Why the Big Oil and Big Tobacco Comparisons are Ludicrous

Recently the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing to discuss a recent report that accused “Big Oil” of a “decades-long deception campaign” to misinform the public about the dangers of climate change.

Sharon Eubanks, a former federal litigator, proposed that the government should pursue legal action against the petroleum industry, drawing parallels to the litigation against Big Tobacco in the past. Eubanks, who previously led the racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry, argued that major oil and gas companies have engaged in misleading and endangering practices like those of the tobacco industry. She asserted that these matters should be resolved through legal proceedings in court.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked Eubanks, “If you were the attorney general of the United States, would you prosecute in that direction?” She responded that she would, without question.

There is a lot that these hearings get wrong, but here is the most fundamental problem. If Big Tobacco disappeared from the planet, there would be no meaningful or lasting negative impact on society. On the contrary, tobacco is responsible for a lot of healthcare issues and subsequent costs in society.

Now contrast that with Big Oil disappearing from the planet. Tobacco may not have impacted you in the past week, but oil almost certainly did. Odds are that you transported yourself using oil. That’s especially true if you were on an airplane. If you bought goods at a store, they were almost certainly brought there using oil.

The entire world derives enormous economic benefits from consuming oil every day. If that consumption suddenly ceased, the global economy would immediately grind to a halt. Supply chains would stop working, and food would stop arriving in the grocery stores. Society would collapse.

It is undoubtedly true that there are negatives associated with oil consumption. But these hearings only ever focus on the negatives. Nothing shows this more clearly than comparing oil to tobacco. Too many of these politicians act as if oil provides no meaningful benefit to society, and they never try to compare the economic benefits of oil with the environmental costs.

Remember when Bernie Sanders ran for president? His campaign ran on oil. It wasn’t biofuel that was being put in the airplanes he used to crisscross the country. That brings to mind the question of how these politicians can justify the seeming hypocrisy of consuming oil every day, while complaining about the hazards of the product they consume.

I believe this seeming disconnect is because they believe that we would have had green alternatives by now if not for the climate change obfuscation of the oil companies. Thus, they reason it isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of the oil companies.

There’s no evidence this is the case. Even today, after decades of research into alternatives, there is no affordable, scalable alternative that can replace petroleum. Every country from Iceland to Kenya to Brazil to Vietnam runs on oil. Further, no developed economy in the world has figured out a way to run its economy without oil.

So, these politicians — and indeed many people — believe in something for which there is no evidence.

With calls for legal action echoing those against Big Tobacco, the question of accountability looms large. However, amidst the fervor of these discussions, it’s crucial to consider the indispensable role of oil in modern society. Unlike tobacco, which primarily poses health risks, oil serves as the lifeblood of the global economy, powering transportation, industry, and commerce.

While acknowledging the environmental challenges associated with oil consumption, it’s essential to recognize the complex interplay between its economic benefits and environmental costs. As debates persist, it’s imperative to approach the issue with nuance, acknowledging the multifaceted impacts of oil while pursuing more sustainable solutions for the future.

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