to escalating Frac Health Harms? More doctors and cut funding to North East Oil and Gas Health Advisory Committee? “The very committee pushing for answers is effectively being forced to fold”
2015: Cumulative frac harms: Who’s looking? Canada Water Network? Synergy group extraordinaire with Alberta Government Bev Yee on the Board who helped cover-up Encana fracing Rosebud’s drinking water aquifers?
2016 05 25: New Study: Alberta’s tar sands leading source of air pollution in North America, Tens of thousands of people living within reach breathing elevated levels of fine particles linked in previous studies to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes
2016: U of Calgary, U of Alberta get $75 million *each* from Canadian taxpayers to legitimize (synergize) and spread AER/CAPP/petroleum industry propaganda, to enable continued devastation and harms to Alberta’s environment, communities and people and spread them across Canada
2017: Are oil and gas companies such pathetic greedy cowards they need to silence medical doctors reporting health harms from industry’s toxic pollution? “He was about to [release] his results…and then they fire him.”
2017: As expected, Alberta Oil & Gas Industry Corruption & Synergy Enacts its Evil into Quebec: Couillard Govt quietly releases 4 bills, Enables drilling & fracking in water ways and lakes, within 150 m of homes, 60 m of parks
2018: Compendium 5: ‘The Harms of Fracking’: New Report Details Increased Risks of Asthma, Birth Defects and Cancer. Dr. Sandra Steingraber: “Fracking is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.” Dr. Pouné Saberi: “There is a code of silence….” Workers rarely report injuries or hazards, for fear of losing their jobs.
2019: Canadians wait a long time, usually forever, for petroleum industry leaks, spills and damaging fracs to be appropriately cleaned up. Regulators nowhere to be seen, except lying to the public and in Synergy Alberta meetings with AER execs like Gerard Protti and Jim Ellis schmoozing synergy girls at the pub
2019: Frac’ing is not safe, it does not improve the environment! Compendium 6 Released: Review by doctors & scientists of more than 1,700 references conclude frac industry poses threat to air, water, climate and human health
2020: Synergy Strikes Again! CAPE releases new report on frac’ing with great comment by Executive Director, lawyer Robin Edger: “Fracking threatens our health…. The only responsible step for government is to ban it outright.” But, his quote is not included in the report, which is drek (“peer” review by Encana-AER-OGC enabler Pembina Institute).
2020: Here’s how synergy spin by CAPE is used: Get media to wrongly define hydraulic fracturing to keep industry happy & frac’ing, just like Sierra Club and Council of Canadians do. Straight reports: “Canadian doctors link” frac’d gas to health harms, but not one doctor wrote the report; the lead author is not even part of the doctors’ association
2020: Another new study: Living near oil & gas wells tied to low birth weights in infants, adds to growing body of evidence linking proximity to oil & gas to adverse health outcomes, including heart defects, cancer …
2020: Fracking is dangerous to our health, has ruined the lives of many. Workers “developed cancer, sores and skin lesions, chronic headaches and nausea, numbness in fingertips and face, and ‘joint pain like fire.’”
2020: Living with Encana (Ovintiv) in Pavillion, Wyoming. Sue Spencer, hydrogeologist: “There’s this veil of secrecy about everything they do. … The oil industry went nuts. ….[the oil lobby] was just like, ‘you can’t say that groundwater was impacted by the fracking industry.’”
2020: A decade of science on frac harms – Compendium 7 released: “The data continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems that cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks” while regulators in Canada continue to DEregulate to enable the endless **known** harms. Canadian frac-harmed Vicky Simlik: “Because there is no such thing as a kind & gentle frac’ it needs to be banned period.”
2020: New 8-Year Study: “Significantly increased odds of hospitalization among heart failure subjects in relation to increasing” frac’ing activity near them; 12,000 patients analyzed. Lead author, Tara McAlexander: “These activities — unconventional natural gas development and fracking specifically — are having negative impacts on the health of populations living nearby,” thinks frac’ing needs to be banned. “We know enough to know that we shouldn’t be doing this”
2021: The Last Breath of the Black Snake. Elder Casey Camp Horinek: “In my small Ponca tribe, we hold a funeral nearly every week from fossil fuel-related illnesses. All our families have multiple cases of asthma, cardiovascular disease and industry-specific cancers. **Our wells are so polluted our tribe must now buy water.** Our land is so toxic, organic food can’t be grown within 16 miles. They call it economic progress. We call it environmental genocide.”
2021: New Investigation: Fractured: The body burden of living near fracking: Families in western Pennsylvania exposed to harmful chemicals; regulations failing to protect mental, physical, social health. In Alberta, doctors will not investigate if we are poisoned by oil/gas/frac’ing; will not take a blood test without politician permission