The oil and gas industry has a new battle to wage with California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s first-of-its-kind investigation into their role in the global plastics crisis – and it’s a lot like the one they’ve been conducting about of climate change.
Bonta announced his investigation Thursday and said his office issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for its role in the plastics crisis. On Friday, environmental activists from California to New York cheered and environmental lawyers reflected on the similarities between Bonta’s investigation and ongoing efforts by states and cities to hold the oil and gas industry to account. climate change courts.
Judith Enck, president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics and former regional administrator of the EPA, called the investigation “very important” because it has “the potential to finally hold plastic producers accountable for the immense environmental damage caused by plastics. “. It will also “address the persistent deception of claiming that plastics are recyclable when in fact less than 10% is actually recycled,” she said.
Pat Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School and former director of the school’s Environmental Law Center, said if Bonta’s investigation sounds familiar, it should.
“We’ve seen this movie before,” Parenteau said. “This is a page from the same book that the attorneys general took with climate investigations…related to carbon pollution.”
None of the lawsuits filed by cities or states against oil companies have yet delivered verdicts or court rulings that hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change, he said. But oil and gas companies have been unable to stop the lawsuits, many of which continue to work their way through the courts.
“Now the California Attorney General is embarking on a similar type of investigation in terms of plastic pollution, and there are clear connections – what oil companies are doing to the climate and what oil companies are doing to the oceans,” says Parenteau.
In 2019, a New York judge cleared Exxon of investor fraud allegations, but wrote, “nothing in this notice is intended to absolve Exxon of its responsibility for contributing to climate change.”
ExxonMobil responded to Bonta’s announcement with a denial.
“We reject the allegations made by the Attorney General’s office in its press release,” the company said in a written statement. “We share society’s concerns and work with governments, including the State of California, communities and other industries to support projects around the world aimed at improving waste management and circularity.”
The industry uses the term circularity to describe its view of recycling and reusing plastics.
The American Chemistry Council, a prominent pro-plastics lobby, also hit back.
“We strongly disagree with Attorney General Bonta’s representation of our industry,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the council, said in a written statement. “As we have repeatedly emphasized, plastics belong to our economy, not our environment.
“Rather than waste time and resources responding to misleading representations of our industry and misguided initiatives that delay real progress, we want to stay focused on ongoing efforts to improve plastics recycling and deliver meaningful results. ”
Plastic pollution has found its way to the highest mountains and the deepest parts of the ocean; in the bellies of marine mammals, the placenta of new mothers and human blood.
In March, the United Nations described plastics as a “triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution”, at a meeting where the United Nations Environment Assembly put the world on track to forge, for the first time, a legally binding global agreement. to fight against plastic pollution.
Bonta made his announcement with the Pacific Ocean in the background along a Southern California beach, which he said requires daily cleaning of plastic waste.
Much like what Inside Climate News and later the Los Angeles Times reported in 2015, based on a trove of internal Exxon documents showing the oil company understood the science of global warming, predicted its catastrophic consequences, then spent millions to promote misinformation denying these facts, Bonta says the industry has misled the public about plastics.
The industry has made false claims that have minimized public understanding of the harmful consequences of plastic products and even whether plastics can be recycled, he said.
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In the 1980s, Bonta said, the plastics industry, including big fossil fuel and petrochemical companies, launched “an aggressive and deceptive campaign that we could recycle our solution to the plastic waste problem that was emerging in the time. The thing is, it was all a big ruse.
“The truth is,” he said, “the vast majority of plastics cannot be recycled.”
He said the inquest “will focus on this half-century-long campaign of deception and the ongoing damage to the state, our residents and natural resources. “We will target companies that have caused and exacerbated the global plastics crisis,” he said. “We will not hesitate to hold these companies accountable if the law has been violated.”
Parenteau said it’s too early to tell whether the investigation will lead to legal action in the form of a civil or criminal case. But it could lead to one or the other, he said.
“We know from experience that the AG is likely to find evidence” of misleading statements in advertising and annual reports, he said.
This will likely help the public and consumers better understand the nature of the plastics problem and their own role in it, he said.
As an educational tool, the survey could help rally Californians around legislation to tackle plastic pollution and support a November ballot measure that environmental organizations are backing to reduce plastic packaging. single-use and food utensils statewide, called the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Voter Act. said Anja Brandon, a US plastics policy analyst at Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group.
Bonta’s investigation could also inspire other states or the federal government to take similar action, Brandon said.
“The Attorney General’s announcement is an unequivocal signal to the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries that there will be no turning back on this issue,” she said. “They will be held accountable.”