Making Big Oil Pay: Vermont Takes the Lead

| Present

Tiny Vermont (population 647,000) has taken a big step: to use legislation to make giant oil companies accountable for a significant amount of damage that has been done to the earth’s environment by climate change.

According to VTDigger, Republican Governor Phil Scott let the legislation, S.259, the “Climate Superfund Act,” go into effect without his signature, saying he would have preferred that Vermont work more in concert with larger states, such as New York or California, that have more resources.

Patterned after the federal Superfund law, S.259 requires that the world’s largest oil companies pay “for damages that their products have caused in the state by way of climate change. The law directs money owed to Vermont to be calculated based on those damages and the corresponding percentage of emissions that the company was responsible for between 1995 and 2024.” The Act then requires that the funds be deposited into a Climate Superfund Cost Recovery Program Fund, which would then financially support climate change-related projects on behalf of Vermonters.

Scott agrees with the basic tenets of the bill and appreciates that the state’s Agency of Natural Resources will report back to the Legislature in January 2025 as to how the process is proceeding.

Conservatives in the US – elected officials, citizens and leaders in the business community – have taken a long time to admit that much of the damage to the environment has been caused by human beings, especially our use of fossil fuels. Members of the science community, along with left-leaning leaders and citizens, warned about this crisis decades ago. Those warnings – and the people who delivered the warnings – were not only ignored and dismissed but also ruthlessly mocked and denigrated. We now know that a number of companies with a stake in the profits – and their wealthy CEOs – waged a decades-long disinformation campaign to sway votes, power and financial gain in their direction, and away from mitigating actions and initiatives.

Rex Tillerson, for instance – not only the longtime chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil but also Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State (2017-18) – knew as early as 1977 that human activity was causing climate change. Tillerson and other oil company leaders “intentionally misled the public about global warming while lobbying the government to block emissions regulations.” Tillerson himself actually disagreed with Trump in 2017 when Tillerson admitted that climate change was real and supported the Paris Climate Agreement (from which Trump withdrew the US), but Tillerson had been in ExxonMobil leadership between 2008 and 2015 when Exxon donated over $6.5 million to groups that denied that fossil fuels contribute to global warming.

Once the truth about fossil fuels and environmental damage finally seeped into the public consciousness, the companies changed tactics and basically laid the responsibility (and a guilt-trip) on individuals. According to a 2022 report in Yes!, “Individualizing the responsibility is an insidious weapon within the fossil fuel industry’s arsenal, which includes greenwashing and woke-washing. By obfuscating the reality of the climate crisis, it has exacerbated climate consequences and caused long-term damage to climate justice efforts.” We citizens and consumers have been fed a diet of actions that we can and should take – while the extremely wealthy business leaders (and the politicians whom they support) continue to bring in billions in profits and donations. We are asked to feel ashamed of our actions – while top leaders throughout the world seem to have no shame for what they have done to the entire planet for decades…

A final roadblock to progress is the ever-present “too expensive” argument. Conservative politicians in the US routinely use the persuasive argument that mitigation proposals cost too much; American taxpayers tend to be responsive to this line of reasoning. However, we Americans need to understand that this is not the automatic response of most of our sister nations. Nations in the European Union, for instance, have robust healthcare infrastructure, public transportation, and retirement programs that serve all of their citizens because they are willing to spend significant amounts of taxpayer money to combat major problems.

  • Healthcare. According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, “despite higher healthcare spending, America’s health outcomes are not any better than those in other developed countries. The United States actually performs worse in some common health metrics like life expectancy, infant mortality, and unmanaged diabetes.” This is due in part to “inefficiencies and administrative waste that derive from the complexity of the U.S. healthcare system,” which is not centralized, as it is in our sister nations. It is also important to remember that the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 35, states, “A high level of human health protection shall be ensured in the definition and implementation of all Union policies and activities.”
  • Public transportation. Currently in the EU, “Public transport is facing structural and long-term issues such as the increase of energy prices, staff shortages, declining fare revenues, and new mobility patterns. It is more than ever crucial that the EU continues to support the development of local public transport.” In response to the challenges, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and a coalition of 43 European transport organisations have united to advocate for increased funding in the European Union’s (EU) budget review.” Unlike how we Americans are often asked to solve such problems – e.g., by paying higher rates – leaders in Europe take a collective approach and come together to develop fair and cost-effective solutions.
  • Retirement benefits. According to the Mercer CFA Institute Global Pension Index 2020, “The Netherlands has the best [pension system available to workers], while the U.S. isn’t even close to the top.” In fact, there are 17 nations that rank higher than the US on this measure. This sad report comes, of course, amid periodic discussions about our Social Security system as it faces serious financial challenges in the coming few years.

Similar trends can be seen in the area of climate change mitigation: EU nations take collective action. According to the European Environment Agency, “The European countries (EU27 + Iceland, Norway, Switzerland) have reported altogether more than 3,000 policies and measures to achieve climate change mitigation and energy targets, such as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, producing additional renewable energy, or reducing overall energy consumption…. Most climate change mitigation measures reported in 2023 are economic instruments (e.g., subsidies or feed-in tariffs) or regulations (e.g., energy efficiency standards) primarily targeting energy and transport-related GHG emissions.”

In conclusion, it is well past the time for the fossil fuel industry in the US – and its obscenely wealthy leaders – to face at least some measure of accountability. It is well past the time for the following to stop:

  • Individual citizens being shamed into taking small steps when the real culprits need to do almost nothing.
  • Wealthy CEOS hiding behind their wealth and power in the marketplace to shirk responsibility.
  • Companies escaping hits to their bottom lines to divert funds so they can avoid cleaning up the messes they have created.
  • Americans naively falling into the trap of believing that investing funds at a national level is “too expensive,” when doing nothing costs all of us so much more.

As we have noted many times before, we in the US could learn a great deal from our sister nations, including how we spend taxpayer money at the federal level and how “accountability legislation” can be used to provide benefits for the common good.

Circling back to Vermont, it would seem that other states would do well to explore measures like Vermont’s to find ways to hold big oil accountable for all the havoc they have wreaked on their citizens (past, current and yet-to-be-born) and the planet. Then – sooner rather than later – our representatives at the national/federal level might be moved to extend all those initiatives to our nation as a whole. We can expect a loud hue and cry and massive resistance to anything along these lines from the usual corners – the monied interests, right wing climate change deniers – but the evidence is in, and it is large action that is needed